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ITAP International specializes in global, cross-border consulting. We focus on helping individuals, teams and organizations work across internal and national borders, achieving success through people. We are experts working in multiple countries with extensive line and staff experience in multiple sectors. Our work is based on the best research and the best global practices. Our services focus on:

  1. Talent retention and development
  2. Effectiveness of the senior team and mission critical global teams
  3. Global workforce development
  4. Transformation and change

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ITAP is a licensee of the CWQ™

The Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire™ is based on the seminal cultural research of Dr. Geert Hofstede. ITAP licenses the CWQ™ from ODE Consulting® Pte. Ltd. ODE Consulting and its licensees are among the very few companies worldwide endorsed by Dr. Hofstede and approved to represent his research. According to Dr. Hofstede, "This [approval] is due to their professionalism and deep understanding of my work.”

Culture, what Dr. Hofstede refers to as "software of the mind/mental programming," is a critical variable that guides peoples' actions and reactions. Understanding one's own culture and the impact of culture on the actions of others is essential for effective global business interactions. The Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire™ provides respondents with insights about themselves and a better understanding of how their cultural preferences, as well as the cultural preferences of others, impact working relationships.

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Darren C. Short, John W. Bing, and Marijke Thamm Kehrhahn


We, the authors, experience human resource development (HRD) as a paradox. This is a time when HRD appears to be at its strongest in terms of publications and research outputs and when the environment appears right for HRD to demonstrate clear value-added to key stakeholders. However, in other ways, HRD appears inner directed and without substantial impact: publications seem to preach to the converted; HRD research and, to some degree, practice appear divorced from real-time problems in organizations; HRD professionals see their work being completed by those from other professions; there is limited evidence that HRD has really moved far from the fad-ridden gutters of false short-term training panaceas; and practitioners are still measuring training person-hours rather than the relationship between learning and productivity.

Every year, the members of the ASTD Research-to-Practice Committee are given an opportunity to write an editorial for HRDQ. Two years ago, Dilworth (2001) described the committee’s work in exploring the future of HRD. Last year, Short, Brandenburg, May, and Bierema (2002) summarized the main trends identified by that work, focusing on the implications for HRD of the increasing pressure for organizations to deliver shareholder value, the trend toward globalization, and the need for just-in-time products, services, and solutions. Since then the work has been extended and prepared for publication in a forthcoming issue of Advances in Developing Human Resources.

From this body of work a number of major challenges have emerged. These are macro issues that address the question: What challenges must the HRD profession overcome to ensure the effectiveness and success of the field in the coming years? Here, we set out challenges to provoke thought and action. Our intention is to encourage HRD’s multiple stakeholders to join in a spirited discussion on the future of HRD.

Challenge 1: Responding to Multiple Stakeholders

The ongoing critical debate about whether corporations have a responsibility to a wider group of stakeholders beyond their focus on shareholders continues to capture attention (May & Kahnweiler, 2002). HRD practitioners are caught up in the shareholder-stakeholder debate, in part because they are responsible for the learning supply chain that supports organizations. HRD cannot blindly focus on shareholder value alone if it must also respond to learning supply chain stakeholders, including primary, secondary, postsecondary, and postgraduate education institutions; continuing education, training, and development entities; just-in-time knowledge delivery systems; and other learning solutions both inside and outside corporations. As companies proceed from manufacturing to "mentalfacturing," not to take a strong position in support of the interests of learning supply chain stakeholders is as reckless as it would be for a senior supply chain manager to disregard the various contributors to the manufacturing supply process.

The suggestion that HRD orient itself to multiple stakeholders implies that HRD professionals should promote corporate accountability beyond shareholders to communities and societies (Kaufman & Guerra, 2002). Perhaps HRD professionals will be able to educate the organization on the meaning of social responsibility and its relationship to corporate performance, while demonstrating effective strategies for addressing multiple needs and negotiating various stakeholder interests. No doubt, there is risk in taking a bold position in favor of stakeholder interests, but the risk is greater in doing nothing.

Challenge 2: Measuring HRD Impact and Utility

To establish themselves as key players in the development of organizational strategy, HRD practitioners must demonstrate how what they do correlates with the productivity and welfare of the company (Russ-Eft & Preskill, 2001; Swanson & Holton, 1999). The future of HRD depends to a great degree on the extent to which the value it brings can be confidently measured. We believe that a focus on demonstrating impact and utility will not only lead to greater overall influence of HRD on the organization but will strengthen HRD’s reputation as a legitimate profession. Therefore, over the next decade, linking learning and human process to performance and measuring learning, human process, and the resulting change in performance are crucial challenges to the field. Well-designed studies linking learning to productivity will be critical to these efforts.

HRD professionals must become skilled systems thinkers who can design and conduct measurement and analysis across the organization and pinpoint the influences of HRD efforts on employee productivity and organizational performance, linking past research results to current practice. HRD professionals must have the skills to identify valid measures of learning and growth and develop meaningful and accurate interpretations, while being ever mindful of the myriad of intervening variables that can influence learning and performance curves in work settings (Preskill & Russ-Eft, 2003). Ethical engagement in measurement work will maintain integrity around the complexity of learning and performance processes and will protect against laying shortfalls on the backs of learners and those who facilitate their learning.

Challenge 3: Orienting Toward the Future

We are concerned about how little time HRD spends focused on the future. Its research and theories struggle to keep up with the present, let alone anticipate what may be needed in the coming months and years. The void is filled by the fads, which falsely offer panacea solutions and lead to the poor reputation of HRD in delivering real long-term outcome benefits. To put it another way, HRD contains some products that are "quick-fix, flavor-of-the-month, buzz-worded remnants of a slick sales job" (Leimbach, 1999, p. 1).

Yet practice desperately needs to benefit from research and theories that apply to leading-edge issues. The challenge to HRD researchers is to anticipate what research is needed and how it can contribute to HRD practice in one, two, or three years, and then to make it available in ways that maximize the likelihood that research findings influence practitioner behavior. The ability of our profession to be consistently ahead of the game will elevate the status of HRD as a key investment in the knowledge economy.

It is just as easy to be critical of HRD practitioners for failing to focus on the future. Many are running learning activities that are out-of-date relative to new business strategies and new knowledge about learning, and the same practitioners are often late to the table when it comes to discussions on the potential learning implications of likely business decisions. The challenge to HRD practitioners is to be strategically proactive rather than reactive.

Challenge 4: Focusing on Problems and Outcomes of HRD Practice

Organizations are arenas with real problems that cry out for solutions. Yet the field of HRD appears to get lost in exploring its own processes. A glance through published research shows a wide variety of research agendas in HRD, but how many of them are focused on solving real problems that matter to stakeholders outside HRD? Chermack and Lynham (2002) listed the top twenty symposia topics from past conferences of the Academy of Human Resource Development. Included in the list are such internal process issues as core directions in HRD, university HRD programs, and advancing the profession through journals. Absent from the list are the major trends identified by Short, Brandenburg, May, and Bierema (2002): the increasing pressure for organizations to deliver shareholder value, the trend toward globalization, and the need for just-in-time products, services, and solutions.

By focusing on outcome-level problems and determining the HRD contribution to the solution, HRD is forced to think systemically and deliver a major contribution. HRD authors need to cease writing for the converted and seek a significant contribution in the world of those who are yet to be converted and those who could be labeled as being unaware that HRD could have any role in finding the solution to their problems.

The challenge to practitioners is to move beyond a silo mentality in which solutions can be found only within HRD and to embrace a perspective that organizational problems are systemic and require systemic solutions. This requires that HRD practitioners work in problem-focused, solution-driven, multidiscipline teams within organizations.

Challenge 5: Achieving Professional Recognition

HRD is a relatively young field. Few outside HRD consider it a profession. Chalofsky (1998) argued that HRD had yet to reach the level of a mature profession because practice is based on guesswork and not on theories tested by research, practice is based on research and thinking that are at least ten years out of date, and practice is based on what the client wants rather than on what works.

As long as HRD is seen as fad driven and reactive and those who lack a sound understanding of core HRD theory and practice fill HRD jobs, then HRD will be viewed as secondary to other professions in organizations. Although it will mean painful effort, either further professional development of practitioners or the loss of existing people, HRD as a profession needs to take specific steps to increase its credibility in organizations and its recognition as a discrete field of research and practice.

Efforts to build professional recognition will require HRD to construct a sound theory base and apply those theories in practice. As Swanson (2001) stated, "HRD practice does not come close to what we know from sound theory" (p. 309). The efforts will also require a sound education for HRD professionals with accompanying professional recognition and continuing professional development, and ethical standards that are understood and applied by professionals and overseen by professional bodies. More important, as we promote awareness and recognition of HRD as a profession, we must keep our focus on values, ethics, the quality of practice, and a set of competencies through which both research and practice can be undertaken, and avoid investing energy in the building of bureaucratic processes of credentialing and standardization.


