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Action Learning Through Value Improvement Projects


Action Learning Through Value Improvement Projects at the UDV European Shared Service Centre

by Richard Hale, Charles Margerison, Alison Whitley and Cate Turner

How do you take a multi-cultural organisation of highly professional people in a fast-moving drinks business and create a culture of agile project working and leadership? This was the challenge faced by the European Shared Service Centre part of UDV, a Diageo Company.

The company has embraced the Value Improvement Projects approach, combining a philosophy of action learning with latest e-learning technologies as the way forward. In this article the approach is described with particular focus on the experience of a knowledge management project.

Improving Knowledge Through Value Improvement Projects

At a corporate level Diageo is one of the world's leading consumer goods companies. Its GuinnessUDV organisation boasts a portfolio of world-famous brands such as Johnnie Walker, Guinness, Smirnoff, Tanqueray, Jose Cuervo, Malibu, J&B and Baileys. The European Shared Service Centre (ESSC) organisation, based in London, provides various services to in-market companies throughout Europe and has built a reputation for best practice in shared service centre management. Teams are structured around Customer Services, Finance, Information Technology and Human Resources. The processes that the ESSC covers are sales order processing, financial management and reporting activity for six European markets. This allows the in-market companies to focus on core sales and marketing activity.

All employees are either professionally qualified or graduates, and 17 different languages are spoken amongst the staff.

The present challenge is to continue to attract, retain and develop key people in order to grow the business profitably. Alison Whitley, HR Advisor and Project Facilitator, is very committed to the whole concept of action learning based projects. She said:

"I realised that there was an opportunity to leverage our existing strengths around knowledge management and data integrity. As a company we already had invested in the hardware, but we still had to address the questions around embedding the culture of true knowledge management, e.g. doing better things versus doing things better. By using an action learning approach we are on target to delivering our stated goals of embedding sustained behavioural change."

In its aspiration for continuous improvement the ESSC was concerned to explore ways of improving customer relations and service at the same time as broadening the experience and development of its people. The intention was to improve both in terms of task results and to develop the capabilities of the members. The ESSC is characterised by a population of enthusiastic young professionals working in a fast moving and process-oriented environment. The challenge is to respond quickly and accurately to the in-market companies.

Chris Andrews, General Manager for the ESSC and UDV SJ, recognised that there was need to develop a culture of challenge and empowerment:

"Having set up a new organisation, in a period of significant company-wide change with such a young population, we were potentially in danger of creating a culture of 'learned dependency'.

"Often new team members would look to their leaders for the answers and the leaders in any case were new into their roles. We wanted to create an agile organisation that was able to work effectively and flexibly in projects and
processes. We didn't want to just deliver standard skills training from the classroom. The more important objective was encouraging personal and team learning through real shared job experience. The breakthrough comes when people
realise their involvement in projects is part of their job, personal and career development - not just an add-on."

Dr Richard Hale of Value Projects Ltd. was asked to design and develop an action learning process which integrated the latest approaches based on e-learning. He was given the task of

- facilitating a system for project management

- creating effective temporary project teams from which long-term teamwork skills could be learned

- integrating project work alongside normal jobs

- achieving real results within a 3 month time period.

To do this Value Projects, working with Intermedia Group Ltd, a specialist web designer, based the projects around the latest web-based communication technology. This e-projects system enables participants to contribute any time, and anywhere with each other, and have access to all relevant materials for both project management and personal development.

Enter the Champions

Project team members known as Champions at the ESSC were to use the e-projects system with four outputs:

· Support in generating project tasks results
· Personal development
· Increased project management experience
· Extension of their virtual and verbal communication skills.

It was recognised that an action learning approach should play a part in the development of team project working and personal development. It was seen as critical to tackle real business challenges, one of which was to develop the behaviours and practices of effective knowledge management. If more effective use of knowledge, including the use of systems and the development of knowledge sharing behaviours, could be effected then this would contribute specifically to the strategic imperatives of creating 'high quality customer experiences' and 'effective knowledge management and data integrity.'

