New Answers to Leadership Challenges Through Collaborative Action Learning

A university professor sees an opportunity for universities, NGOs and public schools to play a meaningful role in fostering a sense of global citizenship. An administrator at another university seeks to capitalize on the next generation of school librarians’ expertise to spearhead technology integration efforts school-wide. Meanwhile community advocates ponder how to move from concept to action to sustainability with their community enrichment programs.

Each of these dilemmas illustrates the kind of adaptive and wide-ranging leadership challenges that organizations are confronting in partnership with RCLA. These questions don’t have easy answers or a clear precedent for management strategies. They also require solutions that take into account the context of the daily work.

Action learning methodologies offer a process that enables public service leaders to take their most pressing questions and turn them into systemic inquiries with peers facing similar quandaries. These processes are designed specifically to draw on the expertise of individuals confronting these leadership challenges on a daily basis in order to find relevant and workable solutions.

Cooperative Inquiry

The action learning methodology RCLA uses – known as Cooperative Inquiry (CI) – enables a group of people with a common question about their practice to engage in cycles of action and reflection together. Participants become co-researchers as they together define the central questions they will explore and engage in reflection and meaning-making to interpret the findings in ways that offer practical solutions. CI encourages participants to use their own experiences as the main sources of inquiry. Further, participants are encouraged to not only explore common questions and challenges, but also to collectively develop and “test” new strategies and methods that address these challenges within their organizational contexts. These experiments also become sources of “data” and learning that feed subsequent cycles of action, reflection and documentation. With the support of an expert facilitator to help the group make the most of the experience, members repeat this action-reflection cycle several times until they feel they have successfully addressed their concern.

Key outcomes of the process include the creation of new practice-grounded knowledge, insights about how to approach related work challenges, personal growth and expanded leadership capacity, and strengthened relationships among group members.

Collaborations that Promote Global Citizenship

As one example of a Cooperative Inquiry process, RCLA is providing CI training and technical assistance to educators at the Universidad Politecnica de Valencia in Spain. Participants will focus on capitalizing on collaborations between the university, a vibrant nongovernmental (NGO) sector and public schools to develop educational and experiential practices that can contribute to the creation of a sense of global citizenship in students. Inquiry groups of NGO representatives, public school teachers and university professors will engage in structured cycles of action and reflection over 15 months.

As part of this project, RCLA Deputy Director Amparo Hofmann-Pinilla conducted a training at the university from February 22-26, 2010. During the meeting, participants had the opportunity to discuss the concept of global citizenship and reflect on the ways they do and don’t apply it in their work, practice and everyday life. They also started to identify the current organizational and personal challenges that prevent collaborating to develop and promote initiatives that support the concept of global citizenship. In Spain, NGOs and schools work together in developing curriculum, programs and activities grounded in social reality. According to the CI participants, however, there is more work to do and issues to resolve related to collaboration and dialogue.

After reflecting on the above themes, the group defined two questions which are going to guide their inquiry in the following months: 1) What type of educational and experiential practices contribute to the creation of global citizenship? and 2) How can we improve these practices through collaborative spaces among different social agents?

A Process that Illuminates New Kinds of Leadership

RCLA is also using Cooperative Inquiry with partners to tackle other leadership challenges. Library media specialists at Florida State University’s College of Information are considering the concrete ways they can use their expertise to design and execute technology integration projects across the school. Trinity Wall Street’s Academy for Social Leadership in New York is providing support for a variety of community-building enterprises from youth development projects to neighborhood revitalization programs.

These collaborative partnerships build on RCLA’s experience facilitating more than 16 Cooperative Inquiries with social change leaders across the United States over seven years through the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World (LCW) program.

Through this experience, grassroots leaders explored self-identified questions about their practice within the context of social change leadership work. The knowledge generated by the groups has been documented in numerous reports as a way to disseminate the learning and practices of social change leaders and organizations in the United States.

“RCLA has found CI to be a powerful research tool, one that can democratize research content and process, and unearth deep insights that emerge from the lived experience of practitioners,” said Amparo Hofmann-Pinilla, RCLA deputy director and LCW program director.

Cooperative Inquiry has become a principal methodology RCLA uses to do research with leaders rather than on leaders. The Center infuses its leadership development work with the knowledge that emerges, linking scholarship and leadership development in an ongoing virtuous cycle.

“One of the most powerful things about the Cooperative Inquiry process is that it dispels leaders’ sense that they are alone in addressing critical challenges,” said RCLA Executive Director Bethany Godsoe. “We consistently hear how invaluable it is for participants to have regular candid discussions with a peer group about making crucial decisions, to receive encouragement and tactical advice for taking risks to try new strategies, and to share with colleagues what they are learning from their experiments.”

Godsoe continued, “What’s exciting is that these inquiry groups help participants adapt their work in real time, while uncovering broader findings about their leadership practices. It’s research that’s relevant both immediately and over the long term.”