HRD is a relatively young field, and there are significant challenges to its future. Failing to acknowledge these challenges will increasingly marginalize HRD within organizations. The tasks seen as central to the HRD profession will be taken on by others who work in professions more focused on delivering and measuring outcomes, thinking and working systemically, with a sounder theoretical base, with clear standards and ethical codes, with stronger professional bodies and competent practitioners. HRD will be left on the sidelines: a gradually shrinking number of people who write for themselves, focus on internal process issues, and react ineffectively to demands long after they have been formulated.

We invite all those with a stake in the future of HRD to join together to grapple with the critical challenges that face our field, engage in deep mean-ingful dialogue about the challenges, and construct workable, effective, and immediate approaches to addressing the challenges to secure the future of HRD. Our goal is to banish complacency and to encourage dialogue. HRD’s human resources are impressive; they must now be focused.


Chalofsky, N. E. (1998). Professionalization comes from theory and research: The "why" instead of the "how-to." In R. Torraco (Ed.), Proceedings of the Academy of Human Resource Development. Baton Rouge, LA: Academy of Human Resource Development.

Chermack, T. J., & Lynham, S. A. (2002). Assessing institutional sources of scholarly productivity in Human Resource Development from 1995 to 2001.Human Resource Development Quarterly, 13 (3), 341–346.

Dilworth, R. L. (2001). Shaping HRD for the new millennium. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 12 (2), 103–104.

Kaufman, R., & Guerra, I. (2002). A perspective adjustment to add value to external clients, including society. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 13 (1), 109–115.

Leimbach, M. (1999). Certification of HRD professionals, products and academic programs. In K. P. Kuchinke (Ed.), Proceedings of the Academy of Human Resource Development. Baton Rouge, LA: Academy of Human Resource Development.

May, G., & Kahnweiler, W. (2002, July). Shareholder value: Is there common ground? T+D, 56, 44–52.

Preskill, H., & Russ-Eft, D. (2003). A framework for reframing HRD evaluation, practice, and research. In A. M. Gilley, J. L. Callahan, & L. L. Bierema (Eds.), Critical issues in HRD: A new agenda for the twenty-first century. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Press.

Russ-Eft, D., & Preskill, H. (2001). Evaluation in organizations: A systematic approach to enhancing learning, performance, and change. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Press.

Short, D. C., Brandenburg, D. C., May, G. L., & Bierema, L. L. (2002). HRD: A voice to integrate the demands of system changes, people, learning, and performance. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 13 (3), 237–241.

Swanson, R. A. (2001). HRD and its underlying theory. Human Resource Development Interna-tional,4 (3), 299–312.

Swanson, R. A., & Holton, E. F., III. (1999). Results: How to assess performance, learning, and perceptions in organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

This Editorial originally appeared in the Fall 2003 Human Resource Development Quarterly, 14 (3), pp 239-243.

Ira Asherman, John W. Bing, Ed.D., and Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.E.


Regulatory professionals work in a complex constellation of relationships. They represent their companies with regulatory agencies, and must work to build strong working relationships with those agencies in order to be effective. In addition, we are all constantly faced with negotiating with co-workers over everything from meetings to individual roles and responsibilities. Critical to all relationships is the degree of trust that exists among the parties.

Research conducted by ITAP International at a major pharmaceutical firm indicates that there is a strong correlation between components of trust (such as communication effectiveness) and productivity. Hence the importance of understanding the nature of trust and the factors that affect it. In this article we will focus primarily on internal staff relationships; we believe that consideration of these factors applies equally to interactions with regulatory agencies personnel.

The Importance of Trust

"The most productive people are the most trusting people. If this seems to be an astonishing statement, it shows how distorted the concept of trust has become. Trust is one of the most essential qualities of human relationships. Without it, all human interaction, all commerce, all society would disappear."1

There is an unspoken assumption in the pharmaceutical industry that all those who work for the same company see and react to the world in the same manner and therefore trust follows easily. As a result, the systematic, conscious building and sustaining of a high trust culture does not regularly occur. However, we believe that a high level of trust is essential to organizational effectiveness, particularly in an industry as culturally diverse as the pharmaceutical industry.

Marsha Sinetar, in an article in Organizational Dynamics, points out:

“Although an organization obviously cannot succeed without high levels of trust between members, most aggressive companies do little to actively build trust. The typical corporation spends huge sums of money training its managers in interpersonal skills, but pays lip service to the critical issue of trust.”

The importance of trust to organizational success was highlighted as early as 1972 in a study conducted by Prof. Dale Zand at NYU, in which he looked at trust and managerial problem solving effectiveness. He reported that:

"Apparently in low trust groups, interpersonal relationships interfere with and distort perceptions of the problem. Energy and creativity are diverted from finding comprehensive, realistic solutions, and members use the problem as an instrument to minimize their vulnerability. In contrast, in high trust groups there is less socially generated uncertainty and problems are solved more effectively."

In a 1977 article in the Harvard Business Review, R. Wayne Boss conducted a study that built on Zand’s work and concluded that:

“Under conditions of high trust, problem solving tends to be creative and productive. Under conditions of low trust, problem solving tends to be degenerative and ineffective.”

A wide variety of studies highlight the importance of trust and a significant number generally support and reinforce the findings of Zand and Boss. One of the most interesting was reported in the November/December 1996 issue of the Harvard Business Review and was called “The Power of Trust in Manufacturer – Retailer Relationships.” The author, Nirmalya Kumar, suggests that trust:

“Creates a reservoir of goodwill that helps preserve the relationship when, as will inevitably happen, one party engages in an act that its partner considers destructive.”

These findings are critical to improving the effectiveness of individual relationships and project teams, and in an industry in which so much happens in teams, it is imperative the findings be considered.(and used.) However, we have found that as new teams are organized, the issue of trust is rarely considered and addressed explicitly.

Trust is critical, not only within project teams, but also in each company’s interactions with regulatory agencies.(and CRO’s.) As with all people, regulatory officials behave differently with companies and individuals that they trust.

Creating trusting relationships is by no means a simple process, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. Here are some challenges that need to be overcome in order to build trust effectively in this industry:

The Overuse of Technology

Telecommunications technologies such as e-mail, telephone, and fax have become ubiquitous in the workplace. These technologies have helped the pharmaceutical industry become truly global. These technologies have helped overcome distances and enabled the creation of multinational, geographically-dispersed teams, thereby considerably increasing the speed of development and commercialization of new drugs around the world.

However, each form of telecommunications has its own strengths and limitations. For example, telephone conversations carry both verbal messages and tone of voice, but do not convey body language, which may be critical when dealing with people whose gestures account for a significant part of the message (as is the case for many Latin Americans or Latin Europeans). The telephone also requires that people be on the line at the same time, which may be difficult when you are working with counterparts half way around the world (in which case there is no overlap between your work day and theirs).

One common limitation of all telecommunications means is that they fail to reduce psychological distance between people. As a result, the practice of sending e-mail messages to people down the hall can get in the way of establishing authentic, trusting relationships. After all, even people who meet through internet chat rooms and fall in love by e-mail meet face-to-face before making a commitment. It is important for people who work on the same team to meet on a regular basis (three times a year is a minimum). A relationship based on the exchange of e-mail messages is rarely strong enough to get through difficult periods.

Because the technology is so powerful, it is not easy to put aside. There are, however, several steps that you can take to build trust with your co-workers. While these steps require a time investment, this investment often pays off handsomely when difficulties arise.

  • When you have time for lunch, have lunch with co-workers with whom you do not usually spend time, but who are important to your success.
  • When traveling to other sites, take the time to meet with people you do not usually see.
  • Ask yourself when sending an e-mail, “Is it really necessary? Would the issue be addressed more effectively if we meet face to face?”
Language Barriers

Language differences are an obvious impediment to effective communication and the building of trust. Many pharmaceutical companies employ people from all over the world and have workforces that look like the United Nations, particularly in the Research and Development functions. While English is usually the common denominator, it may not be the mother tongue of all. Some may speak English well, others do not. Language difficulties can create many misunderstandings in multinational / multicultural teams.

Native English speakers can considerably help overcome the language barrier by following these simple tips:

  • Avoid sports English. In the U.S. and in Canada, many phrases come from either baseball (“covering all the bases”, “far out in left field”, “three strikes and you’re out”, “bench strength”, etc.) or football (“fumbling”, “running interference”, “punting”, “one down, three to go”, etc.). These phrases mean virtually nothing to people who do not know these sports – and that is a very large portion of the world’s population.
  • Simplify your sentence structure and vocabulary. This is particularly important for English speakers who have been raised in the United Kingdom, where the breadth of one’s vocabulary and the ability to use complex grammatical structures reflects (to some extent) one’s education and position in society. For many non-native English speakers, a simple vocabulary (where one word is consistently used to mean the same thing) and simpler sentences go a long way to increase communication effectiveness. For example, use “big”, which is widely understood, and avoid synonyms (“huge”, “large”, “immense”, etc.).
  • Beware of the differences between the various versions of English. British, American and Australian English assign different meanings to phrases, resulting sometimes in significant confusion. For example, stating that a project is a “bomb” is very positive in the UK (where a “bomb” is a spectacular success) and very negative in the USA (where a bomb is a catastrophic failure). Similarly, “tabling an issue” means putting it on the table in the UK and postponing the corresponding discussion in the USA. Keep in mind that, in continental Europe, in Africa and in the Middle East, non-native English speakers study British English.
Cultural Barriers

There are vast cultural differences in the pharmaceutical industry, which are often neither acknowledged nor addressed. Many American companies employ people from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds and, unfortunately, most Americans know very little about them. This complicates dealings, with both co-workers and agency personnel. Cultural differences play a key role in the creation of trust, since trust is built in different ways, and means different things around the world.

