At Roffey Park – a business education environment that has been quietly focused on self-managed learning for many years – both the organisation and its courses are designed to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own learning and work. As far back as the 1950s the organisation always had a deep interest in adult learning with a focus on understanding what it would mean to start from the perspective of the learner.
Today the previous MBA – now a 2 year part time MSc in People and Organisational Development – is run wholly on self-managed principles and attracts small dedicated cohorts of senior executives,CEOs, HR, change and development practitioners seeking to explore and gain insights around business-as-unusual. Participants come from Not-For-Profit, Public and Private sectors, with approximately 50% from organisational development and HR departments. Many are CEOs and senior leaders for whom change, transformation and ambiguity is a core part of their leadership portfolio but it does also include freelancers, consultants and coaches.
The model of learning is based on helping the individual to understand and think about what they really want to learn, how they want to do that how they want to be held accountable and how they want others to hold them accountable. Rather than having a standard system of producing core set of materials as you do in all MBAs, the participants design most of their own curriculum once they have been orientated to an overall field of study.
How is a self-managed Masters different?
Structurally there are several ways in which it is consistently different. The first 9 months are spent locating what each student truly wants to learn, whilst also developing study and inquiry skills. There are three assignments during this time:
A 3000 word Position Paper which explores what has shaped the person and their practice to date, looking at questions such as Who Am I? What has led to me becoming that person? What does my context and practice require of me today? How does that help to tell me what I need to learn?
A paper on Critically Reflective Practice which explores what the student believes the role of learning is and what their individual style of learning is. They explore ideas and methods of learning to assess which of these they want to learn more about in greater depth and apply further in their study, to allow them to get deeper into their own critically reflective and questioning process.
The third paper is their Map of what they perceive the field of people and organisational development to be. What do they have on their map? What knowledge basis are they familiar with? What practice are they familiar with? What’s on the edges of and beyond their map? Where are they experiencing resistance in terms of other theory and method?
The Assessment Process is radically different. The cohort is divided into Sets, usually of 5 or 6 students. After a student self assesses their work, that assessment and the piece of work a student produces is passed through the other people in his/her set. Each individual then reviews all the other cohort members work and provides feedback in a regular Set meeting. Once the first drafts are reviewed and further work is done, a second Set is convened for a final assessment process.
Additionally each individual drafts A Development Agreement also called The Learning Contract which sets out to answer key questions that, on the face of it, look similar to SMART objectives and other learning methods. Where do I want to get to – what are my learning goals? How am I going to get there? How am I going to know when I’ve got there? These are shared with everyone in the set in a collective process, and cover their overall learning for the programme, grounded both in their business context and their personal context. As with the initial work, hey develop criteria together for how they will hold each other to account.
“This is a process which enriches throughout the two years,” explains Roffey Park’s Head of Qualifications and Programme Director for the MSc Tom Kenward. “But it’s not without its challenges. People come to the process, understanding at one level what they signed up for and being happy with that. But sometimes, the level of personal challenge is more than they expected. It requires a personal examination of who you are, it invites you to be vulnerable in ways in which you cannot predict or explain. It’s part of what makes the programme deeply fulfilling, and it’s also why it’s tough. During the 2 years we also tread a constant line between meeting the needs of each individual vs the collective; we must give enough clarity and containment, for people to take their own risks along the edges of their comfort zone and tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty they are sure to experience in doing so.”
During the assessment process, sets are supported by Set Advisors. Set Advisors are individuals who are well acquainted with group process, usually through a combination of their own psychodynamic work, facilitation training, action learning practice and coaching and are always in supervision in their process themselves. Another way in which Roffey differs from most academic centres is that they prioritise deep expertise in facilitation of learning and practical knowledge ahead of deep academic knowledge of any particular field, therefore MSc faculty don’t have to have a doctoral level qualification of their own.
Finally there are a number of residentials at which the cohorts are responsible for designing the learning that they want, who they want there, and how they are run.