A Value Improvement Project was created with the following brief:

"… to embed Knowledge Management in to the culture of the European Shared Service Centre. The scope of the project is to address two current business objectives of , namely Documented Processes and High Quality Customer Experience. The methodology of the project will in itself promote knowledge sharing principles and enhance the capabilities of those participating."

Six project members knows as Champions were selected from a range of functions against specific criteria such as being:

· Multi-taskers
· Risk-Takers
· Strong communicators
· Critical thinkers
· Seeking challenge

E-Learning and Team Problem Solving

In order to ensure the Project Champions were committed to the project they were involved in the investigation planning stage in defining their vision of success using the problem solving model and techniques developed by Dr Charles Margerison and Dr Richard Hale. In the initial workshop the Project Champions worked through a structured approach to problem solving which entailed the use of analytical and creative techniques in order to develop plans for investigation. Following the start-up workshop they worked in smaller action learning groups in order to address specific investigation plans and ultimately implementation and operational plans. It is this rigorous approach to problem-solving integrated with action learning and the e-projects system which gives strength to the project process.

A facilitation team of one external and two internal facilitators was set up to support the Champions. One of the internal facilitators focused on the more technical aspects of knowledge management and the other two facilitators supported on issues of behaviours and personal learning among the team and the project development process. It was apparent as the project unfolded that the facilitation role was vital in providing moral and technical support and in coaching the project members throughout the project. It was also possible for the facilitation team to identify personal development needs of project members and to provide solutions via the e-projects system. So for instance e-learning based diagnostic tools for personal development were to provide support in helping members develop their leadership and influencing styles.

As with all Value Improvement Projects key stakeholders were involved from the start of the process. So the sponsoring team of Directors met regularly to define the parameters of the project and to hear of progress. Significantly the Directors were able to access the e-projects site at any time in order to see the progress of the project over time. And the projects sponsors attend the final workshop in order to hear the team present a summary of their actions and learning.

Eleanor Rea, an internal facilitator commenting on the problem solving and decision making process said:

"It was great. I was very impressed with how the process worked. By providing a structured approach to the problem, and introducing tools and techniques of problem solving the project team were able to tackle what initially seemed like
a daunting task. There was a visible demonstration of increased commitment, motivation and bonding as the workshop progressed. Initially the champions looked to the facilitators for guidance on what to do next but gradually they become self-managing."

A New Era of Action Learning

As previously reported in Training Journal Reg Revans, the founding father of action learning, formulated his theories of action learning in the 1940s out of experiences with top scientists at Cambridge University and working with the National Coal Board in the UK. His theories and philosophy were further tested in action at a national level in Belgium in the mid-60s where he used action learning to take the country from the bottom of the OECD league to the top in terms of annual economic improvement.

Revans emphasised that real learning comes from experience and the shared ignorance and probing questioning of 'comrades in adversity'. Today most of those involved in management development would on the face of it support the Revans proposition that:

Learning (L) = Questioning (Q) + Programmed Knowledge (P)

But how many organisations actually put this knowledge into action? Perhaps surprisingly few organisations have truly brought the action learning philosophy into the heart of their project management and people development activities. Where action learning has been set up it has often been seen as a special and isolated experiment. The great irony is that it is sometimes perceived as an academic exercise. This is despite the fact that Revans would argue against an academic view and for the fact that action learning should be anchored in the practical world of work.

Fundamental to action learning is the concept that groups of practising managers come together and work on real-life problems. Through challenging debate and questioning of one another and sharing of experience, new learning is achieved at an individual and group level.

Action learning builds on real experience rather than operating in the pure, detached, rational world suggested by the scientific tradition. Learners focus on:

• Resolving individual or group problems
• Targeting real work problems
• Taking action to resolve these problems
• Being exposed to appropriate risk and "stretch"
• Working in the set in a supportive social process
• Proceeding via questioning, conjecture and refutation
• Taking advantage of training and other interventions as the need arises
• Reporting results to their sponsor(s).