How does one build trust?

One issue commonly encountered in multicultural teams is whether trust is built as the team progresses or needs to be established before any progress can take place. In the U.S., trust is “demonstrated performance over time.” Here, one gains the trust of one’s colleagues by “coming through” and delivering on time on one’s commitments.

In many other parts of the world, including China and many Arab or Latin American countries, building relationships is a pre-requisite for professional interactions. Building trust in these countries often involves lengthy discussions on non-professional topics (soccer, family and politics in Mexico, for example) and shared meals in restaurants. In these countries, work-related discussions start only once your counterpart has become comfortable with you as a person. This may take a lot longer than you would consider “normal”; in the case of Arab countries, China, or Mexico, it may take months of repeated interactions to establish trust.

Trust at time zero

The level of trust between strangers also varies from country to country. In the USA, people generally assume that other people can be trusted, until proven otherwise. While there are exceptions to this basic rule (as demonstrated by some of the racial tension observed in large American cities), individuals who do not know one another generally assume that they both have positive intentions.

This assumption is not nearly as common in countries like France or Italy. French people who meet by accident in the street are usually on the defensive: each assumes that the intentions of the other are negative until proven otherwise. One consequence of this initial distrust is that crooks have to resort to far more sophisticated scams in Italy than in the USA to defraud the general public; when transferred to North America, these scams can often run for a much longer period of time before they are detected.

The role of intermediaries in building trust

Intermediaries or go-betweens play a significant role in building trust in some countries. This role is limited in the U.S., where each person is assumed to stand on his or her own merit. In this case, the key role of intermediaries consists in opening doors that may otherwise remain closed. Once the intermediary has introduced the two parties, he or she allows them to decide whether they want to do business together by themselves.

By contrast, intermediaries play a far more significant role in several parts of the world. In many countries, the intermediary in effect “lends” its reputation to the party that asked for the meeting to be arranged. By stating that “you should meet these people”, the intermediary helps turn the initial mistrust into a positive attitude towards the party that asked for the meeting. In some countries, the intermediary participates actively (both behind the scenes and during meetings) in the discussions between the two parties he / she introduced. For example, it is not uncommon for intermediaries between Westerners and Arabs to be part of discussions for the first two years of interaction.

Maintaining trust

Once trust has been established, it must be maintained. Because Americans move more frequently than people in many other parts of the world, they are accustomed to temporary relationships. They make friends in a new city or a new company and start the process again when they change companies or cities. Americans who have known each other for a while assume that whatever trust they had when they last interacted is still there when they meet again, even when several years elapse between these two events.

In many other countries, such as Japan and Germany, where people are more likely to remain in the same area, relationships between people take a long time to create and need regular reaffirmation to remain effective. In particular, regular visits and communication is needed to keep the relationship alive and trust at a constant level; otherwise, trust spontaneously decays over time, and one needs to reestablish it when the next interaction takes place.

How can trust be developed and maintained on global teams?

There are three linked approaches to the establishment of trust between individuals on global teams:

  • Emotional bonding: bonds can be created between members of global teams through informal, “after-hours”, face-to-face meetings in convivial settings. Informal time should be scheduled just as formal time.
  • Conceptual understanding: employees should be provided with an intellectual understanding of how cultural similarities and differences influence business transactions.
  • Trust: trust can be measured using the appropriate tools. When monitored and reported back to the team and the team leader, problems can be identified and overcome before they endanger team effectiveness.


Building trust is a critical step in the creation and development of multicultural and/or geographically-dispersed teams, which are so common in the pharmaceutical industry. Cultural differences can create misunderstandings between team members before they have had a chance to establish any credibility with each other.

Managers of such teams need to recognize that building trust between culturally different people is a complex process, since each culture has its own way of building trust and its own interpretation of what trust is. To be effective, this process often requires a significant amount of time and communication.

1 Taylor McConnell in Group Leadership for Self Realization

This article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of Regulatory Affairs Focus.

Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.Eng. and Catherine Mercer Bing, MA



Very few people want extended work abroad just for the experience. However, more global companies than ever now expect their talent pool to have international experience as a prerequisite for promotions into the highest levels of the company. Because companies recognize the reticence of employees to go abroad for "possible future consideration", they usually offer some form of financial incentive to those willing to consider relocation for periods of 2 - 3 years.

Expatriate assignments can challenge both the employee and his/her family. Companies recognize this challenge and compensate their expatriates. Expectations for the expatriate incentive package run very high. Individuals may know of other expatriates (who bought a large house or a nice cottage upon their return from a foreign assignment). We know of a senior technician, who was considering a six-month assignment to Mexico, hoping that he could take early retirement upon his return!

Managing employee expectations is the responsibility of Human Resources professionals. Their responsibility is to balance the genuine need for good salary and benefits for individuals, with the financial needs of the corporations. Their responsibility to the individual and the company means designing expatriate assignments to be win-win situations for the company and the individual, both short-term and long-term. Here are some things to expect from expatriate packages.

Direct Compensation

Salary increases should take into consideration two factors at the same time -- changes in the cost of living and increases due to changes in experience and/or responsibilities - and equitable compensation plans take both aspects into consideration. In the case of expatriate assignments, both changes can be drastic:

  • Foreign assignments often include a significant increase in responsibility. For example, managing a plant of outside the home country is a significantly greater responsibility than managing one in the home country, because of the more restricted access to corporate support and of the cultural challenges.
  • Living in or near any large South American city is likely to be much more expensive than in a smaller or outlying city.

Insightful Human Resources professionals plan to give expatriates two separate figures, one for the change in cost of living and one for the change in responsibilities. This simplifies expatriate package negotiations in several respects:

  • It improves consistency when a corporation sends people to different countries with widely different costs of living and helps prevent comments like: "Maria went to Buenos Aires two years ago and her salary was doubled. Why is mine increasing only by 20%?"
  • It also helps prepare expatriates for their return to the home country. Companies find it easier to remove the adjustment made for the change in cost of living if it is explicitly separated from the salary than if it is part of one's salary. This helps prevent expatriates from feeling demoted upon their return to the home country because their salary was decreased significantly.

Note that cost of living adjustments should be based on the expatriate life style rather than the life style of locals. For example, expatriates living in some developing countries find that food and lodging is relatively inexpensive, while international telephone charges are very high. Given the amount of money that most expatriates spend on telephone, this may make the new place less affordable after all.


Because of their very different situations and needs, the benefits offered to expatriates generally go beyond the benefits offered to other employees. Many companies offer benefits in the areas of taxation, moving, accommodations, visa, immigration, and language training.
Other benefits that are less commonly offered can significantly ease expatriate package negotiations:

  • Cross-cultural training helps manage expatriates' expectations. By learning more about their future lives, they can understand better what will be important to them in their assigned destination. They can also calibrate their expectations versus the experience of other expatriates in that destination. For example, some expatriates are asking to live in very large houses in cities where such accommodations simply do not exist. On the professional side, they may expect to achieve objectives that may be essentially unrealistic in their new context; in this case, they may expect rewards that may never come.
  • Family benefits: It is critical to keep in mind the fact that the whole family is affected, and particularly the spouse. Family adjustment and lifestyle issues are the leading causes of early return [1]. Support and financial help in finding adequate schooling for the expatriate's children is often a prerequisite for the family to accept the assignment. In the case of dual-career families, recognition for the spouse's efforts can come in several forms:
    • Helping the spouse obtain a work visa and a job.
    • Helping him/her find suitable unpaid activities (studies, volunteer work in non-profit associations, or hobbies) when local immigration laws preventing him/her from receiving a salary. This can be done through dedicated career counseling.
    • Compensating the spouse for his/her loss of income.
  • Career counseling: Providing career coaching / mentoring to them throughout their assignment, and particularly during the first and last six months of their assignment, and after they return to the home office helps them ensure that both they and the organization reap the benefits of their newly-acquired experience. It also helps manage their expectations for their subsequent assignments - some expatriates come back to their home country hoping that they will hold far more senior positions than they should realistically hope for.
  • Repatriation training: Expatriate families and employees benefit from repatriation training to help readjust to living in the home country and returning to the original work environment. Length of the training often depends on the length of the assignment and the ages of the children.
  • Reassignment: If the leading motivator of the expatriate is the long-term career aspect, the company needs to provide a challenging assignment upon return to the home office or shortly thereafter. If this is not feasible, communication about future plans for such an assignment and the timing needs to come from a mentor or senior manager or the company risks losing its entire investment to turnover of returning expatriates.

