A conversation with Dave White about Action Learning Sets

Dave White is a Critical Friend /  Action Learning Set Facilitator on the JISC Transformations Programme. This approach is being used in various programmes but is still relatively new, as part of continually evaluating and reflecting on our own practice I interviewed Dave about the role and how he sees it.

Dave what’s your role and how do you set it in relation to Transformations Programme?

I’m a Critical Friend. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be disparaging about your choice of shoes or your sudden inexplicable decision take- up smoking, it’s more about supporting projects.  As you can probably guess I’m supporting projects in the JISC Transformations strand. They are all helping their institutions integrate technology to improve the way they operate as businesses. I think of it as working more elegantly with technology.

Part of that role is to facilitate Action Learning sets, how do you feel about that?

Well, you could be forgiven for thinking that it sounds a little tree-hugging/bean-baggy. That’s certainly what I thought when I read-up on the process which deliberately veers away from problem solving and instead concentrates on giving individuals space to reflect on their work. But it’s worked really well as a support tool so far.

Action Learning Sets work well face to face, but we asked you to run them online, does it translate?

I could understand how this process might work in a face-to-face scenario but was suspicious about its validity when run in a Blackboard Collaborate room. After three ALS session I’m pleased to report that the format does translate into the ‘virtual’ very nicely. It’s a classic case of people needing to get-to-know one another and build a modicum of trust before the conversation flows in an ‘honest’ manner. I’m not implying that the first two sessions were dishonest; it’s more to do with people moving out of project PR mode and talking about the challenges of trying to drive forward complex plan in complex environments.

It sounds as if the 3rd ALS was a key turning point, do you want to expand?

During the 3rd ALS people were sharing the frustrations of trying to keep a footing in institutions which are rapidly reorganising in the face of massive changes in the sector. They also spoke about the suspicion that many have of technical projects which aim to rationalise administrative processes which have historically been run in a relatively ad-hoc or idiosyncratic manner. These are not problems that can be solved; they are simply part of the reality of implementing change in any large organisation.  As such, ‘problem-solving’ would be an erroneous approach, especially as everyone involved comes from institutions of differing character so the specifics vary. The value in the ALS is not in directly finding solutions but in having a space in which it becomes clear that everyone is negotiating similar overarching challenges and that it’s not all about being clever with technology.

Final thoughts?

It might sound schmaltzy but it’s always motivating to discover that the apparent Kafkaesque nature of your institution is mirrored elsewhere and that you are not alone in your struggles to make things work in a rational manner. Oh and if you are taking part in an online Action Learning Set  and you are trying to build trust online hold-out for at least three sessions, it’s well worth the wait.

Thanks Dave.

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