The power of collaboration

Written by Debbie Carter on 1 December 2013 in Features

Debbie Carter reviews TJ’s action learning research project

Since the summer of 2012, TJ has been running an action learning research group aimed at supporting L&OD practitioners develop their skills to work in an increasingly complex world. Devised in collaboration with specialist in leadership and organisational development Mayvin1, the programme supports small groups over six months, using an action learning approach to gain personal and organisational insight.

The project came about as a direct result of the early findings of TJ's research project L&D 2020, which indicated that the skill set of L&D practitioners was changing from a purely transactional process to one that produces transformation by supporting organisations and their leaders in an increasingly complex world2. As part of the ongoing research throughout 2010 and 2011, TJ embarked on a number of focus group workshops to explore, with the TJ community, some of the key emerging trends. These included: learning to learn, embracing the challenges of technology, building relationships with the business and the closing gap between L&D and OD.

From the debate and the discussion at a number of these workshops, it was clear that participants were seeing a real change to their skill set - many were surprised to discover that much of their current role was more about OD than they realised.

It was, therefore, a natural progression of the research to start to explore this merging of the two disciplines. The 'practising 21st century leadership' programme was developed to support small, action learning research groups in exploring their own experiences and help them develop the skills they needed to facilitate core leadership capabilities such as collective intelligence, finding 'enabling truths', wisdom, working with the flow of social networking and ethical leadership.

What attracted people to join the research project varied from those looking to change the language they used to challenge their organisations to those who simply wanted to learn more about action learning. Mayvin's Martin Saville, the facilitator of the second cohort, says: "People typically came onto the programme without clearly articulated objectives. Rather, they were interested in, or engaged by, the approach of the programme, and liked the idea of doing something a little different with a group of like-minded professionals. The needs they had were unformed in their mind."

Comments from the participants bear this out. Peter Marsh, from Napp Pharmaceutical Holdings, says: "I wanted to learn more about action research and action learning by participation and to experiment with my own thinking and learning and get critical feedback."

I was a participant in the first cohort and was surprised at the power of the group; the extended period of the meetings, once a month over six months, gave us the opportunity to learn about each other and provide mutual support and insight. Sarah Fraser, an independent OD consultant, was another member of the first cohort and says it was the group effort that struck her most strongly: "I experienced the power of the collaborative research process itself, as well as new ideas around leadership that I had not clarified before. The process enables deep personal reflection alongside the gradual development of new shared knowledge, the research data.

"I was a little surprised as to how much fun it was to really debate these issues, often having felt a little shy of doing so in the past. The facilitation and collaborative environment allowed for rich conversation and learning."

These sentiments were echoed by Liz Finney, co-facilitator of cohort two: "One of the most powerful aspects of the experience was the way in which the action learning model provided some quite challenging support and I think all participants moved position over the course of the programme, largely as a result of that group support and challenge."

There is a real sense of the unknown when setting out on a programme like this. There is no specific agenda but, by using the power of questions and reflection, people were able to cover some challenging areas, trusting the group to support them in arriving at outcomes they didn't expect. As Saville comments: "They were really delighted with what they got from the programme even if, beforehand, they didn't really know what it was going to be. Many people were new to the action learning model, so there was a sense of them coming in trusting that something good would happen and also really being pleasantly surprised when it did."

One of the aims of the programme was to give people the opportunity to explore, and experiment with, social media and examine its possible implications for leaders today.

The title of the programme was taken on board in a very broad way and people wanted to look at how leaders in their organisations managed the complexity they face today. Conversations kept coming back to the question of the visibility of leadership and how to speak truth to power. They wanted to help their leaders to understand and utilise the variability and difficulty of the context in which they work.

For cohort one, this led to a conversation about social networking and the Glass Wall experiment evolved. James Traeger, facilitator of this group, explains: "What people wanted was to explore the actual skills on the ground that a leader needs in order to manage the social network world. That led to the creation of this experiment, which became known as the Glass Wall3. The question it sought to explore was 'could we have a conversation as a group as if we were being watched by the world' and that was what they really wanted to focus on."

