Executive Education

The Role of Action Learning in Executive Education

Esteemed professor and author of award-wining case studies, Karin Kollenz—Quétard shares insights into her action-based teaching approach.

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24 Jun 2024

An EDHEC Professor and member of the Foresight, Innovation, and Transformation Chair,. Prof. Karin Kollenz-Quétard teaches Strategy, Digital Transformation and Innovation as part of EDHEC’s MBAs and Customised Programmes.  In 2016 she was named as one of the world's leading business school professors by the Financial Times. 

Karin Kollenz-Quétard has developed numerous case studies including the award-winning, Dollar Shave Club (DSC), about the disruption of the shaving industry, which remains a best seller.  We recently sat down with her to learn more about the approaches she uses to optimise participants’ learning outcomes and help them transfer newly discovered or developed skills and knowledge into their working lives.  

EDHEC: Professor Kollenz, how would you describe your teaching approach? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD:  I really like interactive, inductive learning - starting with an experience and then deducing a framework. I often start with a case or simulation, and in a next step I ask participants ‘What have you learnt from this experience?’ Using the particpants’ insights, I build a management framework or theory. 


EDHEC: Why do you think this inductive, action-learning approach is indispensable when teaching strategy and innovation? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: Retention is much higher when participants are active, when there’s some emotion involved. So that’s why competition and laughter help people to retain things better. Our brain generally retains emotions better than facts, because they create stronger synaptic connections; we tend to think back to emotional experiences more often which reinforces these memories over time. Multi-sensory learning (e.g. seeing, hearing, touching & doing things) works in the same direction: it captures the learners’ attention, it creates more associations and pathways to the brain and it caters for the participants’ different learning styles..  


EDHEC: How do you create those emotions? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: We laugh a lot in class! At the beginning I try to bring in funny material or examples and I make fun about myself. And over time, with many groups, we develop running jokes and there are one or two participants who will continue making people laugh – as an educator you just need to create the space for it.  Sometimes I use role-plays. Very often there are participants who are anxious about playing a specific role in front of their peers. But as participation is voluntary and people can take over a role whenever they want that character to say or do something specific – very often introverts overcome their stage fright because they have an important argument to add. The positive experience of overcoming a negative feeling (fear in this case) is very memorable. And of course, we also get very funny situations during the role plays. The role of the educator is to create an experience and then to deduce insights. 

I also do a lot of simulations, where there’s a bit of a competition between the players.That gets many participants really involved.  

We also reflect together. We take a step back and discuss the experience itself. Sometimes participants share how they feel about what they’ve done and why they’ve done it. Sometimes they make decisions, not only due to rational facts but also because it feels better to act in a certain way. So that’s where we get beyond the pure rational argument.  It helps to go a step further.   


EDHEC: So, you’re trying to use emotions to teach? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: Not directly. This is a side effect. But I’ve learned from experience that people remember more if there isn’t just a visual and an audio. The more senses you can involve, the better. This is why sometimes, in Innovation, we play with Lego, we touch things. Colleagues in Design Thinking also do that a lot.  

I try to use as many senses as possible, as well as emotions to move away from purely rational discussions and explore other directions. I consider the energy level that I believe I’m going to have at different points in the class. If I feel it could decrease at certain times (particularly after the lunch break), I make sure I put in some activity that raises the energy level and involves everybody. 


EDHEC: Do you think, as a professor of strategy, that emotions should be part of strategic decision-making or not?  


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: What’s very important is that we’re aware that, even if we’re trying to be as rational as possible, we’re impacted by our emotions, by our experiences; that’s the reality. You should take that into account and try to understand why your gut is telling you something, where the feeling comes from, and validate whether it makes sense or not.  


EDHEC: What other examples of action learning can you share? You’re a lauded author of numerous case studies and your ‘Dollar Shave’ case study was one of last year’s biggest sellers.  


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: I use a lot of case studies. They’re effective because you put participants into the shoes of a decision-maker, be it a CEO or an entrepreneur, whatever the case study is about. You try to make them feel as if they were the CEO of this company. There’s a huge difference between, reading a case and discussing it, and saying: you are now the CEO. What do you do? How would you negotiate with that supplier?  

That’s what makes a difference between blandly using a case study vs.  using it in a way where participants feel strongly involved. When I write case studies, I suggest ways to involve participants in my teaching notes by using questions. Depending on how you formulate a case study and how you teach it makes the difference between people getting on board or just saying ‘OK, I’m seeing that’ from far away. I take the same approach with my final exams:   I ask participants to write a memo to the CEO or ideally present a live case to client. 


EDHEC: This sounds almost like a business game or simulation, even though the pressure might not be the same? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: For example in the Dollar Shave Club case, the videos are just funny. You show a 30-second video in class and everybody laughs - that certainly has a positive impact on the atmosphere. But I also do the extreme opposite, I run a simulation about leadership and resilience, where people are running a country that is at war. Sometimes pushing things to extremes also makes people realise things, and again, you get this involvement, I am actively seeking 

Simulations work well because they’re hands-on, the participants need to make decisions, and they need to reflect on those decisions. I often provide them with some frameworks to apply, and they see how these can help them to make better decisions. It’s an effective way of learning and participants appreciate it. 


EDHEC: What skills do the participants develop through these action learning projects that they might not gain from conventional classroom settings or online courses? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: First of all, I feel there’s a higher possibility that they’ll remember what I teach them. In particular, with the very basic skills, such as analytical skills for example, the chances that they’ll remember are higher. Thus, I’m closer to achieving my learning objectives.  

