One of the questions we are most often asked when planning new action learning initiatives with customers is “What difference will this make to the business?” For commissioners who intend to be part of a programme the individual question here is: “What’s in it for me?”
Action learning provides a rich development opportunity – but precisely because the nature of the learning is emergent and often unexpected, evaluation can fall short of capturing what action learning can provide.
This case study demonstrates some of the impact that action learning can have on a business. The business in question here is Heineken, a global drinks manufacturer and supplier with operations in every continent and more than 200 local brands.
What delegates learn from this programme is being implemented right across the organisation, for example, the way teams are being managed is changing. Business themes are being addressed including improving delegation, managing performance better – and looking at how managers manage. This learning is making a real difference on how the day to day work is being done.
Action learning is being used by Heineken as an integral part of its global First-Line Manager Development Programme. There are over 6,000 First Line Managers (FLMs) globally, whose day to day work is to manage the “coal face” – employees who operate manufacturing plants, deal with logistics and respond to customers. Heineken designed a management development programme for the FLM’s, lasting 10 months and taking them through five modules including an FLM Survival Kit, Team Performance and Effectiveness, Stepping up to Lead, and Leading Change.
The FLM-DP programme is delivered by the HR/OD functions regionally often using external trainers familiar with the local context. As well as the content input from the modules, FLM’s get the opportunity to be part of an action learning set, which runs between the modules. This is specifically to support them in implementing the learning from the content modules in their teams and workplace.
Action Learning Associates has to date run nine Action Learning Facilitator training programmes to provide an internal resource to facilitate the action learning sets. These are mostly run in Heineken’s global HQ in Amsterdam, with 18 delegates from as many as 121 different countries being trained at a time. Two programmes have been run in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and one in Lagos, Nigeria.
Initially Heineken planned to train some of the external suppliers for the FLM programme. They then realised that the core coaching skills developed during the programme were core HR/OD competences and that there was value in directing the resource internally – often to high performing ambitious individuals. Following the three day training programme, participants continue to meet as a facilitated action learning set, doing so virtually.
Evaluation data gathered within the global HR team has looked at what the trainee facilitators gained from the training and what participants in their sets (FLMs) said about their learning experience. The FLMs were asked about what action they had taken as a result of action learning and what they were doing differently in the business. Evaluation drew on Kirkpatrick’s four levels with information being sought in questionnaire form, as to the results of the learning on the business and organisation.
FLM’s are using the action learning sets to address real business issues and management challenges. The themes that were identified included dealing with difficult employees, delegation, challenging one’s manager, managing oneself with greater professionalism, managing priorities and time management. As well as having the opportunity to find more creative solutions to these challenges, FLM’s are also learning far more about the business and building links across functions in a way not done before. This is enhancing their own knowledge and understanding of the whole business and is also improving cross-functional working.
“It has most importantly offered the FLMs a unique opportunity to share work place challenges not adequately covered by class room training”
In addition to the learning about these business content issues, FLM’s are finding their own line and team management skills are developing. They demonstrate and report the ability to have better conversations in their teams because they have experienced and understood the power of open questions. They are taking this approach back to their teams, allowing them to carry out constructive conversations with team members, rather than jumping to conclusions or missing the bigger picture. Direct reports are being challenged to think work problems through for themselves and as a result of this new coaching approach, team problem solving is increasing and much more learning is happening on a daily basis.
“I am more confident that the issues that I may face as [a] first line manager can be solved”
“It makes the FLM more effective on the job by being able to get the best from his team” (Nigeria)
As the FLM workplace challenges are being resolved more effectively, they are performing better within their larger departments and beginning to look out wards and upwards at developmental challenges in the workplace, rather than repeatedly fire fighting.
Teams where the FLM has been an action learning set member are becoming more strategically aligned and understanding the place their jobs have in the overall priorities for the company.
“It is an effective tool not only for learning, but also for facilitating networking and cross functional interactions” (AME Americas)
“The effect that the FLMs had on their department is huge. Almost all of them are coaching their teams on the information they are receiving from the programme” (AME Egypt)
Whole organisation impacts are beginning to be experienced. HEINEKEN is benefiting from having better prepared managers with a broader understanding of the business. Teams are performing better, collectively focused on business objectives, and so contributing to more organisational success. The view at the moment is being expressed as:
“If action learning groups are applied on a larger scale in the OpCo, it could raise the level of team spirit within the organisation” ( Egypt)
To meet the global challenge Heineken is scaling up the programme so that 6,000 FLMs can participate in the programme over the next three years. Action Learning Associates has run nine programmes to date bringing the current total of trained facilitators to over 150. It is a substantial programme, with global reach – yet the impacts on individuals, teams and the organisation are clear and sustained.