One size does not fit all expatriate packages. A young, single engineer who is going to work on an oil extraction platform in Indonesia has very different expectations and needs compared with a senior, married-with-teenage-children manager who is going to start and lead a plant in Spain. A significant degree of flexibility should be provided to both to be able to design packages that suit their own needs within a given budget - just like flexible health benefit plans.

Seeking external advice

In many cases, neither the expatriate nor the HR manager has gone through an expatriate assignment. As a result, their understanding of what the expatriate and his/her family will need in the assigned destination may be significantly off. Seeking informal advice from other expatriates or obtaining formal advice from consulting firms specialized in setting up expatriate packages may help ensure that the most important needs of prospective expatriates are addressed.


[1] "Global Relocation Trends: Surveying the State of International Relocations", International HR Journal, Winter 1997.

Gene Gitelson, John W. Bing, Ed.D., and Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., P.E.

The Impact of Culture on Mergers and Acquisitions



According to a KPMG study, "83% of all mergers and acquisitions (M&As) failed to produce any benefit for the shareholders and over half actually destroyed value". Interviews of over 100 senior executives involved in these 700 deals over a two-year period revealed that the overwhelming cause for failure "is the people and the cultural differences". Difficulties encountered in M&As are amplified in cross-cultural situations, when the companies involved are from two or more different countries.

Seven Pitfalls on the Path to Merger Success

Merger success is possible; however, being part of the 17% that succeeds, rather than the 83% that does not deliver, requires more than insight. Merger success is based on acceleration, concentration and creating a critical mass for operational change (adaptation).

Up to the point in the transaction where the papers are signed, the merger and acquisition business is predominantly financial - valuing the assets, determining the price and due diligence. Before the ink is dry, however, this financially-driven deal becomes a human transaction filled with emotion, trauma, and survival behavior - the non-linear, often irrational world of human beings in the midst of change.

The seven pitfalls represent the critical and vulnerable areas of the M&A transaction. These areas must not only be valued for their negative impact on the critical success factors that drove the "deal", they are the very agenda for the organization's action in the critical first 90 days of the new entity.

In the case of international mergers and acquisitions, the complexity of these processes is often compounded by the difference in national cultures. People living and working in different countries react to the same situations or events in very different manners.

Therefore, a company involved in an international merger or acquisition needs to consider these differences right from the design stage if it is to succeed.

Pitfall #1: Preoccupation

In Canada, individual preoccupation with "How is this all going to impact me?" weakens commitment to the job at hand. This, in turn, translates into people looking for work in other companies. Often a firm in the midst of transition loses some of its own talent - strengthening the competition.

In countries where people identify largely with groups, people tend to look for support within their group. In France and Italy, people caught in the midst of a merger or acquisition often turn to unions. If unions cannot provide answers because they have been excluded from the negotiation process, they are likely to go on strike. These strikes may do much more damage to the organization than comparable Canadian strikes; for example, the strike by French railroad and subway workers in December 1995 resulted in the demise of the Juppé government.

What is less apparent is the pervasive loss of productivity of those who remain. Studies indicate that line employees and managers at all levels lose a minimum of 15% of personal effectiveness as a result of rumors, misinformation, and worry. They also indicate that teams tend to break down and become less effective during mergers and acquisitions.

To quantify these losses, determine the number of individuals involved, multiply by their fully-loaded hourly wage, consider just one hour lost to confusion, waiting for clarity, figuring out who should do what to whom (assuming you know who "whom" is) and a likely job search. This is how much productivity is lost per day to the company (and the new owners). Multiply this by 65 (there are 65 working days per quarter) and compare this number with the amount in gross sales revenue that the firm will have to generate to the bottom line to offset this loss in productivity.

The strategy: Acceleration. Speed the integration to reduce the uncertainty and anxiety. Delayed decisions to "ease the pain" only magnify and sustain the pain and prevent the company, the individuals and /or the groups from getting on with the work and their lives. In the case of international M&A's, ensure that both individual and collective concerns are addressed.

Pitfall #2: List-making

You may also call it compulsive-obsessive list-making; whatever the name, it's real. In the face of overpowering uncertainty and rising fears of insecurity, it will happen. Making comprehensive lists is a very logical response to one's world thrown upside down. Lists of things to do fill the space and suppress the anxieties; they even make sense, except to the bottom-line and the economic drivers that were the very basis of the merger.

As soon as the merger is announced and the first calls to action proclaimed, the reality sinks in. The "list" is overwhelming. Personal and departmental needs drive the allocation of resources. Quickly, as the days build, there is a widening disconnect between the financial and market-based goals of the merger and real-time allocation of effort.

Tolerance for uncertainty varies widely around the world and this variation can play havoc in international M&As. For example, Mexicans tend to require more structure and definition of their role and responsibilities than do Canadians. When a Canadian corporation acquires a Mexican company, its Mexican employees are often looking for information and structure that is not forthcoming, because their new Canadian managers deem it unnecessary. The Mexican organization often grinds to a halt, since Mexican employees are unlikely to go and ask for the information they need, since this may be viewed in Mexico as questioning management's authority.

The strategy: Concentration. During the first 90 days, focus and get everyone to focus on the 20% of the goals that yield 80% of the economic value. Dealing with uncertainty explicitly is critical to the success of M&As.

In the case of international M&As, the economic value of a foreign organization may not be where its Canadian partners expect it. For example, a Canadian company acquiring a company operating in a country where the government controls much of the economy may find that the value of its new acquisition lies more in the personal ties between its managers and high level government officials than in its quality of service.

Pitfall #3: Organizational Proliferation

In Canadian organizations, many task forces, committees and integration teams are created to handle all the lists and to plan new lists. Integration structures and transition teams designed to be all-inclusive and to represent a sign of "new partnership" will weigh heavily on an organization seeking to keep its eye on its customers and the market. More effort will be placed on temporary rules and reporting relationships than the work itself.

In the case of international M&As, this issue is compounded by the fact that organizational change is brought into companies in different ways in different countries. For example, in countries where the sense of hierarchy is much stronger than in Canada (like France and Mexico), change is brought about from the top and employees at all levels expect new directions from their managers. This may paralyze cross-cultural M&As, since top Canadian managers expect input from these teams and committees, while French members of these committees and teams expect direction from their managers.

The strategy: Accelerate, concentrate and adapt. Form small, agile, quick-acting teams, including people from both sides of the M&A, with a clear mission and empowered integration team managers with direct access to senior management and to their support. Transitions do not need to be demonstrations of democracy in action.

Clear leadership and strong support is essential to these teams; without it, they often break down into sub-teams (one sub-team for each side of the M&A). This is particularly common in the international case, since language and cultural differences create significant communication issues.

Pitfall #4: Infrequent and irrelevant communication

Fear and a lack of all the answers deters top management from providing the information that customers, shareholders and employees need to redirect their action to the value-added of the deal. Rumor fills mystery and vacuums. When there is communication, it often lacks information and substance that explains and supports stakeholders' interests.

In many international M&As, the working languages of the two organizations involved are not the same. Communication can break down even when the employees of the foreign M&A target speak English. Consider the case of a Norwegian - American joint venture. Because Norwegians tend to be more relationship-oriented while Americans tend to focus on tasks, the parties almost came to blows over when and how to bring the discussions to a conclusion. The Norwegians complained that they had not built up enough trust to negotiate final details and needed more time. The Americans responded that they could not waste valuable time on further meetings and that the matter should be settled by the legal team. Tension decreased when the teams realized that their goals were the same but their ways of achieving them were quite different; a deal was eventually struck.

The strategy: Accelerate, concentrate and adapt. Frequent communication, repeated at least 7 times through multiple avenues - print, voice mail, e-mail, meetings, and video. In times of stress, the "noise" of survival and uncertainty drowns out the message. Over-communicate and remember that responsibility for a message being received lies with the sender as well as with the receiver. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 124 mergers indicates that those firms that implemented effective communications strategies showed better results in customer focus, employee commitment and productivity than those firms that had a delayed communication strategy.

In the international case, communication often requires translation as well as adaptation. Indeed, the best way to make a presentation and to reach an audience differs from country to country 1. The communication strategy needs to take communication style preferences into account, as in the Norwegian - American example mentioned above.

Pitfall #5: Triangulation

Without clear lines of authority and clear understanding of where they fit in, employees and managers are caught in a web of conflicting objectives and old loyalties. This type of organizational and personal strangulation robs the new entity of the very energy it needs to overcome the losses in productivity.

The tolerance for "fuzzy", temporary organizational charts and decision-making processes depends on the countries involved in the merger or acquisition. In hierarchical countries, like the Philippines, both organizational chart and chain of command need to be clearly defined, more clearly than in Canada. If employees do not understand them, paralysis often results. A Filipino employee reporting to two managers, as in a matrix organization, will likely be quickly overwhelmed. He / she interprets the situation as having to meet two complete sets of expectations and perform two separate jobs. For Filipinos, asking managers to discuss their conflicting requests would be viewed as insubordination.