Participants are evaluated at the end of the course, but if I’m going to make an impact, what’s important is - three months, six months, or a year later, if they come into a situation that we have discussed, they’ll think back and apply what we’ve done. And I think the chances are higher if you use experiential learning.   

They also learn about themselves, how they react in specific situations, and how other people think differently. While there is often an analytical tool that says you do this first and then that, in strategy it’s not as black and white as it would be in say, mathematics. There isn’t only one right or one wrong answer. And from the interactions with their cohort, they see that others think differently. I get them to listen and give everyone a chance to argue their point. That can provide valuable insights.  

We’re extremely lucky, particularly at the Global MBA, with  participants from more than 30 nations, to have this additional cultural element. In the Executive MBA, you have people from lots of different backgrounds in terms of function and industry, so you learn a lot from that. And when they exchange ideas, additional learning takes place, not only linked to strategy but also more general learning. 

And, last but not least, I also try to make sure that participants learn how to learn. They learn how to improve because things are changing so quickly. What is most important is that they are ready to continue learning and that they’re able to do so without any negative impact on their jobs, environment, teams, etc. It’s this continuous learning which we’re already preparing for in class - experimenting, making sure to do that safely, so it doesn't cause harm. This is a particular focus in Innovation. 



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EDHEC: How do you assess participant performance in action learning projects? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: It’s a combination. There are quite clear rules, so 40% of the grade is an individual assignment, which is again a case study, a take-home exam. Participants can use AI, use Chat GPT, because they’re going to be using them at work - as long as they quote correctly. And they have to write a memo to the CEO of a company and make a recommendation, explaining why they’re making it. 

The final exam is the last big learning experience, so I try to construct it in a way, that it represents an opportunity to learn additional things. In the final exam they discover a different market or a different country, for example. I give them case studies where they can apply various concepts that we’ve used in class.  

A certain percentage of the final grade is based on participation. Even in big classes, I use mini quizzes, where participants apply familiar concepts to new cases or simulations. If I use simulations for grading, I never use the finanal results only, but always a combination of these results and the learning that has happened. They may have to write a paragraph on ‘What am I taking away? What did I learn from that simulation?’ and that’s where you see whether they’ve captured the main inputs or whether they’ve just been good at optimising the price or supply chain or whatever it was in a specific simulation. 

There are also team assignments and now, whenever possible, I do live cases. I work with companies who come in and ask participants to work on specific problems or questions they have. After several interactions, at the end of the course, participants  present their results directly to the company.  

That works really well. Chat GPT can only help so much, or only as much as in real life, which is what we want. I get really good results because many of them also want to impress the company and make something that’s going to be used.  

So there’s quite a bit of preparation, and I need to find companies that are also involved enough to provide time, and answer questions. But when you find companies that are willing to participate - often medium-sized companies who don’t have the resources to do this work themselves -  they're extremelyhappy about the analytical work and recommendations they get from the participants. They’re ready to invest their time and provide data, so the work is really meaningful. That’s something I include whenever possible. 


EDHEC: During the business games and case studies, what mechanisms do you have in place for feedback and iteration? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: I always do peer reviews, so most of the time participants get feedback from their peers in addition to mine. When I do a live case, they often hand in pieces of what needs to be done - internal analysis, external analysis - and receive feedback from me or my teaching assistant so they can enhance it for the final version. If participants want individual feedback they can come and talk to me after class, which many do.  

They do online quizzes and I look at the results, at a high level, and when I see that there were difficulties with a particular question - perhaps less than 70% got it right, I rediscuss that topic in class.  

For simulations, we carry out debriefings which build on what participants have done. Typically, I ask participants who’ve done a really good job in a specific aspect, to explain what they did and why they did it. Then I add my piece of theory, saying that it makes sense because of Theory X. We move on to the next participant who’s done something well in a different area, and let them explain. So they get feedback directly, everyone knows what has worked and they learn from each other. Letting participants who did a good job explain what they did, is a very nice way to motivate everybody to do their best in the next exercise, so they will be asked to share their insights.  

Particularly in executive education where we have so much experience in the room, I want to make sure that they learn as much from each other as they learn from me.


EDHEC: When you look at all the changes and challenges facing the business world, all the technological advances, the huge leap with the arrival of AI, how do you see the role of action learning evolving, especially in strategy education? 


PROF. KOLLENZ-QUÉTARD: I hope that soon every participant is going to have an individual AI assistant to provide feedback, to help them learn, and to cut content into digestible pieces for specific participants. In every group, you have some that are faster in one area, some are more analytical, and others are more creative, or have strong  soft skills, so I think that will be great. I also believe that we need to prepare participants to work with AI tools like Chat GPT, so I encourage them to use and share the prompts with everybody, so everybody sees how to get better results.  

I strongly believe that the role of the manager will increasingly be more about people management and thus I’m trying to let them experience ways to implement things, to communicate, to do the difficult communication, to learn how to learn, to learn how to help others to be innovative or create a team atmosphere that’s supportive of innovation. I think this is going to become increasingly important.  

So, in my view,the content side of teaching (e.g. explaining theory) is going to decrease in importance. Pedagogy will remain key. Teaching in the era of AI  will be primarily about the application, and potentially also questioning of theory and frameworks and the development of critical thinking skills needed to verify the output of AI. Does the answer of ChatGPT make any sense? How do  I need to adapt it so it can be used or implemented? Leadership and so called ‘soft’ skills will be increasingly important. Thus, we need to adapt what we do in class to prepare our participants for these new challenges. Action learning for me is the most straight-forward way to develop these skills.  

  Karin Kollenz-Quétard


  Foresight, Innovation and Transformation Chair Member

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