The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2019

Using drawings and stories to enable reflective learning

By Jane Robertson, Dr Heidi le Sueur and Dr Nicky Terblanche

  • June 2019
  • Tags Coaching
12 minutes to read

SHARE

Business-driven action learning: turning theory into practice

With companies facing increasing competition and other challenges, the need for effective leadership, supported by well-informed and well-crafted strategies, has never been greater. In today’s highly charged business environment, more and more companies are recognising the value of business-driven action learning (BDAL), a dynamic process aimed at arriving at solutions to real-life problems through teamwork and honest enquiry and debate.

Assisted by a facilitator, the BDAL process brings together colleagues in an organisation to deliberate on challenges and opportunities, and collectively arrive at new and more effective ways of doing things. Yet the benefits of BDAL are perhaps even more profound at the individual level. BDAL gives people the intellectual tools and the emotional courage to assess their purpose, performance and (as yet untapped) potential.

‘More and more companies are recognising the value of business-driven action learning (BDAL), a dynamic process aimed at arriving at solutions to real-life problems through teamwork and honest enquiry and debate.’

The vital role of reflection in business-driven action learning

It is not surprising that a key element of business-driven action learning (BDAL) is reflection. It is through reflection that people are able to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges facing their company and how, as individuals, they can become positive agents for change by tapping into their innate aspirations, values and strengths.

There is much scope for action learning practitioners to use reflective learning in management development programmes that embody BDAL principles. BDAL is experiential in nature which, when combined with systematic and candid reflection, can produce valuable insights into a company’s and employees’ strengths and shortcomings. In a corporate setting, the type of learning that reflection facilitates goes beyond technical systems and procedures. It also allows people to recognise and make sense of the economic, social and political dynamics that permeate a business operation. Despite the significance of reflection in action learning, little formal research has been conducted on how reflection is taught in higher education and skills development programmes.

‘Business-driven action learning gives people the intellectual tools and the emotional courage to assess their purpose, performance and (as yet untapped) potential.’

Background to the study

In this study, the power of reflection in business-driven action learning (BDAL) was put to the test in three management development programmes (MDPs) which formed the basis of this research. The programmes were organised at the request of sponsoring organisations in different industry sectors which had called for the MDPs to focus on enhancing leadership and management skills and to include BDAL. Each MDP was made up of three study schools in which five or six participants worked together in groups. Each group was given the same business challenge and had an external action learning facilitator or action learning coach. The action learning facilitator (who was also the lead researcher in the study) guided each group in practising reflection throughout the MDP. To this end the facilitator set out to foster strong teamwork built on trust, stimulate dialogue and debate, and create a supportive atmosphere that would be conducive to participants sharing ideas and opinions.

The participants, who were selected by the sponsoring organisations, were drawn from a number of African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Senegal. All the participants had attended a previous MDP in 2016 (also based on BDAL principles), one year earlier than the study in question. This time gap was considered necessary as the participants would have had the chance to implement practically what they had learned in the previous MDP, both at work and in their personal lives, which they would then reflect on in the context of the research study.

‘It is through reflection that people are able to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges facing their company and how they can become positive agents for change by tapping into their innate aspirations, values and strengths.’

While the participants had had the opportunity to apply reflective techniques during the previous MDP, three additional dimensions of reflection were introduced into the research study: first, participants were asked to hand-draw images of their BDAL experience; second, they had an in-depth interview with the action learning facilitator/lead researcher in the study; and third, they read aloud and commented on their personal experiences (including momentous ‘a-ha’ moments) in the form of an ‘interpretive story’ which flowed from their personal interview.

Using drawings and stories to stimulate reflective learning

The value of reflection was clearly demonstrated when participants were asked to hand-draw images of, and talk about, what they had learned since their exposure to the BDAL process in the previous MDP.

One of the participants, Sandy, had made great strides, as evidenced in her drawings and personal story. One of the things that used to hold Sandy back was the fact that she did not have a tertiary-level degree and she felt inadequate alongside more qualified colleagues and business associates. The BDAL approach followed in the MDP that she attended in 2016 helped her to shed her self-limiting beliefs, develop more confidence in her own capabilities, and engage more proactively with others. In the drawing exercise, Sandy first drew a pair of glasses symbolising her new-found ability to look at things from different perspectives and to accommodate other people’s points of view. She then drew a mirror as an acknowledgement of the importance of reflection in general as well as the need to look critically at and understand herself. Her final drawing was an open door which represented the whole new world that was opening up to her.

‘Drawings can be particularly powerful because they offer a snapshot of accumulated experiences and emotions. The story approach, in turn, serves a valuable purpose as it allows possibly jumbled, unarticulated thoughts to be verbalised in a coherent manner and shared with others.’

In her interview, Sandy explained that the BDAL process had been a turning point for her, from which she had not looked back. She said it had given her the confidence to change her behaviour and she was now on a carefully considered, personal growth path. Being able to explain her metamorphosis in images and words as part of the research study helped to crystallise and reinforce her earlier experiences.

Drawings can be particularly powerful because they offer a snapshot of accumulated experiences and emotions. The story approach, in turn, serves a valuable purpose as it allows possibly jumbled, unarticulated thoughts to be verbalised in a coherent manner and shared with others. Everyone likes stories, not only because they are interesting or entertaining, but because they often resonate with their audiences. It is not uncommon for people to learn more from personal accounts and stories than from theory because the former reflect things as they really are and not simply as they should be. Drawings and stories can also be shared repeatedly, thus constituting important learning material for other people embarking on a BDAL journey.

How easily can reflection be learned?

 Anyone can engage in reflection, but it is likely to be most effective when activated in a business-driven action learning environment under the guidance of a facilitator or coach. The study showed that when participants were coached in becoming mindful, in shutting out distractions and in focusing on the task or problem at hand, they were able to reflect deeply on important and/or pressing issues and contemplate possible solutions.

‘Reflection is difficult. It is not something that happens during idle moments; it is a skill that must be learned and periodically refreshed.’

For many people, reflection is difficult. It is not something that happens during idle moments; it is a skill that must be learned and periodically refreshed. Some of the participants in the study, for example, reported that devoting time to reflection seemed almost wasteful, considering how busy people are and how many priorities compete for their time and attention. However, others were of the opinion that reflection, far from being a waste of time, was an investment in time which would pay dividends down the line.

  • Find the original journal article here: Robertson, J., le Sueur, H., & Terblanche, N. (2019.) An account of practice: employing drawings and stories to enable reflective learning. Action Learning: Research and Practice, 16(1). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14767333.2019.1562702
  • Jane Robertson is a director of Training Partners in Cape Town.
  • Dr Heidi le Sueur is a senior lecturer and head of Teaching and Learning at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Dr Nicky Terblanche is head of the University of Stellenbosch Business School’s MPhil in Management Coaching programme. He lectures in Management Coaching and Information Systems at USB.

Related articles

Jun 11

18 minutes to read

Structural resilience: the fut...
Jun 11

16 minutes to read

Brand engagement: What are you...

Join the USB community

Receive updates on the latest news, events, business knowledge and blogs at USB.

SUBSCRIBE NOW