Coughlan, P. (2012), "Collaborative Strategic Improvement through Network Action Learning", Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 20 No. 2. https://doi.org/10.1108/hrmid.2012.04420baa.015Download as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Collaborative Strategic Improvement through Network Action Learning
Article Type: Suggested reading From: Human Resource Management International Digest, Volume 20, Issue 2
Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan,Edward Elgar Publishing,2011,ISBN 97818472003109
Action learning is an accepted path to sustainability today. Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan, through this book, advance the field of action learning to an even more elevated and powerful level.
The book brings together the domains of operations management, organizational learning and action learning. The authors lead readers to clear lessons on how to strategically improve an organization through action learning.
The book is divided into three parts:
The Domains, which contains three chapters;
Learning in Action, again comprising three chapters; and
Consolidation, divided into four chapters.
In the first part, the authors position and target conversations within the domains of operations management, organizational learning and action learning. The authors begin with the improvement imperative from an operations point of view and contend that operations are a contributor to organizational performance and that improvement has a specific meaning. The chapter introduces the strategic role of operations within the firm, the concept of operations strategy as reconciliation, and the link between reconciliation and sustainability. The concept of collaborative strategic improvement is introduced, where the focus of improvement activities addresses both inter and intra-organizational concerns. Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan point out that continuous and collaborative improvement are processes of action and learning whereby problems are identified, and solutions are created, analysed, selected and implemented.
The authors then move on to the next chapter of part 1, where organizational learning is identified as the second of the three domains. Readers are introduced to the three foundations on which organizational learning rests. These are: organizational learning as a capacity and process; different forms of learning; and exploration and exploitation. How organizational and network learning involve systematic relationships between individual, group and inter-group learning is further examined. Social sustainability as a particular conceptualization which fits with the focus on sustainable strategic improvement is also introduced.
The authors move on to the next chapter with the objective of exploring the development of action learning as an effective mechanism to develop learning and to exploit collaborative strategic development in the extended manufacturing enterprise (EME). Drawing on the insight of Reg Revans, the founder of action learning, the elements of inter-organizational insight, complementing the element of organizational insight, are expanded upon.
Before proceeding to the next part of the book, the authors summarize the theoretical perspectives from the three domains. They reiterate that network action-learning components reflect the shared commitment of the network members to collaborative improvements which are sustainable beyond the current project, transaction or relationship, thereby making the transition from a strategic to a learning and to a transformational network.
The next part of the book – Learning in Action – presents two empirical case studies through which the authors support their theoretical contention. Before discussing the case studies, a discussion on the design framework of the case studies is undertaken. The readers are exposed to the three main elements of the underlying design – the core action-learning components, the generic stages and facilitation.
In the next chapter, the first case study, describing an action-learning program, facilitates strategic improvement of operations practice and performance through network action learning in a small number of firms. The chapter, dealing with a non-contractual learning setting, presents a rich description of the structure, process and experiences of three firms, organized as learning networks and engaged in strategic operations improvement. These firms focused on singular, parallel, serial and recursive initiatives that were of significance to their individual operations. Their experiences were framed and facilitated within the context of an action-learning program. The authors also report the participants enacting the program design outlined earlier in the book. The chapter emerges with the message that a network action-learning-based approach to strategic improvement in a non-contractual setting is recognizable, usable and useful.
The next chapter presents a case study on contractual-learning settings. The participating firms, in this case, were organized as an EME and the opportunity for action originated in their shared supply chain. The problem in the case was the development of collaboration and collaborative improvement based on shared goals and vision, mutual dependence and joint work and activities. The group comprised senior managers from purchasing, sales, engineering and quality from each firm. Through cycles of problem solving, the group engaged in questioning and reflection and finally, the initiative was facilitated in both firms. While the chapter describes and reflects on the experience of firms participating in the learning and transformational networks, it demonstrates the applicability and achievability of network action learning in a contractual setting.
Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan then move on to the final part of the book – Consolidation – where they consolidate their thinking on sustainable strategic improvement and take on the challenge of incorporating the insights from the two case-study chapters in a framework that captures the essence of the book.
In the opening chapter of this part, they present the achievement of sustainable strategic-improvement learning – and the process of transition from firm and strategic network to learning and transformational networks. The authors contend that this transition is enabled through the disciplined adoption of an action-learning approach as a learning mechanism, with cognitive, structural and procedural dimensions.
The next chapter outlines how practitioners and researchers may engage with the proposed framework. Normative guidelines for implementing an action-learning program in a network, aimed at practitioners such as managers and action-learning practitioners, are provided. The premise underlying the implementation guidelines is derived from the fact that no real learning takes place unless and until action is taken; further, that learning crosses both intra-organizational and inter-organizational boundaries, going from home to away and home again.
The last chapter of the third part has two parts: the first presents and develops an argument for action-learning research – a related but different form of activity from action learning. The second takes the implementation guidelines and Revans’ scientific method as related bases for conducting rigorous research in sustainable scientific improvement. In other words, the authors, in this chapter, argue for the research potential of action learning that could provide a firm basis for a form of inquiry that adds unexpectedly to theory as well as practice. The key point focused on is that the enactment of sustainable strategic improvement through action learning in the network enables the development of a theory-based analysis.
In the last section – Finale – Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan retrace and reflect upon the deliberations presented in the book. They reiterate their leaving home and going away into the network setting where the problems are more complex and identification of the group is even more difficult. They envision the possibility of a shared future for action-orientated researchers and reflective practitioners, as action-orientated research and action-learning research provide both rich alternatives to traditional research approaches and also opportunities for the development of practical knowledge that is actionable by practitioners and theoretically robust for researchers.
Paul Coughlan and David Coghlan have together, in the form of this book, produced a must-have resource for practitioners, action-learning facilitators and researchers. The book invites readers to continue to engage in, and to inquire into, sustainable strategic improvement through action and learning, and that is where the success of the book lies.
Reviewed by Dr Shailja Agarwal, Indian Institute of Management, Rohtak, Haryana, India.
A longer version of this review was originally published in Training & Management Development Methods, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2012.