Application of Action Learning in a Large Company

The following article details an example of

Application of Action Learning in a Large Company


About MSI Computer (Shenzhen)

Micro-Star International Co., Ltd (MSI, TWSE: 2377) is a Taiwanese multinational information technology corporation headquartered in New Taipei City, Taiwan. It designs, develops and provides computer hardware, related products and services.

Established in August 1986 by its 5 founders, MSI first started its business in New Taipei City, Taiwan. Later, it expanded to China, setting up its Production Plant in Baoan, Shenzhen in 2000 and establishing its research and development facilities in Kunshan in 2001. It also provides global warranty service in North America, Central/South America, Asia, Australia and Europe. MSI Computer (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd., established in 2000, is the main production site of the MSI group. The main products of this 200.000 m2 and 6000 employees plant includes motherboards, graphic cards, all-in-one PCs, barebone computers, servers, IPCs, multimedia peripherals in-vehicle infotainment solutions, smart cleaning robots, panoramic Wi-Fi cameras, etc. In addition to ISO9001, ISO14000, and OHSAS 18001 certifications, MSI Computer (Shenzhen) Co. Ltd. also received the prize of Shenzhen Foreign-Invested Advanced Technology Enterprise, achieved Shenzhen Baoan District Quality Award, and is officially certified as National High-Tech Enterprise since 2009.

Action Learning (AL) Introduced to MSI (ShenZhen)

The Taiwanese company MSI Shenzhen first learned about AL in 2010 when Wayne Chien, the HR A.V.P of MSI, introduced AL methodology to assist with a single problem it was facing. In late 2012, when they hit a wall with management and leadership issues, they started a process that brought AL deeply into the organizational culture.

Joe CM Lee, VP of MSI (Shenzhen) and also the Plant General Manager, championed this adoption of AL and became the noteworthy role model of AL in the organization.

He says,

“Before AL, came into our company we were facing:

  1. continuous differentiation in the product line
  2. uncertainty and complexity in projecting future business trends.

To operate effectively, we needed:

  • a lot of high-level communication
  • to recognize the uncertainty in our future business paths and development

Yet, increasingly we were dealing with conflict at many levels — cross-functional, cross-departmental and individual. This greatly affected our business objectives and outcomes.

When action learning was introduced, its impact and outcome was quick and immediate. Our co-founder participated in the process right from the beginning.
Before AL was introduced, our co-founder noticed that when his managers received instructions, they had a lot of questions, many different ideas, different selection approaches, and different value systems. Managers sometimes were even not willing to support his decisions. Clearly, this way was no longer working for us.”

Joe believes that members being asked to work on an objective must be allowed to show their personal thoughts, be allowed into open communication, develop real mutual understanding, and only they can reach a final consensus that they are ready to act on. These are necessary to remove road blocks and develop the team’s potential.

“Action learning has now become our key tool-set for inter-departmental communication and project management.

It functions not only to help resolve problems, but more importantly, during problem-solving the team re-shapes itself and each individual develops an intangible and necessary self-empowering ability.”

Joe pointed out,

“At this point in the company, I think that training and developing people is key to business sustainability. I am honored to have participated in this turning point in our business. And, truth be known, the change in me that is the most valuable is shown in my personal life. From this training I am a better father and husband.”

The management team reflects periodically on the process which has now been going on for over 2-years. Joe is the role model. The impact on the organization of having Joe as an early adopter was pivotal. They tell the story of his personal transformation. In the beginning, Joe was in the first group trained in AL. We prioritized listening first. Each time Joe asked a question it was a challenge to watch him. It seemed to be physical challenging for this deeply knowledgeable person, so used to simply telling people what they need to know, to go through the contortions necessary to express himself using questions. Now, questions are his natural form of communication. People love to talk with Joe because he helps them to think deeply and thoroughly. For Joe, it was at first a quantitative change which then became a qualitative change.

It’s so striking – if Joe can do it, anyone can do it.

The group was asked about financial data in the company and the bottom line results from adopting AL. The first comment was that everything has changed, so where do we begin to measure? Immediately, a story came out that Joe’s first impulsive move in the face of a challenge used to be firing someone. So each year there were at least 5 severance packages dished out to these people. Now, that never happens. It’s clear to everyone that without Joe’s personal transformation he demonstrated so clearly, the company-wide program would never succeed

Action Learning Based Culture Changing Process

Late in 2012, they invited Paulina Chu (SALC) to help with self-assessment and determine opportunities for using AL in a culture change process.

This organically, step-by-step, developed into a 3-year, 3-stage ongoing process that has shifted deep cultural assumptions in the organization, and with these the company is being run differently and the upcoming generation of managers have a very different set of values than a short 3 years ago. For the past three years, there were 6 CALCs that participated in the MSI culture changing process. They are Wayne Chien, Jack Ho, Effie Pan, Elizabeth Tsai, Connie Tsai and May Han. Key steps in the AL process MSI (Shenzhen) that we went through were:

  • “Soil-Cultivating” (including diagnosing behavioral problems, and clarification of vision and values). At the leadership level, work with mindset, leadership essential program. After that, AL was used.
  • Assessing “The issues we are facing” and “The potential of AL”. This was done in 3 stages for 3 levels of managers. The group named 3 cultural  issues they were facing that needed to change:
    • Stage One – Experimental Stage. 12 top-level managers (4‐day course, June & August 2013). Decision to implement AL company-wide. 6 of the 12 top-level managers volunteered to lead the next stage.
    • Stage Two – Official Internalization Stage. 40 people involved. (4-day course, January & February 2014 and a 5-month “Leaders Build Leaders” project working on 1 problem of their choice per month). The group reported that they learned many specific skills which they could apply to work and life.
    • Stage Three – Expand the Learning Stage. Here, AL really proved valuable with the 3 original cultural issues the organization had initially identified.
  • Program Review – July 2015. Interviews with 14 1st  line managers. All recognized a shift to facilitative and coaching leadership in such a short time. Interdepartmental communication is stronger, and teamwork has shown up throughout the company where it didn’t exist at the outset of this program. There is a change from “performance-driven management decisions” (when under pressure, an early move would be to cut people) to “a priority of growing people as the key asset”.

