Action Learning

By Marketing Research Team, 3EA
Action Learning

ECCH recently welcomed Professor Heather Hazard as a member of the executive committee. She holds forth right view on the case teaching, which she sees as the first step in action learning hierarchy.

Heather A Hazard is associate professor as the Institute of International Economics and Management, Copenhagen Business School. She teaches International Economics and Competition, and international Business Negotiations, using the Harvard Business School case method and simulators requiring active class participations. She holds degrees from MIT, Princeton, and Harvard. She won the Statoil Prize for Applied Research in Economics for her writing on "Business, Government and the International Econo-my."

You ask for what makes the best to make for the classroom for teaching cases. I believe it is easiest what they have isn't always effective in the work world. They suffered a shock when they found this out and their shock marked the end of their innocence. Then they have to take the next step: what to do when their standard tool fails.

Many comebacks for the MBA or other masters programme, not primarily for the tool development but for skill development. These are the cases when they work best because you are allowing to develop the skill of identifying the problem and learning how to select from wide set of tools they have been taught or acquired: they have to learn and apply the correct tool for overcoming the problems.

We acknowledge that there is not just one answer and that the standard tools often don't work. We rarely expect to solve a problem with one simple tool, so such student are opened to the more complex discussions that you can have in the cases. They would have learned from experience and also have their own management failure of their own, so they have learned that they too can make mistakes and that the way they conceived of solving a particular problem was not necessarily the best.

That, makes them better listeners, I believe the case method depends highly on its success in not only teaching the student but also articulate their thoughts, but also how to listen everyone in the classroom. A nice aspect of it is that it takes professor off the pedestal, and it really underlines the terrific value of everybody who is sitting around you. So the best situation is where you have the same set of experienced students together for a good number of sessions. You need this to give you the chance to develop a teaching contract with them, about getting highly prepared and listening to one another.

Unfavorable Situations and a Hard Experience

Conversely when the students are less experienced or the number of sessions you have with them, declines case teaching becomes more difficult. I believe the case method is least suited to knowledge transmission. I believe that some institution that have chosen to teach exclusively by cases doom themselves and their student disservice and ends up with basically cheating by writing teaching technical notes on this or that topics because they are simply some facts or tools that students have to know. So the worst scenario for the case teaching would be young students on short course attempting to knowledge transmission, for example financial calculation. Fortunately I have never been in such bad situations.

I think my hardest experience was when I first came to Copenhagen Business School. Very little case study was being done in what was a lecture based tradition. I just came not as foreigner but also as American with all the connotations. Perhaps, I wanted the things differently as though we always do things better. I had to establish the credibility along with the facts that I was doing this because it was the best way of teaching subject. I had to show that I was preserving with it because I cared what the student got out of the class even although it was the most difficult way to teach.

I only had to fight the serious battles in the first year. Thereafter students heard from their predeces-sors, how much they have gotten out of the class and they had seen the course evaluation. When I withdrew from teaching the International Economics course the students objected so much to going back to the lecture-based method that the course had to be withdrawn.

Large Numbers are Better than Just a Few Students

I learned to teach at Harvard where the class was of 100 students so it was not the problem at Copen-hagen were the strength was 80-120. I have never fretted over large class size so I think small are much more difficult to teach than large ones. With large groups like orchestra conductors you get to know about the personalities and where you can depend on getting certain jumps. You can keep the rhythm of the class going more easily where you have large set of resources to draw on. With only 12 or 20 you don't have same diversity.

I have to admit that though that my only experience with such a small group was when I was teaching teachers to teach with the cases so I could rely on their level of engagement and preparations.

Meeting Challenges: Tips for Inexperienced Teachers

When you first face 120 students, your only ever experienced lectures, many of whom are from cultures where professor is much the holder of knowledge and you take yourself off the pedestal and say No, I want to hear the answer from you're I don't necessarily know the right answers : nothing makes my answers more right than yours: you are making yourself very vulnerable : you are setting up an environment for learning but also you are depriving yourself of the shields that protect a traditional lecturer.