The strategy: Concentrate and adapt. Concentrate on substance rather than form, and focus on helping people adapt. Management needs to provide the information that people need to be comfortable with the new organization; this information depends on people's cultural backgrounds. In Canada, people need to know how they fit with the value drivers rather than short-lived organizational charts; such may not be the case in other countries.

Pitfall #6: The relatives

Not the "in-laws", but the relative forces of time and space. Time in a merger is accelerated, compressed and merciless. In Canada, publicly held companies need to show clear results at the end of the first quarter after the announcement. Individuals going through a merger have to work at an accelerated pace at the very same time that the inner adaptation of change - personal and psychological transition - weighs them down and operates on personal, rather than linear time.

Change is easy; inner adaptation is not. And time is relative - the leaders started their adaptation to the new reality far before those who learned of the merger on announcement day. The leaders have ridden the wave and are way in front of this shock wave now crashing down on the others. They wonder about why people don't seem to "get it" and often mistake shock and confusion for resistance to the new realities.

The concept of time is also related to culture. While long-term in North America tends to mean three years, it means up to 30 years in Japan. Consequently, Japanese strategy discussions are likely to take into consideration events that Canadians consider irrelevant, since they are expected to take place beyond the Canadian planning horizon.

Space is also relative. In an increasingly virtual world, those not "connected" in the same space and time feel disconnected from the decisions and the center of the action. Irregular and incomplete communications at headquarters becomes a daunting challenge for those who live in different time zones, regions, countries and organizational units.

The strategy: Adapt. Adapt to the realities of change and transition - they are different experiences and each individual will have their own way of going through them. Help guide and support employees through the endings that they need to come to terms with before you expect them to embrace the new world. Provide temporary structures to enable people and departments to navigate between the old ways and the new. Actively manage the merger across time, space and organizations, keeping in mind the different concepts of time and space that may be at play. Create the appropriate communications tools and the accountabilities and standards that will enable the organization to better operate across time and space.

Pitfall #7: The guiding light

At a time when leadership and active management is most called for, the stress and uncertainties associated with the merger causes an inward focus and a retreat to safe and high ground. More leadership is needed, at this time, than less. One of the primary roles of a leader is to articulate a vision and inspire others to join in that vision. Proclaiming a new vision and handing out laminated cards, however, does not create a new vision for the new entity. A clear new vision captures the critical success factors and economic drivers that brought the entities together.

In the case of international M&As, the need for leadership remains, but the nature of leadership changes. Being a good leader requires different skills and attributes in different countries. For example, charisma and a positive personal image are important attributes of leadership in the U.S., more so than in Canada.

The strategy: Adapt. Only a new culture can create the context for true change to happen and hold. Changing culture means changing behavior. One of the quickest way to effect change and create the new company is to place in all key positions those individuals who are true representatives of the new culture and who can lead effectively people on both side of the company's cultural divide. These people are the role models who demonstrate, with the visible active support of senior management, what the new culture is.


These pitfalls of mergers and acquisitions challenge today's leaders to a new standard of managing change. The strategy is clear - accelerate, concentrate, adapt, and in the case of international M&As, consider cultural differences. The human and cultural issues that separate the 17% from the 83% are not about some abstract values or the "soft stuff", but the concrete reality of productivity, economic value and sustained growth.

1 "On with the Show", L. Laroche, CMA Management, December 1999 / January 2000.

This article originally appeared in CMA Management, March 2001.

Robert L. Dilworth




There can be few tasks so daunting as to describe action learning in an abbreviated and concentrated way. Those who have experienced action learning know the wide variety of forms it can take. There can be vast differences of interpretation and application. The lack of a tightly defined framework can be a distraction, especially to those accustomed to curriculum design. On the other hand, the flexibility of action learning in promoting learning and elevating organizational performance can be highly attractive.

This article covers action learning in a contextual way, first, by relating it to two societal trends. Three examples are then provided that leave the reader free to interpret their significance and how they differ from traditional approaches to problem resolution. The remainder of the article then outlines action learning principles. The goal is an integrated view of action learning in application, including some contrasting beliefs.


Action learning is gaining in popularity as a way to improve performance, promote learning, and position organizations to adapt better in turbulent times. It is also seen as a way to develop the capabilities of individuals, teams, and overall organizations. An excellent report, Continuous Learning, published by the Canadian Centre for Management Development (1994), suggests that “some of the most interesting and promising innovations in management learning have taken the form of what is called action learning.”

The number of corporations that have or are now using action learning approaches is growing. They include TRW, Inc., General Electric (GE), Andersen Consulting, Conoco, Whirlpool, Ameritech, and GEC (England). Public sector organizations are now also represented, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Defense Management Systems College (DMSC) of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Action learning, as a concept, dates back more than 50 years. It has, until recently, received more interest and attention outside the United States. Its roots can be traced to action research, a concept and term originated by the German psychologist, Kurt Lewin, in the 1940s (Weisbord, 1987, pp. 183-195). Reginald W. Revans, of England, originally an astrophysicist, pioneered the concepts related to action learning over more than 50 years ago. His effort is extensively documented and involved much in-depth research, including work in coal mines, hospitals, and with industry in Belgium.

Key Questions About Action Learning

Given the keen interest in action learning in the 1990s, the pivotal question becomes, “What is action learning?” There are associated questions as well: “Why is there so much interest in action learning today?” “How can action learning be applied?” “What are the perceived benefit values?” “How can action learning be related to performance improvement?”

This is when things get difficult because defining action learning is not easy to do. Action learning can take a variety of forms. In other cases, it can be closely interwoven with other organizational interventions. In such cases, a number of labels may apply, including organization development (OD), management development, team building, and transformative learning. Revans, even with all his writing on the subject, avoids defining “action learning”. He is more inclined to describe action learning in terms of what it is not. Revans, in effect, holds the view that to try and build finite structures around it, as is usually done with management concepts, only robs action learning of its power. It can be like trying to sail the Queen Elizabeth II in a bathtub. A highly definitive concept with narrow parameters simply does not fit the subject. The eclectic nature of action learning, drawing from various disciplines, also makes finely chiseled depictions difficult.

My strategy for explaining action learning in this article is to frame it in relation to societal trends and the prism of practice. This will allow me to isolate some of the most basic characteristics and underpinnings associated with action learning.

I will begin with two broad societal trends that are perceived to be influencing present day interest in action learning. Then I will turn to three actual examples of action learning, two from the United States and one from Europe. What contributed to the positive results realized in each instance? The concluding coverage in my article will map some of the major features of what is commonly associated with action learning. This will also encompass some of the issues that can arise in implementing an action learning program and how to go about putting such a program in place.

Two Societal Trends and Their Implications

The first societal trend relates to significant disillusionment with initiatives to improve the quality of work life and performance. It is frequently expressed in terms of marginal results and knee-jerk, short-lived initiatives. The disillusionment often stems from management approaches that do not prove out. This can take several forms:

  1. The initiative was launched without a full awareness of its implications, and the workforce may have been left in the dark. This can be particularly true in downsizing situations. In a survey of 547 companies that had downsized, the American Management Association (AMA) found that operating costs had improved for fewer than half, while 77 percent experienced a decline in employee morale after downsizing (Boyett & Boyett, 1996, p. 54).
  2. Top management said they supported the initiative but then became distracted by crises and daily work activity, and the initiative died on the vine. It can also be a case of management losing heart when they do not see immediate results. This can be true with regard to quality management initiatives, even when experience shows that you can go through a productivity dip for one to three years while the quality program is being brought fully on line. In other cases, top management turnover occurred, and the workforce was immediately asked to go a different direction. Cynicism ensued. The net result can be deep reluctance on the part of employees to mobilize behind management initiatives except on a superficial level.
  3. Consultants came in, applied (or recommended) solutions, and then left systems that continued a downward spiral. Then, secondary consultants were called in to fix residual problems after the first intervention. This can lead to confusion of objectives and a workforce essentially immobilized by uncertainty.

The second trend relates to learning organizations and continuous learning. Interest in this area is now becoming pervasive, and there is reason to believe that it will be a lasting focus. There is an awareness that organizations as human systems must constantly learn to adapt if they are to survive. As the turbulence of the environments in which organizations exist accelerates, the learning must be continuous, as opposed to being anchored to intermittent formal training. This second trend also spawns intensive interest in workplace learning.

There are at least three questions that arise when considering the need to orient on learning organizations:

  • What constitutes a learning organization? (The concept is still evolving.)
  • How do you jump-start an organization to get it into a learning mode?
  • How do you go about shaping the “organizational DNA” to sustain a learning organization culture once it is created?

I personally believe that the answers to these questions can be linked to action learning, and the number of corporations turning to action learning tends to confirm this. Action learning is usually discussed in relation to organizational learning and creation of a learning organization. In some cases, the organizations decide to try action learning out of disillusionment with approaches that failed. There can also be a belief that action learning can be an important vehicle for transformation of organizational culture, increasing the learning capacity of the enterprise and empowering workers.

Three Examples of Action Learning in Practice

Rather than launch into an explanation of what constitutes a learning organization and action learning, let me start with three examples.