Challenges for the self-managed experience provider
One of the biggest challenges in designing self-managed processes is the tension around the ‘container’ in which a project or process is going to operate. How precisely do you design the container in which people operate? It’s a bit of a myth that in self-managed processes everything is free-wheeling. There has to be a container and boundaries in which creativity or learning can happen; but how do you choose what they are?
“At Roffey we have one part of that ‘container’ shaped for us, in that our Masters is validated as a full academic award by the Sussex University, so we have to fulfil the criteria required of us in that respect. We use that container to deepen our cohort’s learning by expecting them to understand the Masters standard and use the constraints within that themselves to structure their own learning,” explains Kenward.
The course structure described above provides further shape and boundaries which allow students wide freedom to navigate and design their own learning whilst still attaining a rigorous academic standard and, arguably, within a more rigorous learning structure than in conventional methods.
“We also have challenges in describing the course. A self-managed learning experience is extraordinarily hard to describe until you’re actually in it. In the application process Roffey does everything it can to contract ethically with our students. Special focus is given in the application process to explain the coming experience, to avoid a student feeling foolish or not having a psychologically safe space in which to learn. Attending to the fact that every individual brings all of their story and their context, historical and present, the set advisers and staff have to find a balanced way in which to deliver both support and challenge. For example, despite the level of personal learning that is invited, papers still have to be failed if not up to standard (albeit with a highly instructive feedback about what is needed to subsequently pass). At other times it just requires 10 minutes to attentively listen to the challenge an individual is going through. And sometimes it requires stopping them from ruminating because it’s stopping real progress. Situations which can arise are as varied as the participants’ own backgrounds and personlities.”
Common challenges for students
Common struggles during the programme include coping with ambiguity and uncertainty, and managing emotionally charged reactions to the challenges of the course. People struggle with their own boundaries – some don’t want to be contained, some don’t want to be fully responsible and accountable for their own experience, some struggle with the depth of personal self reflection that is invited and aren’t ready for that level of self examination.
Their resistance can manifest in a number of different ways: as blame towards the institution for not being clear about expectations or promises, in essence often for not having a process to ‘manage my anxiety better’; challenging the set advisor or each other for not being clear or supportive enough.
“These are normal resistances we expect to see students experience. It is the expertise of the Set Advisors that helps to manage this stress and tension during the journey. Although this isn’t something we measure, we believe that the process of this particular Masters will elevate the level of conscious development for most who pass through the course.”
Many students are anxious about how they will make good choices about what they want to learn in a self managed environment. On the surface by allowing cohorts to design their own learning process Roffey could be opening itself up to undeliverable requests, yet it doesn’t work that way. In the first two residentials the team helps students map the territory and gives guidance and signposting to what it considers core content. Naturally Roffey faculty have their own biases but they do their best to be transparent about those with students to help them see that ultimately these are just them making their own choices. Later residentials are then designed by a sub group made up of students and faculty, always arriving at a creative mix of content and approaches drawing on contributors from Roffey’s own faculty and network but also those of students.
Sometimes students are initially concerned about being in a set with people who don’t have the ‘right knowledge’ for their field of work and worry they will get a substandard experience. This seems to stem in part from a lifetime of being trained through normal education processes and organisational design to think in fixed, performance based, knowledge-only-as-theory mindsets. Yet the process which allows for 6 different perspectives on each piece of work provided, with all the life experience each individual brings to that, brings rich value alongside all the information that these days can be easily sourced or curated individually from an endless stream of management books and You Tube videos.
How does Roffey assess the impact of the course in the wider business community?
The course has now over 250 alumni, and many stay in contact with Roffey. What shows up consistently in the cohorts as they graduate is greater confidence in their ability to navigate and tolerate the ambiguity in organisational life, greater personal confidence to act and an increase in credibility as a result, and more capacity to hold the anxiety and confusion of others so they can remain resourceful and effective individuals.
One senior leader described the course as ‘as fresh as anything I’ve seen’. Another described it as ‘the one educational experience I want to remember’.
The challenge for Roffey – as with self-management as a whole – is how to continue to generate growing demand for such a thoughtful, challenging and difficult experience in a world that is so fixated on short-term quick fixed.
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