With the days getting longer and spring almost around the corner, we are looking at the year ahead. ALA is embarking on a number of new projects which have originated from long term relationships or referrals from our customers. It set me contemplating the nature of such long term business relationships.
My first thought is the degree of familiarity that longer term professional relationships bring – as opposed to the risk of the unknown with new clients. Running series of action learning sets as part of ongoing programmes means more knowledge of the context, the needs of the organisation as well as the needs of the participants. We end up with an experience base of the issues and concerns that are brought up. We also get a strong sense of the challenges and shifts the organisation and its sector are facing.
Building those longer term work relationships so that they become real partnerships is a great approach and a cornerstone of that partnership is responsiveness. This is especially clear in the initial stages.
With Heineken International action learning was part of a pilot for a global training programme to support management development. Participants were nominated from across the globe and came together in Amsterdam. The initial queries about the programme and the place of action learning within it were considerable with some participants feeling uncertain. Many practical and logistical aspects were critical for participants – as well as challenges to do with the nature of the learning events. As facilitators we had to respond to these programme concerns and support the clients in this initial pilot phase.
Once the pilot had been successfully run and evaluated, the nature of participant concern shifted entirely. This created a new focus for us as facilitators and client conversations reflected this. Our role was to understand the varied applications of action learning and support its use in different Heineken Operating Companies across the world. We were required to really understand these different contexts and examine the variety of elements that supported successful implementation.
With another long term customer, Cancer Research UK, action learning was part of a talent management programme. One of the more significant outcomes for the action learning sets and the programme was the value of the sharing across functions and locations – with disciplines that do not usually work together learning from each other’s challenges. The value of this delegate experience was then fed back to the talent programmes and helped inform future development and roll out. Both reflection and learning shared with the customer was again key in maintaining a long term relationship
Some of the elements of good long term relationships with clients actually mirror those of action learning itself. Together with the client we reflected on the work at each stage and ensured that we learnt together how to best develop the next intervention. While it can feel risky, we were honest in these reflective processes and as authentic as one is in an action learning set. The process has resulted in a high degree of trust and professional respect and is providing an excellent basis for future applications of action learning in the company. While we use a rigorous model of action learning, drawn directly from Revan’s work, the context in which it is applied is never static and remaining responsive to the requirements of the customer is crucial in building long term relationships.