Action-learning pioneer hopes to make engineers streetwise

3rd August 2007 By: Helene Le Roux

A huge poster of an American space-shuttle launch adorns the wall behind Dr Kelvin Kemm’s desk.

Next to the dramatic picture of the shuttle moments after lift-off is a quote adapted from the writings of Karen Ravn – “only as far as we seek can we go, only as much as we dream can we be”.

Kemm steadfastly believes in human potential.

He is one of the pioneers of action learning in South Africa, a concept that has caught on in business schools worldwide.

Action learning is defined as the process in which a group of people focus on learning from their experi- ence.

More than 500 students have completed Kemm’s experiential learning programme, the Technology Leadership Programme (TLP), since it was first presented in 1990.

Kemm conceptualised the TLP with the input of former Eskom CEO Dr Ian McRae, who, in the late 1980s, highlighted the need for the company’s engineers to be made streetwise in technology management.

“He wanted to develop people who could act rapidly and who had been exposed to controlled, real world experiences,” Kemm says.

In a combined effort, Eskom and Kemm’s business strategy management company, Stratek, explored the need for action learning in South Africa.

Over the years, Stratek has broadened its reach beyond Eskom and beyond equipping only engineers with real world experiences.

Today, professionals from all walks of life, including engineers, scientists, economists, administrators and even architects, pursue Stratek’s TLP course.

The course is presented under the auspices of the Tshwane University of Technology’s (TUT’s) business management school. Management and operation of the TLP is carried out jointly by the TUT Business School and Stratek, and graduation certificates are awarded by TUT.

The TLP is spread over one year and consists of four quarterly contact weeks, with associated task work spread over the year.

There are two intakes of stud- ents – one in April and one in October

Picking up a newspaper clipping from a recent edition of the Sunday Times, Kemm points out the success achieved by a former TLP student, who has risen through the ranks of the telecommunications industry to executive level.

Beverley Ngwenya has been appointed chief operations officer of State-owned Sentech.

“She is one of the many TLP graduates that have achieved successes in their careers.

“Of course, we do not take sole credit for the achievements of our students.

“However, we would like to believe that the TLP has exposed people to the requirements for successfully managing different businesses in real life, which they would not have had otherwise,” Kemm says.

The TLP does not follow the usual route of academic courses, where students are required to study from books and write exams.

Instead, it takes students into the boardrooms and shop floors of manufacturing facilities, such as the cement kilns of PPC Cement, the transformer-building factory of ABB and the production lines of automotive manufacturer Ford.

Students also visit underground mines, the South African Reserve Bank and the JSE and fly with the South African Air Force in a Hercules C130 during a training flight.

They are also given lectures by, besides other experts, business leaders, economists, lawyers and project managers, in subjects such as marketing, intellectual property law and industrial relations.

These visits and lectures have specific learning experiences as objectives.

Based on their interactions with different organisations and experts, the students are given practical problems to solve, such as changing the layout of a shop floor to improve the efficiency of an assembly line.

In the weeks after a visit, students have to produce comprehensive written reports on the target objectives.

In the four quarterly contact weeks, students stay at the same hotel and have formal dinners every evening, where they are addressed by high-level guest speakers, ranging from business execu- tives to navy admi- rals.

Kemm says that this interaction gives students the oppor- tunity to obtain insight from the people behind the news, and also to gain personal confi-dence by engaging the speakers in conversation.

Students are also given assign- ments, tasks and activities throughout the year that require a technology management mentality.

“The TLP really is about making a difference to the human – the person who will determine whether a business makes a profit through his or her ability to understand how theory translates into practice, and who will have the self-confidence to make decisions.

“Persons who pass through the TLP regularly state that they came out of the course with a broader, altered outlook and with a much wiser approach to their work,” he adds.

Kemm says that it has also been noted that people who go on to further academic study after com- pleting the TLP tend to perform better because they can more readily contextualise what they are learning.

Besides being a business strategist, Kemm is an accomplished, if somewhat controversial, scientist and a long-time columnist of Engineering News.