Features: December 5th, 2003

Do It Yourself – Professional Development

By Ewart Wooldridge.

Reproduced by permission of the Centre for Management and Policy Studies.

The ‘DBs’, as they call themselves, first met on a Centre for Management and Policy Studies management development training programme at Sunningdale Park in 1998. ‘Personal Development for Middle Managers’ lasted for two weeks. Geoff Sadler of the Cabinet Office reform Strategy Group, recalls: “We were a broad mix of people in terms of age and experience, and we came from Departments right across Government. We all found much of benefit on the course and gelled very well as a group – a point remarked upon by our tutors.

A component of the programme was a two-day follow-up approximately six months after the original event was completed. Geoff recalls: “Course members were offered the opportunity to participate and, with a few exceptions, the response was very positive. I was told that such events didn’t usually follow the original composition in terms of participants, but in our case CMPS agreed to run one specifically for the 12 members of our group who wanted to come”. This group became the DB’s and although some have since dropped out, a hard core of 12 has remained.

Since then the group has continued the learning that began at Sunningdale, remaining in touch via informal e-mail contract and a twice-yearly newsletter. A significant thrust of the group’s activities is the annual conference – to date the DB’s have met in Birmingham, London, Manchester Edinburgh and York. Themes have included partnership working, change management, and the DB’s have been successful in attracting specialist guest speakers such as Jenny Jenkins and Vicky Welham of international communications company Status and Robert Gordon of the Scottish Executive, to accompany formal presentations given by group members. Full advantage is taken of the location of each conference, both in terms of themes (devolution featured strongly at the Edinburgh event) and activities. Visits have covered First Minister’s question time at the Scottish Parliament, as well as the Foods Standards Agency in Holborn for the London event.

Common purpose

Conferences offer members the chance to talk about work issues and problems, and to keep up to speed with what is happening elsewhere in Government and beyond. Fiona Sellers of the Department for Education and Skills stresses the value of the information and range of perspectives the group can offer. She says: “The fact that we are nearly all in different Departments, or Agencies and branches of large Departments, means we can provide varied perspective on issues and procedure across the Civil Service. More specifically, members have sought help with their daily work. For example when one was asked to design a new personnel procedure she was able to draw on what had been done elsewhere.” Diane Wilkinson is involved in building a new IT system at the Rural Payments Agency, an Executive Agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and says that she, too, has been able to draw on the experiences and lessons of group members who have been through similar procedures.

The common purpose of Government organizations lends familiarity to most, if not all, issues raised. Elaine Gladstone of the Department for Work and Pensions, comments: “I have learned that regardless of the Department in which we work, we more or less face the same problems, and can ask for and offer guidance. It’s a safe environment – I know that there will be no repercussions.” Whilst the issues may be familiar, the approaches of group members have evolved. David Hayes, a civil servant at the time the DBs was established but now working for private sector company Goodricjk, believes that the inevitable shift in people’s perspective as they move jobs or take on new responsibilities make the group stronger and more useful.

This aspect of conference – discussing professional issues and problems – initially began as a 30 minute ‘round table’ item. Such has been its success that it was allocated half a day at the York conference. The opportunity to discuss and reflect, it seems, has risen in importance the longer the group has continued. Making the necessary arrangements, it seems, is a relatively simple affair. Whoever is event organizer has the task of booking the hotel conferencing facility, after which each member pays their individual costs and charges it on top their individual organization . Group members report support from their organizations. Although it has not all been plain sailing. Fiona says that some Departments and line managers need convincing, and that some group members have found obtaining approval more difficult than others.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the burden of organization tends to fall to a core of three or four people. Geoff, who by common consent was pivotal in getting the group off the ground, comments: “You’ll never get everybody to participated equally, but it’s a mistake to think you can do it all yourself.” Whilst taking a hand-on role inevitably demands time and energy, it can also provide development opportunities. He continues: “Those of us who have been involved in organization and facilitation have learned new skills – my introduction to facilitation was on the course at Sunningdale and, although it was daunting at first, doing it for the group has allowed me to develop my expertise over time.”

