Edited by Markus Reihlen and Andreas Werr
Chapter 4: A space for learning? Physical, relational and agential space in a strategy consultancy project
Projects are attractive to many because of their potential to support tacit learning and draw on the ‘strength of weak ties’ by bringing together people with different experience (Granovetter, 1973; Schindler & Eppler, 2003). Project-based learning (PBL) as a form of collective dialogue and discussion is held to be particularly effective in sharing and synthesizing expert knowledge. Project team members, working together towards a typically explicit and finite goal, are deemed to learn in a way that is more difficult to achieve in functionally structured arrangements where relationships and knowledge are typically segregated (Ford & Randolph, 1992). The professional service firm (PSF) as an organizational type, moreover, seems to be particularly effective at accommodating project working practices – giving its people the collegial habits and freedom from hierarchical constraint that project work requires (Hanlon, 2004; Morris & Empson, 1998). Apparently regardless of the degree and nature of prior knowledge among members, the project is seen as providing opportunities to those involved for learning-by-absorption and learning-by-reflection through reflective practices (Scarbrough et al., 2004). However, as we shall argue, reflective practices such as ‘collective discussions’ (Zollo & Winter, 2002: 342) can have a range of possible outcomes: constructive or destructive, negotiated or contested. In other words, the occurrence of ‘reflective practices’ does not necessarily generate outcomes conducive to PBL, or the achievement of project objectives. What, then, does influence the outcomes? We examine this question by investigating project practices in one type of professional service, strategy consulting. The context was that of a top-level strategy project at a multinational firm, a setting selected as a classic example of an inter-organizational project where project members include both clients and consultants and where, it is often assumed, PBL occurs as consultants and clients resolve problems and in the process develop their management and consulting skills (Fosstenlokken, Lowendahl & Revang, 2003; Semadeni, 2001).
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