In the first few sessions when you are establishing a teaching contract you face tremendous skepticism and you have to manage that. You have to stand up very robustly, because students will easily sense your lack of confidence and if you lose that for a moment you lose that class. It hasn't yet happened to me but I have seen many who have lost the class but have not simply swung them back for the rest of the semester. If you have lost your credibility the student won't attend you. This kind of dissonance interrupts their concentration and hence their ability to learn. So, remember, your credibility is the most critical asset and cannot be neglected.

My experience had been introducing case and other action learning method has called for much more energy in the beginning than subsequently, because many things may become second nature to you overtime in areas such as your awareness of the mood of the class and your ability to monitor it.

Train Yourself to Do Three Things Simultaneously

In the beginning you have to train yourself to do three things simultaneously. Fist you have to be with the class at current moment and you have to be listening. You have to train yourself to listen most aca-demics are trained to talk. Second you have to think about where you have been so that you can keep revisiting teaching points and ensure that they are cleared to the students; you have to keep reconnecting in the way that both underscores the teaching point and validates the student contribution since they can hear that you have been listening to what they have said. Thirdly you have to be conscious where you are going and manage time.

Sometimes things go wrong, example VCR chews up your video tapes as you watch. In such situation there is nothing like apology. You just say "I am sorry"-I regret that just happened now let's work to-gether to get best out of this sessions.

Experience with Dealing with Cultural Impediments

In Denmark there is a strong culture of modesty and balance, incorporated in what is called 'Jante Law'. It means that you should never stick or put yourself above others. Students, therefore find it difficult to outspoken contribution at first. To have good discussions you must overcome this barrier. If I had been culturally blind to what was driving the reluctant to talk, I could have adopted challenging attitude-"hey you guys don't you have anything to say?"

Had I confronted them as if they were ignorant, I could have created a very bad mood. The reluctance goes beyond the fact that they were accustomed to lectures to the fact that don't want to sound as if they think they know more than their classmates.

At that point I was able to draw another Danish cultural norm that of helping one another. I established that by emphasizing speaking. It is helping everyone else in the classroom. Without each of them doing their part of work, which is talking as well as listening collectively, we could not get what we needed out of experience.

In the Copenhagen classrooms we have a wide range of cultural backgrounds ranging from Americans who are very fluent informal and outgoing through the moderate Danes to Estonians from very stoic culture who may also be shy participants because of their lack of practice in English. You have to learn how to rebalance their contribution in class working very explicitly. You also have to help women to participate at the level of value that they are able to provide.

Why should we get to all the trouble of teaching cases?

I feel passionately about this question case teaching, like all action learning is difficult to do as well and is initially upsetting lot of students. It's exhausting and you could say it is inefficient because many an-swers can be presented to the problem. I think all the action learning methods are however, exactly appropriate to the complexity and the ambiguity that manager face. We are training them to think systematically and reflectively on different situations. We are making them think rigorously about "How do I know to answers these questions." We are also helping them to search for different ways of answering them. They have to learn how to defend and articulate why they would use certain methods approaches tools and also how to cede ground gracefully in the face of a superior selection or a better argued position. Case learning allows people to understand that there are many ways of approaching a single problem. A well taught course with strong teaching contact establishes respect for each other. And this is a very important preparation for most of the jobs nowadays. We no longer have hierarchical management but we work with hierarchies were we depend on others-networks of people who are our peers. Our roles may change from project to project: one day, I may be the leader, next technical expert or next external liaison.

Once you get students coming from different backgrounds, each with different expertise, you and they have to accept that this is a resource for the groups and not a threat to the instructor. Each has special knowledge and we encourage the attitude to learn from each other. You can never afford to stop learning when you are a manager. One thing the case process encourages is training students to learn how to learn.

I believe that action learning is extremely good for this king of synthesis activity. If it's a bad day and they are sleepy then the lecture would go a "whoosh!" That just doesn't happen in good action based system. When students discover important points for themselves they will never forget.

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Article by: Marketing Research Team, 3EA