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Action Learning

Computer Software Example

The Background

This example is related by Robert L. Dilworth. It is abbreviated from his article, "Active Learning In A nutshell", referenced below. 

I headed a major organization with hundreds of computers organized in an Intranet. The organization was highly dependent on this system and its efficiency and responsiveness directly influenced our performance.

The computers were slow in moving between screen images. These time delays were a major drag on performance. My internal experts had promised prompt resolution but failed to deliver. The national headquarters of the major computer firm that provided the system was activated and after further troubleshooting, they believed the problem was unfixable. Their solution was a new multi-million dollar system.

The Action Learning Team

Convinced there was a solution, I called together 22 management trainees from our fourteen directorates. All had basic computer literacy, but only two were computer specialists. Some trainees had never met before. Most had never worked together.

I informed the trainees of the problem, its significance to the organization, our unsuccessful efforts to solve it, my belief that it could be solved, the importance of avoiding the cost of a new system, and my belief that working to solve the problem would be a wonderful learning experience.

Asked to take on this problem as a group, they huddled briefly and accepted the challenge.

Outsiders thought the group was naive to think they could fix this and some commented on the unfairness of asking trainees to take it on. The trainees never seemed to think the problem was beyond their depth, although they did view it as extremely challenging.

The problem was real, and once they accepted responsibility for the project, the team was expected to solve it. They were absolutely certain of top management support.

The Results

One month later, the problem was fixed.

What The Team Did

  • The computer experts offered to join, but the trainees declined, preferring to follow their own instincts and call up specific expertise as appropriate.

  • The trainees did not know enough to start with customary troubleshooting techniques. They invented their own process and asked fresh questions. They explored avenues not explored by others.

  • They drew fully on the intellectual resources of their trainee group. There was no leader. They operated as equals in a trusting environment.

  • They broke into sub-teams of roughly six to examine various aspects of the problem.

  • They found an array of causal factors rather than any single problem driver.

  • They gave considerable thought to what they had learned and classed it as one of the best learning experiences of their lives.

  • A camaraderie grew out of the experience. They had bonded as a group and asked to be allowed to take on other complex troubleshooting projects.

  • The trainees briefed their problem solving approach to me, the in-house computer experts, representatives from the national computer firm, and other computer organizations.

Adapted From: Dilworth, Robert L., Performance Improvement Quarterly, 1998, Volume 11, Number 1, pp. 28-43.

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