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Getting Things Done Through Action-Learning Teams

Bruce LaRue

By Bruce Larue, PhD

We have all heard the saying, “Experience is the best teacher.” Yet relying on experience alone leaves us vulnerable to continually reinventing the wheel and repeating yesterday’s mistakes. As the pace of change quickens, we find ourselves reacting to problems and feeling that we don’t have the luxury of formulating a more thoughtful response to our situation. We may feel that we need to update our skills and knowledge, but the occasional weekend seminar or conference seems ill-suited to help us cope with the complexities we face on a daily basis.

Many have responded in these circumstances by returning to the university classroom to earn new credentials. Yet, in many important respects, the distance between the traditional university classroom and the shop floor has never been wider.

What we need today is relevant knowledge in a form that we can rapidly apply, test, and refine within our current context. Individuals and groups at all levels of the organization must also learn to apply this knowledge in a manner that explicitly aligns with the strategic direction of the organization. Under these circumstances, we find that the knowledge we need is often so context-sensitive and unique to the complexities of the task at hand that our peers are the best source of knowledge and insight. However, the dynamics of many teams and the results they achieve too often leave us wanting. The paradox of organizations today is that we can accomplish little of significance alone, yet many groups and whole organizations simply do not function well, and at their worst can be a drain to the human spirit.

What are Action-Learning Teams?

Action-Learning Teams are a unique form of team charged with developing specialized capabilities that do not currently exist in the organization. These capabilities are designed to close particular process gaps, or to generate new capacity for the organization where none had existed before. The capabilities developed by Action-Learning Teams tend to be strategic in nature, and of a form not readily developed by other means such as formal education or training. Action-Learning Teams tend by nature to be cross-functional and even cross-organizational, drawing together individuals with highly specialized knowledge in order to collaborate on the development and application of new forms of knowledge. Action-Learning Teams rely on a particular form of learning characterized by reflection in action, and the capabilities they develop are created by a form of intellectual boot-strapping where new knowledge and capacity are created that did not exist before. This new capacity is essential for organizations as they embark on special projects and high-level initiatives that fall outside the boundaries of their traditional routine.

In fact, organizations today are characterized by non-routine, unforeseen problems and opportunities being the order of the day. As Peter Drucker is fond of pointing out, we must learn to exploit the opportunities that may not have been part of official strategy. In addition, we must learn to abandon tried and true but outmoded practices in order to free up resources to exploit these opportunities.

Increasingly, it is workers at the periphery of the organization that are able to spot these hidden opportunities, and it is therefore critical that the organization remain flexible enough to respond accordingly. As we will see, Action-Learning Teams are a highly flexible means of organizing that enables organizations to seize upon the unexpected.

The concept of Action-Learning Teams emerged less from a desire to invent a new form of team and more from the observation, research, and experience of ourselves and others as to how the most successful groups perform under pressure to create extraordinary results. Our goal in this article is to learn from these examples and distill the basic principles that make these groups successful. Further, our goal is to help executives and managers realize the larger potential inherent in Action-Learning Teams to create a culture that fosters innovation.

Action-Learning Teams and the Informal Organization

If you learn to look the right way, you will see that something akin to Action-Learning Teams already operates within your organization. Resembling “communities of practice”, these groups comprise the informal organization that has learned how to work around barriers imposed by the traditional organizational structure, hierarchy, and procedures to get the job done.

The problem is that these groups, by their nature, often have to work under the radar, and sometimes even pose a threat to those who derive their legitimacy through formal rank and hierarchy. As such, communities of practice are generally not formally sanctioned and therefore tend to be ad hoc, underutilized, and under-resourced. It follows that these informal groups are going to be far less strategic in focus.

For example, Rich, a senior manager of the wireless data division of a national wireless telecom company, said that it was as if he could look at his organization under two different kinds of light and see two very different patterns of activity. Under normal light, Rich saw his team of several hundred highly skilled engineers and technicians working within a carefully defined organizational chart indicating a complex series of reporting relationships and authority structures. Within each functional area were jobs with responsibilities that were spelled out in detail and formally sanctioned by the human resources department.

After working with us, Rich said that it was as if he turned off these lights and turned on a black light. What he saw under the black light fundamentally changed the way he thought about and hence how he managed his team. He saw under the black light how work actually got done, and how learning actually occurred in his organization. The telling point of this story was that what he saw under both forms of light had virtually no similarity. That is, much of the truly productive activity—the real work and learning—took place in the “white spaces” between the boxes of the organizational chart.

Learning and knowledge transfer also take on a different character within Action-Learning Teams. In order to understand this, we must first acknowledge that organizations are fundamentally complex, adaptive social systems. In order to fully learn something, we must go beyond learning about the subject to become a member of a community where that knowledge lives and is applied in practice. Learning in this way is less about acquiring a certain body of concepts or facts and is more about socialization into a practice community.

Knowledge, too, takes on a different character under this light: It is context-sensitive and dynamic, always changing. It is what Davenport, Prusak and Lesser refer to as “sticky” in that the meaning and relevance of knowledge changes based on the context in which it is used; in short, how it is applied in practice. This is why knowledge management systems that are predicated on storage and retrieval of more or less fixed knowledge assets have proven woefully inadequate in many of today’s complex organization environments.

If organizations are fundamentally complex, adaptive social systems and the knowledge within them is also dynamic and context-sensitive, it follows that our notion of learning and knowledge transfer must also be seen in a new light. We must move from simply learning about something (in a classroom or seminar) to becoming part of the communities where knowledge resides, where it is created, transferred, and applied in practice. We argue that it is in such Action-Learning Teams that the most significant forms of learning take place.

About the Author

Dr LaRue serves on the advisory board of the International Institute of Management. As a consultant, professor, and coach, Dr. LaRue has worked with managers and executives in aerospace, the Department of Defense, wireless telecommunications, network technologies, financial services, municipal government, and the non-profit sector. Dr. LaRue is an experienced strategist with a proven track record for aligning organizations behind the design and deployment of strategic change. His publications are used in graduate programs and organizations world-wide. In their 5 Star rated book, "Leading Organizations from the Inside Out" (Wiley, 2006, 2nd Ed), Dr. LaRue and his coauthors describe a 4 stage model for engaging cross-functional Action Teams in the design and deployment of strategic objectives. The process produces customer-focused solutions while streamlining processes, increasing efficiency and heightening team engagement. New leaders are created through engaging in the changes that affect them, resulting in increased morale, job retention, and effective succession planning.



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