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Diary: Learning together


diaryIn this timely diary, and reflecting on a recent unsuccessful tender, Tom Boydell explains his belief that learning together – across professional boundaries – can create greater understanding, working relationships and eventual outcomes.

I have just heard that we failed to win the tender with which I closed last month’s diary entry. Quite a disappointment as we had put together what I still consider to be a good proposal. In broad terms the project arose as part of the response to a number of tragedies where children and vulnerable adults - have suffered and died due to errors by social services, police and so on. The idea in this case was to provide support for newly qualified social workers (NQSWs), their line managers and their employers through a series of action learning meetings.

The logistics were quite challenging – a total of a thousand participants in 42 action learning groups, or about 25 per group. Traditionally action learning is done in small groups of no more than eight, but we created a number of processes that can be done in larger groups – sometimes by dividing into threes and fours – that use the main action principles, rather than structures, of action learning.

"This whole area of learning and working across boundaries is becoming increasingly recognised as something we need to become better at."
These principles include meeting regularly – every six to eight weeks; reflecting on experience and making meaning from it; sharing these reflections with others in a similar position (referred to by the inventor of action learning, Reg Revans, as “comrades in adversity”), thus being helped to think through the meaning and implications; exercising judgments about the relevance of related theory; considering alternative next steps and then committing to action before the next meeting; and helping the other group members do the above by listening, questioning, challenging, supporting.

As I say we had what I consider a good proposal and a great team – ten of us in all, with extensive experience of action learning and of social work. The main reason we didn’t get it was that we proposed that the groups be mixed – each group containing NQSWs, managers and employers. This was turned down with the comment that it’s better to keep the three groups of participants apart.

It seems to me increasingly clear that most of the problems leading to these tragedies have been due to people being unable to communicate, learn and work across professional and organisational boundaries. Learning together about each other’s challenges would, I feel, have enabled NQSWs, managers and employers to appreciate each others’ situations, perspectives, aspirations, hopes, fears and so on in a meaningful way.

I really do think that we had a chance here to do something worthwhile – to make a difference in an area that has massive effects on the lives - and indeed premature deaths - of a large number of vulnerable people.

This whole area of learning and working across boundaries is becoming increasingly recognised as something we need to become better at. Our company name – Inter-Logics – was deliberately chosen to reflect this, to represent the idea of understanding how each party is making meaning of the situation – appreciating each others’ meaning-making as being valid and legitimate, and finding ways of working together in ways that respect the different meanings, aspirations, purposes and priorities that we all have.

Notwithstanding my disappointment, there does seem to be some recognition in the public and voluntary sectors of the need to work in this way, calling as it does for new approaches to leadership and management. It’s why a number of us are forming a consortium, currently called “Stringbag” - which I’ll hopefully be able to report as it gets under way - to explore ways of leading in networks. All too often we have seen networks established – for example in the NHS – and then attempts are made to manage them as though they are a single entity, using conventional hierarchical approaches. These just won’t be effective in these new contexts.

The need for net-working - the hyphen is a deliberate exaggeration – is increasingly recognised in the public and voluntary sectors. This is probably because it is abundantly clear that services to vulnerable people do indeed depend on a wide range of agencies – health, social services, housing, police, education, and so on, and we really must find better ways for these to work together.

I may be wrong but I sense that this is less recognised in the commercial sector. Perhaps the commonest form is in the creation of alleged partnerships and alliances. Again these very often do not work well – they become takeovers, mergers; dominant “partners” take over.

I also think that most “conventional” organisations are in practice existing as a number of semi-independent internal agencies. Perhaps it would be better to acknowledge this and lead and manage them accordingly, rather than attempt the fiction of drawing fine “organigrams” – often with “dotted line” relationships in a gallant attempt to show what really happens – or complex management matrices.

Tom Boydell is director of Inter-Logics, a training consultancy with some 75% of its clients in the public sector.

Read Tom's previous diary entries:

  • Tender by triage
  • Learning organisations

  • Newsletter

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