An audience of confident cynics

October 3, 1997

Phil Baty joins a group of thirtysomethings in the classroom

I should have just bull****ted," concedes the loud bloke in the rugby shirt at the back of the lecture room, after being pilloried by 25 fellow students for his unique views on the future of the household computer. "That would be nothing new," adds an even louder man with his feet on the table at the other end of the room.

Gary Davies's MBA classes, this time in "strategic management and international business", are always lively affairs. And this lecture has to be informal. He has a class of thirtysomething middle managers from computer firm IBM with him for the day.

An audience of confident cynics, with their arsenal of lap-tops and mobile phones, they will not sit back and be lectured to - not even by someone who is professor of retailing at Manchester Business School, a private consultant and a leader in his field.

Professor Davies may appear to be struggling to keep control, but he is allowing the "learning cycle" to develop its own dynamic, and welcomes tangential arguments. When things get out of hand, he always brings the group back on track with a series of flailing arm gestures and a bit of banter of his own.

But behind the humour lies a highly structured teaching day. Even the aggressive heckling has its place, as Professor Davies has already carefully sussed out the "group dynamics".

"The first time we all met we had a norming, storming and forming session," he says, in perfect corporate consultant-speak. "They have their bust-ups, and they establish their turf, but I'm always on hand to catch any fall-out and make sure no one is alienated."

The superficial lack of structure and formality is, in fact, paramount. "I find it embarrassing to lecture at people," he says. "A group like this is confident. They pick on each other. People will pull each other's leg. You can give formal lectures to undergraduates and they'll thank you for doing so - you go through text book material and it prepares them for an exam. But it doesn't develop their practical skills. If you want to develop the learning cycle you can't do it on a 'them and us' basis.

"We're teaching each other. I'm just managing the learning process. I'm not going to impart information by talking at them. I try desperately hard not to prepare MBA students just to pass an exam, but inevitably our sessions help them work out how to pass the exam themselves."

Professor Davies is a proponent of the project-based "Manchester method" of teaching, which has evolved since the 1960s. He has won MBS an excellent in the teaching quality assessment, and is said to be "acknowledged throughout the world" in the school's somewhat grandiose marketing literature.

The students are in from 9am until 7.30pm. The day begins with a one-hour lecture, or "formal input" as the professor calls it, designed to "reinforce what they should have read anyway".

The group then divides into smaller groups, which are sent off for half an hour to prepare case-study presentations. The morning lessons are applied to the case study: Professor Davies has set the IBM managers on a case study of rival computer firm Apple.

"Apart from the formal session, I've given them very little guidance about how to handle the case study," he says. "I throw them in at the deep end and tell them where they have gone wrong only after they have worked hard. I feed off what they come back with, and I'll give them theoretical input only when they have demanded it from me."

Some of the case study presentations are assessed, to ensure a comprehensive debate, and then Professor Davies sums up with another formal session.

"I put them through the same material three times,'' he says. "It's a good model: tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them that you have told them. Awareness, cognition and reinforcement. But it is important with these people that you are not seen to be doing it." Just to make sure it has all sunk in, the session is wrapped up with an assignment.

"If you ask a group of my MBA students what they've learned, they'll probably say that they haven't learned anything," Professor Davies says. "But next time they're faced with a problem in the real world, they'll be much better equipped to deal with it."

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