Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

Reflective Practitioner



On-line Conference In Memory of Don Schön,
and his "The Reflective Practitioner."

Willem J.A.M Overmeer
Duxx Graduate School of Business Leadership, Monterrey, Mexico
Victor J. Friedman
Ruppin Institute, Israel E-Mail:
Shahaf Gal Center for Educational Technology, Israel
Giovan Francesco Lanzara
Political Science Department, University of Bologna, Italy

Feb 23, 1998

Since the early 1990s, the four of us with Claudio Ciborra have, in various formations, conducted a Course called "Organizational Learning in Action" at a European International Management Institute (a pseudonym). It is an intensive weeklong course that meets every day for six or more hours. Individually we have also taught versions of this course in our respective home institutions. From its inception, the course has been taught as a "reflective practicum" (Schön, 1983, 1987). We engage participants mostly managers ranging in age from their late twenties to their early forties in designing and redesigning difficult tasks, and help them to reflect on the process of design, i.e. their thinking during the design process. Typically we ask them to write a case on a difficult problem in their own management practice and discuss their cases in small groups with the specific intent to help the actor address the situation he is facing more effectively. We also ask participants to design and construct a complex structure such as a bridge that can hold a certain load. They do this in teams of four to six and operate within a limited amount of time. At the end of the course, we hold a debriefing session.

Responses of participants vary from the beginning, and throughout the course. In the beginning there are many questions (often framed as intellectual challenges) that point to experiences ranging from a puzzling excitement to a gnawing discomfort. Over the week most participants actively engage in the process but some continue to have more or less deep reservations that often remain inarticulate despite our efforts to provide an opportunity to surface their evaluations. It is not unusual that during the last session, several participants of the latter group launch an attack on the course and on the teachers and vent their frustration with the course design. In the early years we were somewhat surprised by their attack, especially because there were few clues during the week. By now we expect such attacks and try to not only address their questions but also get underneath their discomfort and surface their underlying reasoning. or a more detailed description see Friedman, Lipshitz and Overmeer (forthcoming in 1998).

During the debrief on the last day of our seminar in November 1997, we again faced an initial series of skeptical evaluations from four out of eighteen participants. They would say such things as: "I am not sure I learned anything [but] let's not discuss it", "there were lots of discussions outside the class", "I got lost, it was not a structured course, I'll have to go home and think", "the pieces were not not linked into an integrated whole", "suddenly the pressure was off, I felt a loss", "we are suspicious", "you have a hidden proposal", and "you don't practice what you preach". Most if not all these evaluations were at a high level of abstraction and one of our responses is to inquire so as to try to connect them to directly observable data specific instances, statements, experiences, etc.. Another responses we use to address such attacks is to probe "if this is your evaluation, what prevented you from bringing this up earlier", or "what led you to state this at the very end of a course, at a moment that we can't do anything to redesign the course?"

In a spirited dialogue in which most of the participants took part, we eventually surfaced a core metaphor that seemed to inform the assessment of those most critical of the course the course did not conform to their expectation that a business school is a kind of a "SUPERMARKET" for learning. In such a supermarket, they as consumers pick and chose from "knowledge packages". Teaching is often (but with important exceptions) evaluated on performance skills and presentation. Teachers, in turn, increasingly cater to this trend by developing packages that are more attractive and "user friendly", thereby increasingly removing a particular kind of "work" by the participants. The epitomy of this attitute was expressed several years ago by a very articulate British product manager who came to the office of one of us and said: "What we want is TGV education, with wall-to-wall entertainment" (TGV stands to "Train a Grande Vitesse", a high speed train in France). When asked if the reference to the TGV meant "being intellectually carried at high speed, in a straight line between two points, with airconditioning to prevent sweating", he immediately confirmed it and seemed relieved that he was understood.

The general model of a "supermarket for learning" in management education is one in which (i) business schools and consulting firms offer a wide variety of "products" or "packages" marketed in the form of courses, workshops, and training, (ii) participants are, implicitely casted as consumers, who pick appealing products, (iii) products / packages are increasingly made "user friendly", and (iv) managers apply the "knowledge packages" they absorbed. Such a model is increasingly mismatched to the world of practice in which managers increasingly face "uncertainty, instability, complexity, uniqueness, and value conflicts" (Schön, 1983). "Consumers" may quickly discover that many of the packages do not really "work" once they come home; for instance, how to apply the package to a unique situation, or how to put it together with packages already in use? As a result, managers may find themselves torn between a hunger for learning in search for the leading-edge, super-sophisticated concepts and techniques, and a deep cynicism towards management education itself.