Example 1: Computer Technology

I headed a major organization with hundreds of computers organized in an Intranet. The organization was highly dependent on this communication mode for tens of thousands of daily transactions in conducting its highly complex and diversified business operations. Therefore, the efficiency and responsiveness of the computer capability directly influenced organizational performance.

We observed that the computers were slow to respond in moving between screen images. Such time delays collectively constituted a major drag weight on performance. My internal computer experts had promised prompt resolution but failed to deliver. The problem persisted even after the national headquarters of the major computer firm was activated (I personally wrote a letter to the Chief Executive Officer), and further troubleshooting was accomplished. The computer firm expressed the belief that the problem was unfixable and that a new multi-million computer system would be required.

Convinced that a solution was possible, even after the further “expert” initiatives proved unsuccessful, I called together my 22 management trainees from the fourteen directorates in my organization. All trainees had basic computer literacy, but only two were on a development track to becoming computer specialists. While serving in the same large organization, some of the trainees had never met before. Most had never worked together.

I informed the trainees of the problem, its significance to the organization, our unsuccessful efforts to solve it, my belief that it could be solved, the importance of avoiding the cost of a new computer system, and my belief that working to solve the computer problem could constitute a wonderful learning experience. They were asked if they would be willing to take on this problem as a group. After huddling briefly, they came back and accepted the challenge. There were comments circulated in the organization that the trainees must be extremely naïve to believe they could resolve such a problem. Others commented about the unfairness of asking trainees to take on such a challenge. The trainees never showed any evidence that the problem was beyond their depth. On the other hand, the trainees did view the problem as extremely challenging. My computer experts offered to attend the organization meeting called by the trainees, but the trainees declined, preferring to follow their own instincts and call up specific expertise as appropriate.

What happened? A month later, the computer problem had been fixed. The trainees briefed their problem solving approach to me, the in-house computer experts, representatives from the national computer firm, and other computer organizations. There was high interest in how a seemingly intractable problem had been overcome.

It became apparent in listening to the trainees that they had explored some avenues not explored by others. Their problem solving approach was of their own design. They found an array of causal factors rather than any single problem driver. Because our computer system interfaced with others in the overall organization, the trainees had gone outside our organization. They found sister organizations suffering with the same inefficiency. The trainees therefore adopted a total systems approach and set about solving the problem in the other organizations as well. The trainees statistically demonstrated that their time expenditure in doing the problem solving would be quickly amortized in terms of measurable improvements in organizational performance. They also gave considerable thought to what they had learned and classed it as one of the best learning experiences of their lives. A camaraderie grew out of the experience. They had bonded as a group and asked to be allowed to take on other complex troubleshooting projects.

What are the implications and lessons learned?

  • Because they did not know a great deal about computers, the trainees were induced to ask fresh questions.
  • The problem was real, and once they accepted responsibility for the project, they were expected to solve it.
  • Trainees did not know enough to start with customary troubleshooting techniques. They invented their own process.
  • They drew fully on the intellectual resources of their trainee group. There was no leader. They operated as equals in a trusting environment.
  • They were absolutely certain of top management support and backing.
  • They broke their overall group of 22 down into smaller groups of roughly six each to examine various aspects of the problem as they understood it.

Example 2: Florida Power and Light

Florida Power and Light (FPL) was the winner of the Deming Prize for Quality in 1990. This is a Japanese award named after an American, Edward Deming. FPL was the first U.S. corporation to earn the award. It was also the first major quality initiative related to the service sector, as opposed to manufacturing, in the United States.

At about the time that they earned the Deming Prize, FPL had experienced a difficulty with its power generation systems. In fact, the problem had persisted for several years, and various task force attempts to solve it had failed. FPL was experiencing an unacceptable inefficiency relating to the conversion of energy to electricity in its power generation systems. Electricity generated was significantly less than it should have been, based on energy input to power generator systems. They called together a team of people from different FPL areas to troubleshoot the problem. Team members had not worked together before as a team. They had a range of skills.

The team solved the problem, developed a strong team spirit (they asked the company to continue them as a team for other problem solving), and gave their presentation of results in shirts with their self-determined team name, “Drips,” embroidered on them. The team name related to some of the problem sources they had identified.

The "Drips" found that there were many individual problems, not one overriding circumstance that was causing the inefficiency. They found, among other things, that birds nesting on power lines across the state of Florida could lead to problems, one of them being shorting out of lines.

What are the lessons learned in this case?

  • They were not mired down in the past. They started a new line of inquiry.
  • They asked fresh questions. It represented unfamiliar territory to several of the team members. Therefore, they had to question assumptions and explore avenues that traditional troubleshooting approaches might have overlooked.
  • What they learned achieved some breakthroughs in thinking about problems of the type addressed. In other words, the established company knowledge in this area had to be updated and modified.
  • It was a real problem, and they were expected to solve it.

Example 3: Belgium

This example is drawn from the experience of Reginald Revans. Revans is recognized widely as the principal pioneer of action learning and has done much research in this area. The example involves the five universities of Belgium working with a number of larger companies, with the goal of elevating the economic performance of Belgium (Revans, 1982, p. 329). Begun in 1968, action learning was the technique of choice. Various companies identified pressing problems within their firms and an internal client organization dedicated to problem resolution. As this national program began, a group of five senior executives was brought together as a group (called an action learning set in Revans’ parlance) to deal with problems within the various companies.

The five executives had never worked together before, and each came from a different background. Each executive was matched with a company and their problem. In every case, the executives had a background different from the company and problem they were being asked to examine. One of the executives who came from a major bank was asked to deal with the problem surfaced by the largest steel company in Belgium. The problem concerned the inability of the steel company to produce adequate quantities of alloy steel. They had strong technological expertise, and their research and development was of the first order, yet the Japanese outpaced them in the area of production.

Each executive worked with the firm assigned, and then the five executives met as an action learning set at regular intervals over the course of a year in sharing their learning experience and pooling their knowledge.

The executive examining the problem with the steel company interviewed a number of personnel, including the chief executive officer during his fact finding. In the end, he discovered that the problem of alloy steel production had little to do with production capability. The problem stemmed from company policy related to its compensation system that went back many years. All company compensation policies, from entry level to corporate board room, were predicated on tonnage of steel shipped. Since alloy steel is light weight, there was no incentive to bring production to the required levels. Once that became known, it became possible to correct for this constraint. An action learning set within the specific client organization of the company was then activated to determine solution options. In the end, many action learning sets of executives were formed in Belgium to address major industrial problems using this model.

What were the lessons learned?

  • As was true of the other examples, working on unfamiliar problems triggers fresh questions.
  • The energy and synergy generated by working with people from dissimilar backgrounds (the group of executives, in this case) can stimulate learning.
  • The participating executives learned a great deal and developed their managerial expertise in the process.
Relating Theory to Practice

There are several fundamental aspects of action learning that relate to the examples given and the ability to stimulate continuous learning.

Change Versus Learning

Change now tends to outdistance our ability to learn. Established knowledge can quickly be outdistanced by the pace of new challenges and events. This happened in all three examples provided. Knowledge on hand tended to misdirect inquiry rather than facilitate problem resolution. It was only when new lines of inquiry and fresh questions were introduced that problems were overcome. In each instance, the organization learned new ways of coping with problems. Those working in the groups (sets) learned the value of pooling their intellectual capital. The learning that occurred had greater value strategically for the organization than the immediate tactical advantage of early problem correction. The learning capacity of the participants and organizations involved was enhanced. This enhancement made the organizations better able to deal with change dynamics.

As Revans points out in all of his writing, you must capacitize organizations to learn apace with (ideally, faster than) change if you expect to survive. This has applicability to both individuals and organizations. If you fail to keep current from a competency point of view, as an individual, the degree of success you can expect to experience in your career will tend to be limited. The risks to an organization are equally severe as we enter the 21st century. You either become a learning organization or lose your competitive edge.

A way to explain the need for synchronization of change and learning can be related to the example of a small aircraft that encounters severe air turbulence aloft (analogous to the velocity of change in the environment surrounding organizations). The pilot, as the story goes, has three choices. First, she or he can slow down the aircraft. However, when the law of physics is taken into account, this will only add to aircraft instability. Second, the pilot can simply maintain speed. However, with the external environment moving at an accelerated pace, this also tends to produce instability. The answer lies in the need to increase the speed of the aircraft (in terms of organizations, this is the learning component). The point of the story is that the learning capacity of organizations tends to lag behind the dynamics of what confronts them as we enter the 21st century. The answer lies in improving the intellectual capital and learning properties of organizations.

Learning Comes First

The most important link to action learning is that you bring people together for reasons other than problem resolution. You want a problem solved, but the primary value is in the learning that occurs. You want to build the learning capacity of the organization as a way to boost organizational performance. Therefore, the employment of action learning is strategic rather than tactical. You need fresh thinking if you are to avoid responding to yesterday’s challenges as today’s problems and tomorrow’s opportunities engulf you. The goal becomes dynamic equilibrium, with learning and change intertwined.