The experiment was quite simple: the group gathered to discuss a topic while their conversations were sent out to the Twitter sphere by independent 'tweeters'. Those tweeters had been told not to interrupt the discussion but simply to report to their Twitter followers. All went well until one of the tweeters put a question from Twitter to the group. The result, although disrupting the group discussion, demonstrated the power of this type of activity. The group had been very comfortable in their 'bubble' of discussion but, once made aware of other external parties interested in their view, it highlighted some of the problems facing leaders today who have to become more comfortable with opinion coming from a variety of sources. The incident made the group understand why so many leaders do not engage with social media but also showed the potential power it might have if used wisely.

While cohort two didn't conduct their own collective experiment, a key element of their programme was the notion of creating an online identity, and thus 'writing oneself into existence'. This led to people undertaking a variety of action research experiments in their own organisations using principles from the worlds of Twitter and blogging in order to stretch their professional practice and raise their game. This led to some deep reflective work on visibility, impact and vulnerability.

Leadership was at the very core of the first two cohorts and the aim was to explore what leadership in the 21st century might look like. As Fraser put it, "I am sometimes frustrated by the 'standardisation' of what clients think their leaders need. I wanted to find the language to challenge this and link my own values and approach to some new perspectives on leadership. My major focus was on clarifying my approach and philosophy on leadership development, as well as considering my own practice as a 'leader' of my own business".

From the second group, Marsh outlined his interest in leadership and management: "We are doing some interesting and innovative work in management development and I wanted to critically reflect on the methodologies and my approach. I wanted to learn more about leadership and management in the 21st century to inform our management development work and the skills, knowledge and 'way of being' needed to be successful in the future context."

In cohort one there was a lot of personal development that went on around the Glass Wall experiment, which explored people's own capacity to be vulnerable and open, which, again, was recognised as a leadership trait. The group was encouraged to blog to explore how open they could be about their practice. This proved challenging, as Traeger explains: "It is like that game where you have to rub your tummy and pat your head at the same time. It requires a multiple range of skill and capacity and that is a real challenge for people.

"This led to more of a discussion about culture, and how cultures support and develop people's ability to do some of these new approaches, particularly around social networking. That's what led us to this idea that what people really need is to think about culture and culture change and to look at the learning and organisational development challenges in creating that type of culture."

As a result of this slight change in emphasis, and in the spirit of research, the next cohort of the action learning research set will be exploring their issues under the title of 'the new skills set for the L&OD professional'. Using the same methodology the group will be exploring what OD really is and how it relates to leadership.

The programme has shown that many of our traditional organisational boundaries are becoming less defined, which, in turn, makes decision-making for our leaders more difficult. Developing a clearer understanding of how organisations function can only help us to support those leaders. Finney says: "We need to embrace the blurred boundaries and the idea that, in the 21st century, leadership and OD can't really be separated."

What strikes me most on reflecting on these first two cohorts is the diversity of each group but that, despite these differences, their critical reflections on the benefits and surprises they gained along the way have a definite convergence.

Marsh concludes: "I learned about the value of an action learning research approach, and I am trying it in my organisation and continue to learn as I act, reflecting for, during and on action. I learned that a successful 21st century leader will need to develop OD practices, skills, knowledge and behaviour as well as cultivating self-work and collaborative inquiry skills.

"I had some lovely feedback about the value I offer; the many small things I have tried that continue to make a difference to me personally and in my practice. I was surprised by the benefit of working in this way with a group of like-minded but different people and it showed me how many shared connections and resources we have at our disposal."

Finney sums up: "My sense of what people were gaining was stuff that they didn't know they needed when they came but worked on developing as learning outcomes as part of the programme. And there was an interesting absence of the need to define learning outcomes, pin down definitions or write rule books."

The dynamics and resulting indicators of both cohorts were very different and it suggests to me that our research has a way to go yet. However, I wonder if our world is so complex and its people so diverse that trying to make sense of it or tie it to a particular set of skills is nigh on impossible. We need to be comfortable in not knowing all the answers and bold enough to make decisions often based on wisdom, truth and insight, as Marsh so aptly paraphrases Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr4: "I learned how to create simplicity on the far side of complexity and certainty on the nearside of ambiguity."

If you are interested in joining the next cohort of the programme, The New Skills Set for the L&OD Professional, that starts in January, please contact Debbie Carter at or visit



2 Fairhurst P “The changing L&D skill set” Training Journal (September 2009)

3 Traeger J “Looking through the glass wall” Training Journal (November 2012)

4 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, justice of the United States Supreme Court, legal historian and philosopher who advocated judicial restraint

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