To be sure, business schools have attempted to address the mismatch through various curriculum reforms. For instance, in the seventies, "strategy" / "business policy" was seen as the"capstone" course that would integrate what was learned in all previous courses and apply the knowledge acquired in such courses to complex cases. However, such cases were always cases "there and then" and very few if any teacher would transform the case into a "here and now situation". In addition, the 1980s, the field of strategy followed a major trend within business (Simon, 1969, Ch.4) and became dominated by applied mathematics in the form of micro-economics. In the mean time others fields within business education took over some of the early insights of strategy, sometimes in the form of lipservice by calling their main courses "strategic marketing" or "strategic operations". The result was that "strategy" increasingly ran the danger of becoming just one more discipline to master, one more package to pick up. Moreover, this dynamic took place against the backdrop of a more general struggle of dominance between departments within business schools, in turn aggravated by the recent trend among schools to define themselves in the view of "consumers" by focusing on "core competence", such as "general management", or "finance and accounting", etc.

Schools have also tried to curtail the number of offerings by instituting a core curriculum. While helpful in some cases to weed out low-quality teaching, often the required coordination between departments tends not occur. Faculty members may even complain that the amount of time required to coordinate sections of a course affects their time for research. inally the sheer number of students in one section of a course, ranging from 50 to 80, make it virtually impossible to engage with course participants in meaningful discussions about the unique aspects of situations they want to address.

As a way to address the participants dilemma of a deep hunger for learning and deep cynicims toward management education itself, we propose, following Simon (1969) and Schön (1983, 1987) to see management as learning to design. Simon, in his chapter on "The Science of design: creating the artificial", proposed that

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred one. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally [..] from the ones that devise a new sales plan for a company [..];(p.129).

He described how early in the 20st century, professional schools became incorporated into universities, and, in their quest for academic respectability, defined themselves as schools of (applied) sciences (a business school as a school for applied economics, a school of medicine as a school of applied biological sciences, ect.), and making their subject matter "intellectually tough, analytic, formalizable, and teachable" (p.130). In the process,

"as the older professional schools did not know how to educate for professional design at an intellectual level appropriate to a university, the newer kind of school has nearly abdicated responsibility for training in the core professional skill" (p.131).

Thus, according to Simon, "we are faced with a problem of devising a professional school that can attain two objectives simultaneously: education in both articifical and natural science at a high intellectual level". This too, according to Simon, is a problem of design "organizational design" (p.131).

While Schön accepted Simon's idea of seeing managers as engaged in design, he profoundly disagreed with Simon's depicting of a design problem as a computational problem in the form of linear programming problem e.g. "the diet problem" in which a person needs to select quantities of food depending on the optimization of nutritional attributes and costs (p.135). In "The context of science-based practice" (Schön, 1983, Ch.6, p.187 and further) he described how the protagonist, Wilson, addressed the problem of malnutrition by engaging in a reflective conversation with the material of the situation and how, over time, he came to repeatedly reframe the problem was trying to address, an activity not addressed by Simon. Wilson, on the one hand, addressed repeatedly unqiue problems, yet on the other hand, he was able to draw on a repertoire of experience, models and techniques.

The work of Schön raises questions such as: (i) how can we teach people to become effective in producing practically relevant knowledge and not to just go shopping for the latest, leading-edge, super-sophisticated, basically inapplicable technigues and methods? (ii) how do we tackle the contradiction between knowledge of unique management situations and generalizable knowledge about management that is both trasnfrable and cumulative? Is practically useful information in a "local" situation really not transferable to other situations? What can be transferred and what not?

In addition, "teaching how to think" (Argyris, 1990) or "engaging in a reflective conversation" (Schön, 1983) is not the mere application of a (sophisticated) technique itself. The example of our course in the European International Management Institute indicates that the notion of the supermarket of applicable knowledge is a powerful, often tacit ideas to which participants may cling for a long time, an idea reinforced by courses they took previous to our course. Addressing the defensive reasoning that is put up in the face of a challenge to this illusion, and working through the interpersonal and group dynamics that prevent getting at a core tacit metaphor is a task that most professors have not learned themselves.

Finally, we agree with Simon that matching management education to the requirements of practice is (at least in part) an organizational design problem. The economics of business schools and increasing competition require larger classes. And careful coordination across departmental boundaries requires time that is taken away from research. Hence, the structure of the business school makes the kind of change we propose not "obvious" even if other might agree with the general idea. How can a focus on reflective practice within such an organizational environment be accomplished?


C. Argyris, "Teaching smart people how to think", in Harvard Business Review, 1990.

V.J. Friedman, R. Lipshitz, and W. Overmeer, "Creating conditions for organizational learning", in D. Meinholf, J. Child and Y. Nonaka, The handbook of organizational learning, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 1998.

D.A. Schön, The Reflective practitioner, New York: Basic Books, 1983.

D.A. Schön, Educating the reflective practitioner, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987.

H.A. Simon, The sciences of the artifical, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969.

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