Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Winter 2004Kellogg School of Management
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Action Learning

Action Learning

By Matt Golosinski

What happens when smart, experienced MBA students join forces with top faculty experts in management and leadership?

Amazing things. Sparks fly and the air seems charged with the genuine excitement that comes from mutual discovery.

Now put these talented people together in a collaborative environment that finds innovative ways to deliver an academic experience grounded in theory and tested by practice. Well, the classroom simply isn’t big enough to contain all the energy and ideas.

This is the case at the Kellogg School where “action learning” — learning by doing — has been a hallmark of the school’s teaching approach for years. Kellogg students take their textbook-and-lecture insights to the next level by applying them in a variety of real-world settings. In essence, they knock down the “fourth wall” of the classroom to come face to face with actual business challenges confronting industry leaders.

Theory meets practice
“It is, of course, essential to lay the foundations and the theory, but it’s equally important to build on these foundations and to test these theories in the crucible of business practice,” says Kellogg School Dean Dipak C. Jain. Theory may have an intrinsic beauty, he adds, but ultimately its value is seen in its application. “At the end of the day, our faculty and students must help solve challenges facing practitioners.”

Kellogg achieves this mission through a rigorous curriculum punctuated with action learning initiatives, including the Analytical Finance Practicum, Advanced Marketing Practicum, Leadership through Education Action Program (LEAP) and Global Initiatives in Management (GIM).

These courses give Kellogg students a chance to put into practice the frameworks that they have learned in the classroom, says Robert Magee, senior associate dean for faculty and research.

“When you actually employ a framework, you develop greater facility with that tool,” says Magee. “You get to a deeper level of knowledge. It’s also the case that the frameworks we teach in class are not always complete. They are skeletons of how things work in the business world, and experiential learning opportunities let you ‘flesh out’ how those frameworks can be applied in specific situations.” So the MBA graduate must eventually confront the messy specifics that cannot be represented fully in an academic case.

Learning put to the test
Magee is only half joking when he compares action learning to the military boot camp he knew as a young man in the Army. (The occasional live ammo, he recalls, “was well above our heads.”) Action learning extends the classroom to allow students the benefits of meeting practical business challenges while still in school. It’s about as real-world an experience as you can get — without getting too close to “live ammo.”

But a marketing practicum, for instance, that takes students out of their comfort zones and into the fray at an actual firm offers an intimate and often frank introduction to post-graduation reality. In so doing, the experience provides Kellogg students a chance to get a leg up on the competition.

“It’s one thing to prepare for a case when the audience will be your fellow classmates; it’s another thing when the people in the room are a much better representation of your boss in the coming year,” says Magee, who adds that Kellogg students enter the school with one set of “organizational expectations” and leave with quite another set.

For Barry Grant ’03, Kellogg offered the ideal academic setting to build on his professional experiences. The former president of the Kellogg Graduate Management Association (now the Kellogg Student Association, or KSA) played a significant role representing his peers’ academic expectations and needs to the Kellogg administration.

But this leadership role was only one important way he honed his skills at Kellogg.

“Having worked for nine years prior to going to Kellogg, it was key for me to attend a school that truly understood the importance of linking theory with practice,” says Grant, now assistant communications manager with Ford Motor Co. “Not only did Kellogg offer this action learning experience, but it provided me with countless examples I could use to analyze previous job experiences and apply to new challenges.”

Kellogg faculty, administration and students have partnered over many years, says Grant, to create a culture where academic theory and hands-on experience is an “accepted and expected key to a valued education.” As evidence, Grant cites numerous initiatives, such as annual orientation extravaganzas like Pre-Term or Day at Kellogg which draw heavily on student ideas and energy for their success. Other opportunities, such as student conferences, case competitions and individual courses that bring students in touch with CEOs for vigorous Q&A sessions, all help Kellogg students “put their learning to the real-world test,” says Grant.

Grant’s counterpart on the 2004 KSA agrees that a strength of the school is its willingness to provide students with opportunities “to stretch leadership skills” both inside and outside the classroom.

“KSA members are leaders of leaders,” says Saq Nadeem ’05, KSA president. “With such an exceptional group of peers, the performance expectations are high and require unique leadership abilities, such as leading laterally and vertically, moderating and negotiating between various stakeholders — often with conflicting interests — and managing perceptions through effective communication.”

KSA members, adds Nadeem, are fortunate to turn their classroom learning into immediate action. Two KSA executive board members, Mike Baird and Lisa Ryan, both ’05, applied insights from a Kellogg class, Leading and Managing Teams, to implement significant improvements in how the KSA Board functions, Nadeem says. “Putting into practice the tools and methodologies provided to us in Leadership in Organizations also has been instrumental in managing the expectations of administration, faculty and students to seed a culture of high-performance teamwork,” he notes.

Action learning can really only take full root in an entrepreneurial culture — an environment that encourages new thinking and novel solutions to meet the changing needs of various constituents. This type of academic experience also demands strong administration and faculty support, says Robert Korajczyk, senior associate dean for teaching and curriculum.

Faculty must be broadly experienced and have deep and varied contacts with alumni and industry. They must also be willing to sift through an array of practicum proposals that come over the transom.

“Some of these projects might be too straightforward, and a lot are going to be way too much to attempt in a 10-week course,” says Korajczyk.

Faculty, in conjunction with the entities proposing the projects, spend a huge amount of time determining the right set of projects for students. The courses designed have both lecture and “project” components.

“It’s like teaching a traditional class, but also simultaneously having a roomful of independent studies,” Korajczyk explains. “For faculty, it’s a labor of love.”

This prodigious effort pays off big — for Kellogg students and for the firms with which they work on these projects. Action learning also keeps the Kellogg School buzzing with ideas that engage the collective talents of faculty, students and corporate partners, bringing the world to Kellogg and Kellogg to the world.

Says Dean Jain, “A desire to continuously innovate and to remain in touch with actual business concerns is at the heart of everything we do at the Kellogg School.”

Examples of the Kellogg School’s ability to link “rigor with relevance” appear throughout this edition of Kellogg World.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University