And it was in recognition of the power of action learning that led to Value Improvement Projects approach. It provides a unique way of addressing real work challenges and at the same time capturing personal and team learning. In Value Improvement Projects members are required to take action and where appropriate relevant knowledge and skills, or what Revans would call Programmed Knowledge, is sought out and provided. Contrast this with the traditional approach where the training or educational specialist decides on a syllabus or course and the main focus of the learning event is placed upon knowledge and skills.

Making e-Learning Work

The exciting potential of the Value Improvement Project approach is that it provides essentially a process underpinned by action learning thinking, but using latest web technologies to enable communication, action and learning. At the project meeting place members, sponsors and facilitators communicate and share learning. There is a discussion area, meetings are reported, learning logs are captured, subject relevant material is provided and e-learning diagnostics are accessed.

While the e-projects system provides an electronic forum for communication throughout the lifespan of a project the 'e' in 'e-project' has many more meanings for Value Improvement Project participants and includes:

Enquiry – the first and most important aspect of any assignment is to ask questions and find out from clients and sponsors their needs and the facts.

Experience – gleaned from the client in order to work out how to build on it and use it in problem solving.

Expectations – identifying what the client and sponsors expect.

Energy – looking for where it is and where it is not, and focusing energy on resolving the important issues.

At the ESSC the early experience of the Knowledge Management project has led to a realisation that Value Improvement Projects can be established in a number of ways. So already there are projects being used to:

· Support the personal development of leaders in their roles in UDV St. James (UDV SJ), Amsterdam.

· Help embed corporate values and integrate them with individual values in the ESSC.

· Create mentoring relationships for high potential managers to support succession planning drawing on mentors from the wider Diageo population.

Commenting on the experience of implementing Value Improvement Projects in UDV SJ Amsterdam, Cate Turner, Training and Development Manager said:

"With a young management team of mixed experience we needed an approach that would meet everyone's needs but above all would be instantly applicable to their day to day roles. In a fast moving environment such as this managers need to feel that time away from the day job is time well spent. Action learning does this and also allows us to get the most from our most valuable resource – ourselves. The action learning process means that we can quickly see the benefits of the development programme as the managers begin to put into practice what they have learned and by using their knowledge it is retained.

"The feedback so far has been very encouraging. The initial group of participants have found the whole process extremely rewarding and have been very enthusiastic about the approach used. My pre-programme concerns that the more academic participants would find the process theoretically light have proved unfounded, the theoretical content is as rich as a purely taught programme but with the added benefits of reflection, sharing and practical application."

Action Questions

Value Improvement Projects have proved that action learning can be operationalised in organisations by starting with a business or personal development objective and involving key stakeholders. The integration of the e-projects system and e-learning delivery mechanisms create a potent force for action learning in the future and this can used to tackle a range of business issues such as:

· Productivity & profitability
· Improving knowledge management
· Embedding organisational values
· New project launch
· Coaching and mentoring
· Reducing costs
· Increasing sales
· Structural and organizational change
· Business development
· Improving safety
· Leadership development.

So how do you proceed if you are considering introducing action learning into an organisation? To distil the key learning points from the experience of the ESSC and UDV SJ and Value Improvement Projects to date we propose, in the spirit of action learning, not answers, but a number of questions for you to consider:

· What is the business argument for setting up action learning projects?
· What is the focus of action learning: team projects, individual development or CPD?
· Who should be the project members?
· Who are the stakeholders interested in the success of the project?
· What is expected of these stakeholders?
· What is the brief for the project and who should have a say in it?
· Who needs to be involved politically in the organisation to make it successful?
· What is the time-span?
· How is success to be measured and what is the project brief?
· What knowledge and skills need to be developed and how best to develop these?
· How can e-learning help in terms of knowledge, skills and insights?
· How can the project group be kept motivated and in communication throughout?
· What part should technology have in this?

Alison Whitley is HR Advisor with UDV, ESSC.

Cate Turner is Training and Development Manager with UDV SJ.

Dr Richard Hale is Managing Director of Value Projects Ltd.

Dr Charles Margerison is President of the Action Learning Institute at the International Management Centres Association.

With thanks to UDV ESSC and UDV SJ for permission to publish this paper.

Back to ICPD.


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