The Learning Equation

Revans suggests that learning is derived two ways–both through programmed instruction (which he calls “P”) and questioning insight (the “Q”). The “P” comes through textbooks, lectures, case studies, computer-based instruction, simulations, and the like. This is an important source of learning but carries with it an embedded caution flag: the “P” is all based in the past. Therefore, it is unlikely to match precisely with today’s needs. In the worst case, it fogs your lens and can lead you astray. That happened in each of the three examples given.

In every example provided, the pitfall of imperfectly constructed past knowledge was avoided by beginning with questioning insight (“Q”) rather than by using past knowledge as the first reference point. There is great power in this conception. By going through the “Q” step first, you are able to begin gauging whether the information available is adequate to your needs. It will lead you to a determination of the relevancy of information. It will also point to areas that will require creation of new knowledge (new “P”). The key is to start with fresh questions, not with constructs from the past.

Problem versus Setting

As Revans reminds us, there are two kinds of problems and two kinds of settings where they are found. The problem is either familiar or unfamiliar. The same applies to the setting. Most problem solving to be accomplished in organizations is done in natural work teams in a familiar work area. This tends to make us comfortable with what we know and with the established way of thinking.

When we are asked to examine a familiar problem in an unfamiliar setting, it can open up our eyes to new alternatives. We may also find ourselves addressing an unfamiliar problem in a familiar setting. This was true to a large extent in the computer responsiveness problem I outlined. This kind of situation also causes us to ask fresh questions and reexamine our basic assumptions.

The Belgium case involved an unfamiliar problem and unfamiliar setting for the business executives involved. In addition, each executive was surrounded by unfamiliar colleagues. It promoted new ways of going about learning and problem solving. Revans considers this the most potent form of the action learning experience.

In action learning, you deal with real problems, not problems that have been prefabricated for instructional purposes. The best way to promote fresh questions and new thinking is by causing the problem, setting, and colleagues to be unfamiliar.

Action Learning Sets

Usually, action learning is accomplished in action learning sets of five or six to provide a group size that promotes ease of communication. A facilitator can be used. Some of us believe that facilitation should be used primarily at the start of an action learning experience and then quickly fade out. Revans believes that learners are their own best facilitators. There can be an important role for facilitators in helping the learners slow down their process in order to allow sufficient time to reflect on learning. Reflection is an important part of an action learning experience. Executives, in their impatience to move forward and solve problems, can find it extremely difficult to take time to reflect on what has been learned. When they are encouraged to do so, reflection on learning can represent a positive executive development and individual growth experience. A facilitator can help participants learn this skill. Members of the set, as part of the norming process, can also promote use of reflection in the learning process.

A Summary of Action Learning Fundamentals

  • Questioning insight is always the start point.
  • The problem must be real.
  • The problem to be solved can be tactical or strategic, but the learning is strategic. You are striving to continuously upgrade the intellectual capital of the firm in terms of adapting to change and sustaining a competitive edge. This is a key ingredient of the learning organization.
  • Reflection is as important as action. Learning journals/logs are a good way to induce greater reflection and enhance the learning that occurs.
  • Three basic questions commonly begin the action learning process in addressing a real problem. First, what should be happening? Second, what is stopping us from doing it? Third, what can we do? This is reminiscent of Kurt Lewin’s Force Field Analysis (Driving Forces and Restraining Forces) (Weisbord, 1987, pp. 77-79).
  • Learning is the primary goal, even though the problem solving is real and important. Learning is facilitated, to include breaking out of well-established mind sets by having the setting, the problem, and colleagues to some degree unfamiliar.
Why is Action Learning Gaining Attention?

What is driving organizations in terms of rapid environmental change requires rapid real-time adaptation. Action learning is well suited to this type of adaptation. Work complexity and organizational design also make it a natural intervention. Work complexity is moving downward in organizations as the need for timely action and multiple competencies grows. In its early use, action learning tended to focus on executives, as occurred in Belgium. Today, the realities of the workplace and growing competency base make it a model that can be used at all levels in an organization. In fact, in Sweden, action learning has even been employed in the K-12 classroom environment, with parents, teachers, and children participating in the experience.

The need for organizational integration in responding to change also fits well with action learning. The concept of action learning tends to be very egalitarian, with action learning sets operating without a designated leader. Any mantle of authority is usually left at the door. This makes action learning a good fit with self-directed work teams (SDWT). Such teams are rapidly becoming a feature of U.S. business organizations.

There is also a growing awareness of the learning challenge now confronting organizations. You see this in the choice of terms now becoming common place: organizational learning, continuous learning, life-long learning, deutero-learning (learning to learn), boundarylessness, self-ordering systems (chaos theory), integration with environment, learning organizations, building (and sustaining) intellectual capital, self-directed learning, the emerging concept of the chief learning officer (CLO), and virtual organizations. Because of the significance assigned to real problem solving and unfamiliar venue, action learning meshes well with the need for spontaneity and speed of adaptation. TRW has a program designed to underwrite its emphasis on globalization. It involves taking executives away from their corporate site to work on such issues in action learning sets. TRW then may send them overseas in order to further induce fresh thinking and elevate the degree of learning taking place.

Action Learning As Distinct Phases

Let me tie the concept down as a progression of phases. Each phase sets the stage for the next phase. It is a cascading effort.

  • By placing individuals in unfamiliar settings and having them work on unfamiliar problems, you induce fresh questions. When we are out of our comfort zone, of necessity we must look at things through a different lens.
  • When you ask fresh questions, you begin to unfreeze and reshape your underlying assumptions. It can be transformative learning.
  • As assumptions come into question, they are either confirmed, modified, or rejected. When we end up changing the texture of our assumptions, we then begin to create new mental models.
  • The new mental models, together with the shifts in underlying assumptions that prompted them, cause reassessment of the programmed knowledge (“P”) at our disposal. This causes us to reject some of the “P” available and replace it with new “P”.
  • The learning capacities and performance levels of the enterprise are enhanced by the renewal accompanying generation of new knowledge and questioning insight (“Q”).
Implementing Action Learning

Broadly conceptualizing action learning is one thing, but how do you go about the actual process of implementation? The concept can be strongly resisted. The training community can see such an experiential approach as threatening to long-established training programs. It can even be viewed as placing traditional training jobs in jeopardy. Top management can frown on it because it does not fit the established mold. It can be a desire for quantitative results. Action learning can and has produced this, but it can be difficult to measure results in traditional ways and in the short term. How do you go about gauging the increase in learning capacity of the organization? While some tools for doing this are emerging, it is still in its early stages. Top executives can also resist on the basis that it seems nonsensical to take executives out of their primary area of expertise and assign them responsibilities for solving a problem outside the bounds of that expertise.

What follows is an abbreviated sequential look at steps in implementing an action learning program.

Gaining Early Understanding and Support

As already outlined, both the training community and top management can resist an action learning approach. Therefore, it is important that they understand the rationale behind it and how the concept is being used elsewhere. It can be useful to expose both trainers and top executives to the concept, including the opportunity to meet with those who have used the action learning process. Trainers need to understand that the introduction of action learning does not cause the human resource development (HRD) function to go away. It simply changes the focus and kinds of skills HRD professionals need to possess.

This early acquisition of support is critical. Without such support, only a limited action learning program is usually possible.

Cultural Receptivity

If the culture of the organization is lacking in trust, this can be a major impediment to action learning. It operates best in a wholesome organizational climate. If the organization is heavily authoritative or status-conscious, this can also impose a constraint. Fear and uncertainty also work against action learning as an intervention. If top management is really on board, action learning can be employed to transform organizational culture in arriving at a more trusting and productive work environment. It can be an important force in opening up communication flows. But you do need very strong leadership at the top to bring about such a change. This is really true of any major shift of organizational direction, not just that specific to action learning.

Selecting a Problem

Because action learning is strategic and primarily designed to promote learning, the problem needs to be selected carefully. This also relates to how you will use your small groups (action learning sets). One option is to have the set take on a shared problem as was true in the computer problem case example. Another approach is to have each member of the five or six member set work on a different problem but learn from each other (the Belgium model).

Problem selection (and how you use the action learning set) can also serve strategic interests of the organization. For example, a problem might be selected for the set to work on that causes integration of various processes across the organization. If each member of the set operates on a separate problem, the set members individually need to be capable of dealing with the complexity involved, because while they can draw on the views of other set members, they will be left to deal with their own focus area and much of the fact finding and analysis.

Determining Set Composition

The determination of who will be in an action learning set is again strategic. It is not something that should be done randomly. There can be value in bringing people together from different organizations to work on a problem. Beyond the potential value of an unfamiliar problem for learning purposes, such a cross-section can help build organizational integration through creation of networks that did not exist before.

There can be an issue around voluntary versus involuntary membership in a set. My own view is that volunteers are desirable, but set assignment itself needs to fit strategic interests. If set selection is voluntary, you can end up with a clique of friends or people with compatible views. Your goal is to build in diversity. The problem solving and learning properties tend to be elevated through incorporation of a variety of perspectives.

