Learning in the Real World

Learning in the Real World

CSOM's Raelin says the workplace should be an extenstion of the classroom

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Prof. Joe Raelin (CSOM) admits his is an unorthodox position to take as a faculty member at a business school: As an advocate of "work-based learning" in the development of executives, the veteran management professor calls for "taking learning out of the classroom and putting it back into the workplace.

"I think management is the kind of job in which the opportunity to learn presents itself as much in the field of practice as in the classroom," said Raelin, author of a new book, Work-Based Learning: The New Frontier of Management Development .

Not that he is trying to put business school teachers out of a job. "The workplace doesn't necessarily provide the opportunity that is needed for reflection with others," said Raelin. "It's in acting and reflecting that you learn."

Work-based learning provides business managers with a way to connect theory to practice through the analysis of on-the-job experiences, Raelin said.

The approach differs from the traditional management training regimens of graduate business programs, which Raelin said tend to pull budding executives away from the job for academic lectures and classroom exercises that are often left behind when they return to work.

"Some people think I'm anti-theory," Raelin said. "I'm not at all. These courses are wonderful. But you want to bring what you learn back into the working world, not pack it away for two years."

Work-based learning differs, however, from a cooperative- education or apprenticeship approach that offers on-the-job training with no component for reflecting on what has been learned on the job.
Joe Raelin: "Some people think I'm anti-theory. I'm not at all. These courses are wonderful. But you want to bring what you learn back into the working world, not pack it away for two years."

"Experience is not a sufficient teacher," said Raelin, who recalled his youthful days working in a New Hampshire paper mill. While he gained "a lot of practical experience from my mentors," he said, wistfully, "I can't say the things I learned were helpful in the end to the group, to the company or to me."

As an example of how a work-based approach to executive learning might work, Raelin cited a group of high-potential managers given a project of strategic importance, such as a study into whether a new plant should be located in Poland.

"While working on the project," he explained, "they meet in a 'learning team' with a facilitator to talk about the dilemmas they face, about theories and their possible application, and about the assumptions they have brought to bear on the project. They also develop an esprit de corps , and receive hands-on training in group dynamics.

"We find people who come out of the experience to be avid questioners," he said, "who are committed to change and to challenge the organization to do even better; who have a good understanding of their own values and their willingness to test those values in the company; and who have produced a project of value to the company that otherwise may have been bid to a high-priced consultant."

He said work-based learning recently has been gaining a foothold in American management development. The principles are applied in the Leadership for Change Program that the Carroll School of Management has developed with the Sociology Department to train young executives with an eye toward the common good. Companies that have enrolled managers in the program include Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, John Hancock Insurance, Polaroid and Genzyme.

"Knowing they need to generate a return on the billions of dollars spent on training, companies are wising up to a better approach," Raelin said. "I hope my book will help build a groundswell for a work-based learning alternative."

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