How effective is project-based learning within business education? A tutor reviews a seven-week project for MBA project teams assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach
It is early evening, Friday June 6th 2007. I stagger into the courtyard after two days of Project 2 presentations from the class of 2008. The Class of 2008 is a recently introduced label for what used to be called ‘the first year MBAs ’. The new name reminds us that the class graduates in 2008. Similarly, the class of 2007 is the distinguishing label for ‘the second year MBAs’, now close to graduating. Next week, examiners’ meetings will settle the fate of members of the class of 2007, and confirm which members of the class of 2008 will or will progress towards graduation.
Project 2 occupies a pivotal space in the MBA timetable. It’s where teams of MBAs take on projects on behalf of business clients. The projects have been selected as requiring the team to work from a starting brief towards something with more clearly specified and feasible objectives. Most team members have quite a few years experience in business roles. But Project 2 still presents some tough new challenges.
An end-of-semester barbeque is underway in the courtyard. I can’t smell the coffee, but I can smell the hamburgers. The event has been organized in support of a local charity by an indefatigable student from the class of 2008. All seats in the courtyard have been claimed, with the unoccupied ones being guarded for hunter- gatherers in the Barbie line. I try unsuccessfully to see if the sustainability team members were opting for non-veg hamburgers.
Could that be the team that had pulled no punches about their lawyer clients now supping enthusiastically with junior council? It was. I wondered if the barristers had liked my ice-breaking joke a few hours earlier to welcome them? The one about there being no space in front of the School for their chauffeur in the corporate roller? I decide they didn’t.
A couple of months ago, the teams from the class of 2008 had bid for the Project 2 assignments they would like. Before that, there has been a lot of work by the project support staff, canvassing for projects. After the student bidding, there are some disappointed students and some would-be sponsors. There will be further bidding. It’s a neat process, with good learning challenges. One down-side is that faculty have trouble in advance predicting will be favorites. This year I tried to hard to ‘sell’ a project only for the offer to be totally spurned. Another great project (so thought the tutors) was likewise turned down. Teams have offered assorted explanations for their preferred choices, but there’s no obvious pattern revealed, and maybe undisclosed reasons.
A strong tradition has emerged that the specific details of projects remain confidential. The senior administrator of the project has a shredding machine in her office, and she ensures there are no documents that might lead any information to be revealed to anyone outside the restricted circulation list. Which is one of the reasons I won’t be saying much about the projects.
Team dynamics: Not an Apprentice in sight
Project 2 took place over roughly the time period of the BBC TV show The Apprentice. I am immune to the charms of Alan Sugar’s program. I am spending quite enough of my waking and working days with teams of people working on business tasks.
One more time: what is The Manchester Method?
At The Manchester Business School, our short-hand for the learning provided within projects is The Manchester Method. This defies conclusive definition for the same reason that social constructs such as leadership and creativity have defied definition. The concepts take on new meanings as they are tested in use. This explains why, over the years, The Manchester Method has been described in various ways. When students ask about definitions I offer the one most reflecting my understanding at that particulat time. Recently I have been saying that
The Manchester Method is a learning process of a kind which permits participants to engage directly with experience, and which facilitates links between the experience, and relevant theoretical concepts.
But I still show overhead visuals with an earlier definition which actually is a well-known description of organizational culture: The way we do things around here.
The MBAs learn about leadership, co-dependence among team members, dealing with multiple ‘stakeholders’, tackling the ambiguities of business projects, and much more beside, A minority will go more deeply into the pedagogy, in personal logs and follow-up studies.
Each project is unique. But every project has been selected so that it permits learning rather general behavioural principles. One set of these were imported from the pioneering work of The Tavistock Institute. These suggest that any social group will be prone to defense mechanisms against uncertainties, and perceived threats and fears. The symptoms are easier to detect from the outside. They are broadly actions which can be interpreted as scapegoating, finding in a person the symbolic object on which to project blame.
This is where it gets interesting. A team may have someone who is not working very hard. In some cases the rest of the team acts to get rid of the free-rider. In another team, the team is unable to make contact with the sponsor, and is at risk of not completing the assignment. Sometimes the final report then puts too much emphasis on the weaknesses troubles of the sponsor. Yet another team finds an explanation of their difficulties as unprofessional behaviors of a tutor, or course director, or maybe collective incompetence of those connected with the project.
These are the dynamics which are swirling around. They reflect what happens when teams tackle tough problems. They have not been deliberately inserted into the project as a social experiment. And, the faculty does not deliberately act in what are described as unprofessional ways. As painful as the process is, the mini-crises do turn out to have scope for constructive learning.
A Painful Experience
I reflect on some project highlights and lowlights. Not for the first One team, frustrated by actions (or inactions) of its tutor decides they have been badly treated. Why not send the tutors a memo? How about sending a copy to the project coordinator? In which case, it may be better to send a copy to the overall course director as well. In which case, maybe a copy to the Head of the School seems an even better idea.
Could have been worse. One year, a particularly outraged team sent copies to The University’s Vice Chancellor. Perhaps we should give more specifical illustrations of wicked problem solving
What Didn’t we get a better Grade?
Today I had another familiar requests on behalf of a team. Why didn’t we do better? One student has arranged to meet with me to discuss this. How honest will I be? Will I find time to turn the discussion [later today, July 4th 2007] into a further little opportunity for personal development? Not just for the students, but for myself and maybe others involved in the project. Will I be able to recheck with the second reviewer before the meeting? Will I find my notes out of which we agreed the particular grades two months ago, for the seven presentations we sat in on ? Will the notes still be somewhere in the middle of the pile of documents in my office, ‘tidied’ into archeological layers in a ‘pending’ pile?
The tutors on the project are still trying to arrange time to get together for a debrief sometime during the following few months. Immediately after the project there was a general exodus to catch up after seven weeks more closely confined to barracks. Holidays, conferences, last-minute contingencies, and (honestly) out-of-town responsibilities mean we are still trying for a date that works for a full complement of the dozen or so support staff directly involved in the project.
Each year there are various suggestions to fix what went wrong. Some ideas make it into next year’s project planning. At first, tutors may have to introduce changes as experiments, aware that any change which impacts on assessment is not ‘authorized’ until accepted after scrutiny on various committees. Also, the experiments make documentation a little-less reliable.
Is it worth it?
Projects are particularly challenging as a mode of business education. We tend to keep faith in the benefits of this kind of experiential learning. A surprising proportion of colleagues hang in there, rather than seek alternative ways of justifying their careers.
That’s not to say we do not also experience some of the doubts and darker moments of the MBA teams. As one management scholar liked to say ‘every project appears to be a failure in the middle’.