Learning styles are another important factor in set selection. If you have all activists in a set and no reflective types, you can end up with a rush to judgment. Presence of reflectors will help slow the process sufficiently to better consider available options. It should also allow greater focus on the learning taking place. The Learning Style Questionnaire (LSQ) developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford (based on David Kolb’s model) specifies four learning styles (activist, reflector, theorist, and pragmatist) (Mumford, 1993, pp. 53-57). It is not a case of being one or the other. There are cases of an individual being strong or weak in all four types. It represents how we communicate, view our world, and what we emphasize in our life experience. It can be a gauge to how well we listen and what we hear. Strong activists can be disinclined to spend time in a reflective mode. While no instrument is fail safe, the LSQ can be helpful in balancing set composition. In addition to learning styles, it is also useful to balance gender, age, and ethnicity in sets. This adds diversity and richness.

The Facilitator Role

It is common to employ a facilitator with a set. As mentioned previously, there are wide differences of view on this. A good start point is to consider the role of the facilitator. It can be an important role at the outset in helping the set norm itself in terms of interpersonal dynamics. If you are dealing with mature learners, the role becomes more problematic thereafter. The facilitator is not a member of the set, and the mere presence of a facilitator can influence (even damper) what occurs. As a reality of group dynamics, there is no such thing as a benign presence. I have seen facilitators rejected in several instances because of perceived interference with set operation or simply unwanted presence. The presence of a facilitator, even when they remain silent for the most part, can influence interaction within the set.

My own belief is that the facilitator can play a key role in “jump starting” the set activity and orienting the set members on basic fundamentals of action learning (e.g., all set members are equal; the importance of listening to the views of others). After that, I believe the facilitator needs to fade back to what can be called mentor status. The facilitator is available as needed and will provide perspectives related to action learning but never tell the set how to deal with an issue. How the set deals with its problem is left to the learners. In my experience, it can be wise to make the presence of a facilitator at a set meeting “by invitation only.” Some advocates of action learning take a diametrically opposed view and believe that a facilitator presence at set meetings is necessary. My position is that people do not “learn how to learn” through the guidance of others so much as they do from creating their own meaning.

The Problem and Learning Balance

There can be a great urge to race forward to problem solutions in a set–and that is one of the goals. The learning can receive insufficient emphasis in such a situation. As a result, the action learning experience can become little more than another task-force-related excursion.

One way to avoid this common phenomenon is through proper priming of set activity at the start. This is something a good facilitator will do. It is also extremely useful to have set members keep a daily learning log, and then develop a reflective essay on the learning experience at program end. It can be beneficial to have participants think of several critical incident categories in making entries in their learning log.

  • When was I most engaged?
  • When was I most distanced?
  • When was I most affirmed?
  • When was I most puzzled?
  • What was the single most important thing I learned today? Why? How will I capitalize on it in the future?

Self-Norming of the Set

Set members need to learn about each other early in the action learning experience. You need to make the time to do this. The facilitator can assist. What background and skills are at the table? How can they potentially contribute to problem resolution? During this early state, norms also need to be determined. A recent set I was associated with came up with these norms:

  • We will meet only when all members can meet.
  • We will debate earnestly but never attack one another.
  • All will carry their share of the responsibility.
  • We will listen to one another.

The norming process is particularly significant because there is no designated leader. Therefore, interpersonal relationships become critical. In my recent experience, sets have operated throughout the action learning process without a single leader emerging. All tend to share the role. This is, of course, also a product of careful set member selection so there is relative parity in intellectual level and how personalities mesh. When the norming process is short-circuited because of pressure to get on with problem solving, it can become necessary to reopen the norming process. I watched a set in 1996 cease problem solving activities for half a day until the group could come to a meeting of the minds on what had turned out to be unfinished business in the norming area. In this instance, one of the set members had displayed excessive dominance, and the set had to talk it through.

Because action learning sets operate as self-directed teams, they can be an ideal bridge for those organizations moving in the direction of self-directed work teams. Action learning promotes empowerment and self-reliance. I have also seen it significantly elevate the self-confidence of participants.

Dealing With The Client

Working with a client can be new ground for set members. The facilitator can assist as an agent in the process but should never act as the representative of the set. I recently saw a facilitator overstep the role in speaking for a set with the client–and with the set present. The facilitator did not enjoy the full respect of the set again. One or more set members may end up selected by their fellows to be liaison with the client. Such an arrangement can prove necessary, but all set members should meet with the client concurrently whenever possible.

Alpha, Beta, Gamma

Revans speaks of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma in relation to action learning. In order to provide an integrated overview of action learning, let me address these three indices briefly.

System Alpha, in Revans’ definition, falls between the subjective and objective. It moves from personal values to external circumstances and internal resources. They were alluded to early in this article as the start point when an action learning set begins work. There are three questions that get asked. What should be happening? What is stopping it from happening? What can I do to remove the blockage? (Revans, 1982, p. 14)

System Beta relates to a five-stage process, endlessly repeated (as Revans describes it) as participants (set members) move toward their goals.

  1. Survey or observation.
  2. Hypothesis or theory (in formulating courses of feasible action).
  3. Experiment or test.
  4. Audit or evaluation (what happened?).
  5. Review or ratification (comparisons between expectation and experience) (Revans, 1982, p. 725).

Here you see the cycle repeating. As is done in action research, in effect, you research, act, review results, and repeat the cycle. It is trial and error, following the logic of the scientific method.

System Gamma is the interaction between the manager (or set member) and the situation she or he is trying to influence. (Revans, 1982, p. 348). This cannot be discounted. We are who we are and relate to events from our own unique framework of knowing. This is another reason why set members need to know other set members at a deep level. In the process, we also come to know ourselves better. This, by itself, can be an important learning outcome. System Gamma can end up being transformative of the individual learner and the organization involved.


What action learning can provide is elevated levels of discernment and understanding through the interweave of action and reflection. In a time of rapid change, it can be an intervention of choice. GE uses it throughout its global operations. In some cases, it takes the form of what is called the work-out, i.e., group work on real problems in real time, with key executives expected to provide on-the-spot decisions to employees as proposed solutions to problems are offered. At the higher levels of the company, it can take the form of change acceleration programs. Here you see the clear linkage between change and learning.

Action learning takes careful thought in execution. It can run cross-grain with established ways of doing business. While growing use of cross-functional (and global teams) is symbiotic with action learning principles, some corporations still think almost exclusively in terms of formal training. Since action learning can provide learning experiences outside the bounds of formal training programs, it can be viewed as a threat. The suggestion that people be considered for problem solving activity outside their expertise can also be viewed as a strange proposition.

One thing is clear. More and more corporations are turning to action learning because it is viewed as a way of transforming the culture and providing continuous learning. Some view it as the gateway to learning organizations. Most importantly, they have found it an excellent tonic for driving performance improvement.


Barker, A. (1997). Of…action learning, humanity, management and morality. Unpublished manuscript.

Boyett, J.H. & Boyett, J.T. (1996). Beyond workplace 2000. New York: A Plume Book.

Canadian Centre for Management Development (1994). Continuous learning (CCMD Report No. 1). Ottawa, Canada: author.

Chawla, S. & Renesch, J. (Eds.) (1995). Learning organizations: Developing cultures for tomorrow’s workplace. Portland, OR: Productivity Press.

Dilworth, R.L. (1996). Action learning: Bridging academic and workplace domains. The Journal of Workplace Learning 8(6), 48-56.

Dixon, N. (1994). The organizational learning cycle. Berkshire, England: McGraw-Hill Book Company Europe.

Marsick, V. (1987). Learning in the workplace. London: Croom Helm.

Mumford, A. (1993). How managers can develop managers. Brookfield, VT: Gower.

Mumford, A. (Ed.). (1994). Authors and authorities in action learning. England: MCB University Press Ltd.

Pedler, M. (1996). Action learning for managers. London: Lemos & Crane.

Pedler, M., Burgoyne, J. & Boydell, T. (1991). The learning company. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Pedler, M. (1991). Action learning in practice. Vermont: Gower Publishing Company.

Revans, R. (1983). ABC of action learning. Kent, England: Chartwell-Bratt Ltd.

Revans, R. (1982). The origins and growth of action learning. Lund, Sweden: Student Litteratur.

Revans, R. (1980). Action learning: New techniques for management. London: Blond & Briggs, Ltd.

Revans, R. (1971). Developing effective managers. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Weinstein, K. (1995). Action learning: A journey in discovery and development. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Weisbord, M. (1987). Productive workplaces. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

The late Robert L. (Lex) Dilworth was an Associate Professor Emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, USA. He received his doctorate from Columbia University in Adult and Continuing Education. His specialties included human resource development (HRD), action learning, and organization development (OD). He spent a number of years involved with action learning internationally, including time spent in extensive collaboration with Reg Revans and Albert Barker of England, as well as Verna Willis at Georgia State University. Before he entered his educational career, he was a Regular Army Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. His military assignments included service as The Adjutant General (TAG) of the U.S. Army.

This article originally appeared in Performance Improvement Quarterly, 1998, Volume 11, Number 1, pp. 28-43.

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