Reported Learning Benefits

Here are some of the learning or benefits reported by the managers who participated in the Action Learning program:

  1. improvement in asking questions
  2. listening
  3. team thinking
  4. identifying workable solutions
  5. empathy
  6. creativity
  7. other leadership skills.

Results of applying their AL learning to work included better teamwork; to draw on collective wisdom by integrating diversified ideas; to put oneself in someone else’s shoes; to more effectively help other co-workers; which brought about a big improvement in the overall team harmony.

What’s Next

Seeing these tremendous mindset changes and leadership style changes from the top leadership team to middle management level, it is now planned to extend the leadership programs and AL LBL projects, which aligns organizational vision, mission, and values to their current daily work scenario to 150 frontline managers. It is believed that once this stage is completed, a concrete solid ‘AL’ business culture will become its competitive advantage for MSI international in the VUCA World. The intention is to be capable of maintaining a competitive advantage regardless of the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, or Ambiguity that the future holds.

Action Learning Can Accelerate Team Psychological Safety

Psychological safety can do great things for team performance. And why not? If team members feel safe and it’s easier to build trust — that helps elevate performance.

Google spent two years investigating what really makes a team great. Julia Rozovsky, who works on the company’s people analytics team, concluded the most important element separating high-performance teams from average ones is the level of psychological safety. Google made its findings public in 2015, and articles and blogs quickly reported the ‘new’ finding, often simplifying what team psychological safety stands for. One summarized the key to high-performance teams as “just being nice to others.” Not quite.

Some 20 years ago, when studying how teams learn and perform, Harvard leadership and management professor Amy Edmondson described team psychological safety as “a shared belief by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Rozovsky observed this trait in Google’s high-performance teams through two sets of behaviors. The first was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” meaning all members speak in more or less equal parts. The best teams also had high “average social sensitivity,” meaning team members are good at sensing how others in the team feel.

Despite the enthusiasm for Google’s findings, many related articles only offer descriptions of what teams with high psychological safety look and feel like. If team psychological safety makes the difference in team performance, how can learning leaders develop or increase it? Can you mandate equal air-time in a team? Is it sufficient to send team members on an emotional intelligence course?

Edmondson’s original research identified five elements that affect team psychological safety. The team leader’s behavior obviously influences the team, and team members get cues from the leader about what is valued and what is not. Trust and respect between team members equally affects the overall team atmosphere. Organizational support is important because if absent, team performance will not develop. The fourth element is the set of habits and routines that team members develop amongst themselves when they work together. The final element is the opportunity for the team to practice and improve their tasks off-line without an immediate impact on their actual work.

Action learning is a problem-solving process where a small team works on a real business challenge, takes action and learns as individuals and as a team while doing so. Team members ask questions about the challenge, explore its dimensions, build on each others’ ideas and develop a consensus on the core issue before exploring solutions. An action learning coach’s main role is to support team learning. (Editor’s note: The author is an action learning coach.)

When a leader entrusts a team with a real business challenge and empowers the team to come up with proposals and implement solutions, team members feel valued. Asking questions, building on others’ ideas and reflecting on interpersonal dynamics builds trust and respect among team members. Habits and routines develop and are strengthened when a team regularly works together in a structured way. In action learning, the team evaluates options in a meeting setting before confirming the validity through actions in between sessions.

Action learning is a promising approach to accelerate the development of team psychological safety. A number of action learning sets confirmed this. I worked as an action learning coach with three teams in three different organizations. The teams worked on urgent and important challenges for their respective organizations: reducing inventory, attracting more members, and limiting rank-and-file turnover. Team psychological safety was not discussed as such during the team sessions.

Psychological safety was measured with the original tool developed by Edmondson. Team members rate seven statements — for example, “members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues” — on a 7-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The other themes are about reactions to mistakes, acceptance of diversity, taking risks, asking for help, supporting others’ efforts and expressing appreciation.

This resulted in an average and a spread — a high spread indicates different views between team members about the overall level of safety and is therefore an indication of lower psychological safety in the team. After four action learning sessions, scheduled over two to three months, the measurement was repeated.

In all three teams, the average team psychological safety increased after the sessions, and the spread reduced significantly. Team members’ evaluation of the elements of safety within the team was more aligned. In addition, specific components of psychological safety changed drastically. In one team, the answers to the statement “If you make a mistake on this team, it is not held against you” moved up by more than 20 percent from an average of 4.7 to 5.7 after four sessions.

Team psychological safety does not pop up after a team retreat. It develops over time. Action learning can accelerate that development.

Peter Cauwelier is a senior action learning coach for the World Institute for Action Learning in Thailand.