The future

The DBs know they can’t afford to lose members and remain viable, and despite having discussed bringing in ‘new blood’, they have decided that it would be prohibitively difficult given the importance of their shared history. The benefits of being so well established, according to Fiona, are that “We know each other so well we get on with the business at hand at our events, with no posturing or game-playing such as you find in newly formed groups.”

The downside, the DBs acknowledge is that a time will come when there will no longer be sufficient impetus for them to carry on their work together. However, as Geoff says: “We’ve already achieved everything we set out to do – we’ve kept our learning alive and, in doing so, have protected the investments that our organizations made in us when they first sent us to Sunningdale.”

The value of learning is often slow to reveal itself, and ensuring it survives the journey from classroom to workplace is a perennial issue for trainers. There can be little doubt, however, that the DBs have nurtured their learning experience to good effect. Five years after having been to Sunningdale, Elaine recalls: “I found the course challenging, demanding and tiring with lots of different stressful situations one after the other. If I’m honest, at the time I found the psychology and the reflection a bit over the top and irrelevant to my every day work as a manager. Over time, however, it has turned out to be one of the best courses I’ve been on, teaching me that I can handle various and demanding situations, and produce results.”

Perhaps the most fitting testimonial, however, came from David , who says: “I have worked for three companies since leaving the Civil Service. One thing they have in common is that, even when times are hard, they still see the value in funding my attendance at the conference.”

Learning in action

Self-managed learning, often undertaken through a process known as ‘Action Learning’, has many benefits, and can be pursued in almost limitless variations. Although an essential component of Action Learning is that there are no experts to provide answers, professional input with organization and facilitation in the initial stages can go a long way.

Action Learning groups (or learning sets) such as the DBs can be initiated in a variety of ways. Some groups form as the result of a particular organizational development programme, will enjoy senior management sponsorship and have specific outcome in mind. Others, such as the DBs, may be inspired simply by people sharing a professional interest and wishing to learn more. The objective may be more fluid, but the experience need be no less valuable for that.

Irrespective of purpose, learning in this way offers participants freedom they might not find with other methods of learning. With no prescription as to what is and isn’t relevant to the exercise, experimentation is encouraged. It is down to group members to agree between themselves what represents learning, and to arrive at such positions via co-operation. Support and challenge are key, with the group encouraging each individual’s learning whilst challenging thinking or orthodoxies that might obstruct it.

To benefit fully from Action Learning participants need to listen, observe and analyse. It also helps if they’re happy to take risks, work with others, ask questions, make suggestions and admit to inadequacies and mistakes. It should be said that Action Learning isn’t for everybody, and that it can be uncertain and frustrating, as well as intriguing.

If everyone involved is to benefit fully in such an environment, it is important that the group is agreed on its purpose and processes. Whilst, ultimately, it should be the aim of Action Learning sets to run their own affairs, it is often helpful to for them to use external facilities when they are first constituted.

A trained facilitator will help the group agree their objectives, plan their activities, help keep the group properly focused and ensure that every member gets to pursue their learning goals. Good external facilitators, however, will also look to develop the skills of group members, so that it can become self-facilitating.

CMPS has long experience of facilitating Action Learning groups, notably on formal programmes for senior civil servants on its Corporate Development Programme, and the Public Service Leaders Scheme. The CMPS ‘Navigating Change’ report, published in 2002, draws on action research undertaken by departmental change leaders in conjunction with Cranfield University.

Whilst fact-to-face contact is an essential component of such activity, electronic networking is a useful means of keeping in touch, sharing information and accessing development. ‘Platinum’ supports alumni of Corporate Development Programmes in this way, whist the CMPS Electronic Learning Support System, originally developed for use on the Public Service Leader Scheme, is increasingly used to support discrete CMPS learning communities.

CMPS can provide facilitation and electronic support designed to client specification or, alternatively, can provide assistance on a less formal basis. Two new guides ‘Learning in Action – A Guide for Facilitator’ and ‘Learning in Action – A Guide for Participants’ are available free of charge.

Ewart Wooldridge is Director of the Centre for Mnagement and Policy Studies.