Empowering Team Learning: Enabling Ordinary People to Do Extraordinary Things

Jennifer Bowerman (Edmonton, Aberta, Canada)

Team Performance Management

ISSN: 1352-7592

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




Bowerman, J. (2000), "Empowering Team Learning: Enabling Ordinary People to Do Extraordinary Things", Team Performance Management, Vol. 6 No. 3/4, pp. 73-76. https://doi.org/10.1108/tpm.2000.6.3_4.73.3



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

It is my observation that the field of workplace change and learning tends to be dominated by books about individual learning, team building, and organizational learning. The concept of team learning tends to be lacking. Therefore I found this practical, yet theoretically stimulating book about team learning and empowerment in the workplace to be helpful in filling in some of the missing links.

In this book, Michael Pearn describes a process by which ordinary people in the workplace can come together as empowered teams to realize extraordinary achievements. Responsibility for achievement is no longer with the senior managers, team leaders, external experts or specialists. Instead, it belongs with ordinary employees who work in teams, with a skilled facilitator, on projects that are important to them. Together the team members generate ideas, and implement their own solutions.

Some of the reasons why I found this book to be such an excellent resource are as follows:

Content. This is a great “how to” for practitioners in terms of working with teams. There is enough information included in this book that if you decide you too want to design and run an empowered team learning process, then you can. Prerequisites however are that you already know how to facilitate and coach, as well as being familiar with team building. Supporting materials to help the facilitation process are recommended (developed by Pearn in previous publications), but are not provided in this book.

Organization. There is a chapter by chapter overview at the beginning and a map, making it easy to use for the practitioner. Case studies are provided to demonstrate exactly what team learning and empowerment mean in practice. The concepts are described in step by step detail, and then the action steps are outlined for implementing team learning. Six core facilitation practices are described, along with practical design hints and tips that are based on Pearn’s experience.

Action based. Pearn bases his theory of how to develop team learning and empowerment, on his experience of working with project teams in the workplace. His case studies are of particular interest. One is about a team of drivers in an oil company (Shell) who with the assistance of Pearn’s facilitation team, are able to self‐manage a project where they develop for themselves an attitude survey without the help of survey experts, or managers. The project outcomes enable them to break though their defensive mindsets, change some of the adversarial practices of conflict resolution, and start to work collaboratively with management in a new parmership based on openness and trust. Another case study describes a team of employees who successfully self‐manage a project and develop their own self‐defined concept of health and safety without the help of external management consultants or safety experts. These case studies demonstrate a method of learning loosely based on Honey Mumford’s learning cycle.

He describes how team members take action; and then take time to reflect, obtaining feedback from others wherever possible. Based on their reflection, they build a simple model of how to do things differently next time. They then try out the task again. The process continues in a spiral, so that the team develops its own theory or conceptual model, thus reducing its dependency on experts.

Theoretically grounded. The final chapter of this book contains a listing of the resources describing what we know about team learning. In an excellent summary of the literature the author walks us through adult learning theory; learning versus performing; what team learning is; the processes of team learning; the structural contexts that influence team learning; the individual skills that enhance the process; and the social context that impacts team learning. He recommends an integrated approach using strands of theory from all these approaches to best optimize team learning.

If I have any disappointment at all, it is because of Pearn’s omission to relate the process of team learning to action learning. There are similarities. In both cases they involve groups of people working on real problems, focusing on learning and implementing solutions. In both cases, external expertise is shunned, and emphasis is placed on learning from and with each other. It was therefore surprising that Revans is not mentioned in Pearn’s bibliography. Possible reasons for this could be that although Revans encourages groups of individuals to come together in sets, he discourages facilitation because be believes that the process encourages a dependence on external expertise and thus takes away from individual learning. Set members then struggle through business problems or issues that they face as individuals. For Pearn, the facilitator is an expert who works with a team that faces a team problem or challenge. Perhaps the picture on the front cover of the book tells it best – it shows a water ski team skiing together in precision and managed formation. Revans would shun such precision with its implied management. Nonetheless there are enough similarities to merit at least some discussion of the two approaches.

Despite this omission, this book is a valuable resource, especially for those of us who want to go beyond Tuckman’s classical team model of forming, storming, norming, and performing. Pearn successfully links the practice of working with teams to adult learning theory. In doing so, he not only contributes to organizational learning theory, but I believe makes a significant and practical contribution for workplace practitioners attempting to bring about empowerment, learning, and change in the workplace.

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