Case Study: Shell

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One of our original programmes was delivered in Shell Chemicals. The brochure the Company published was based on the action learning proposal CBS faculty put to the Company which led to their appointment. Its introduction said;

'The world in which Shell UK (SCUK) companies are operating is changing constantly. At different times individual companies may be in a phase of growth, consolidation or renewal. However, they are always seeking ways to enhance their competitive position. One way is to develop training methods that contribute directly to creating competitive advantage.

Training in many companies has become unrelated to the real needs of business. It has become divorced from the realities and the pressures of managing complex social and technical situations. The emphasis has been over academic, on learning about management rather than learning to manage.

Action learning is an approach to training which satisfies the above aims and contributes to the wealth creating process. It services the real needs of the business and appeals immediately to busy line managers concerned about the lack of effectiveness of traditional knowledge and training.


The focus of action learning is on solving real-life business problems emerging from day-to-day activities. This develops the managers by providing them with the opportunity to learn from actions they undertake, from difficulties they face and from relationships they create. Working with others from different functions produces a cross fertilisation of ideas and generates new thinking throughout the organisation. Moreover, the opportunity for executives to gain an understanding of functions other than their own can provide an important catalyst for improving the interface between functions and therefore the overall effectiveness of the organisation.

Training programmes should result in 'observable' improvements in organisational and individual performance


Action learning involves a radical change of approach from traditional methods of management and organisational development. The emphasis used to be on what a manager could be taught, whereas it should be on what a manager, or a group of managers, needs to do to improve performance.

The high quality of action learning programmes leads to participants putting a lot of individual energy into their study. They are highly motivated by the fact that the exercises are relevant, tailor-made for the organisation concerned and designed around issues and problems being experienced. Managers are taught how to solve specific problems, how to work with colleagues and to relate their work to the strategic and operational requirements of their organisation. The nature of the programme emphasises a large amount of participation and contribution which gives the student a greater sense of fulfilment and commitment, which comes from the experience of being able to improve business activities. There is also the bonus of earning a nationally accredited qualification at the end of the course. This latter is achieved by assessment of work as the programme proceeds.'

The programme was designed to facilitate the move of the Company's head office from London to Chester within close proximity to its two manufacturing plants. The aim of this move was to bring the marketing, distribution and manufacturing functions closer together so viable business teams could be created. Action learning was chosen to play a lead role in this process of business integration.

The 16 participants came from 3 business areas and support functions. The aim was to build into the programme the following aspects;

  • The inter-dependency of departments and the importance of working across functional boundaries.
  • The need for continuous improvement in business performance, based where possible on feedback from internal and external customers and establishing a creative network of internal supplier / customer relationships.
  • The importance of suppliers and of reaching collaborative relationships with them.
  • The process of holding managers responsible for the effective utilisation of total resources (people, capital and materials), after they have been given the appropriate authority to match the responsibility for 'mini-businesses'.
  • The process of setting business objectives, managing them and being responsible for measuring and monitoring them.

The Programme Design

The programme was customised to the business needs of the Company and conducted part-time over 15 months. It consisted of the 4 elements of CBS programmes, that is, workshops, group and individual projects and personal development plans designed into 6 modules each of 4 days duration. During these modules a 2/3 day workshop was held and in the rest of the time participants worked on their projects and PDPs with the help of the Programme Director.


Participants required additional knowledge in several general and specific areas and the opportunity to discuss the issues raised. Six two-day workshops covering a start-up programme and the following five key functional areas of management were held;

  • Business Strategy and Marketing.
  • Manufacturing Management.
  • Distribution and Logistic Management.
  • Finance Management.
  • Human Resource Management.

These workshops were run jointly by Dr Kinder and CBS faculty who dealt with the theory and best international practice in the subject area and SCUK directors and senior managers responsible for the specific areas. In this way the senior managers became directly involved in the programme and the enthusiasm created led to their continued support. In the evening of the first day of each open forums were held where senior managers answered questions from course participants. In every case lively discussion resulted and the openness of the managers was much appreciated, which reinforced the crucial link between the 'student' and their managers.

After each workshop participants were required to write a short paper on what they learnt in the workshop and how this learning could be applied to their working situations. This reinforced the theme of the workshops, namely how theory and best international practice could be applied to day-to-day activities in Shell Chemicals. These papers formed part of the individual project each participant had to submit for the Diploma.


The Company recognised that the best form of action learning was to work on defined projects of everyday significance to the participants and their managers. Each participant chose an issue of importance to their day-to-day activities as the subject of their individual project. This approach of choosing a specific subject was replaced on subsequent programmes by the Business Improvement Plan (BIP) which required each individual to audit the total business performance of the part of the organisation they were responsible for and to define and implement a performance improvement plan (the BIP).

Examples of Individual Projects

  • Examine the salicylate additive supply chain and delivery performance.
  • Define ways of improving the effectiveness of shift managers, supervisors and production technicians.
  • Proposal for a training programme for the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) professional qualification.
  • An evaluation of distribution policy.
  • Is the Distribution department meeting the needs of its internal and external customers?

Senior managers were chosen to sponsor these projects and to act as resources to the team members. Participants researched these subjects thoroughly, applied the learning from the workshops, and devised implementation plans.

Group Projects

The action learning 'sets' were created and given the following business areas where problems were being experienced;

  • Stock policies for bulk and batch manufacturing processes.
  • Product delivery performance and ways of improving it.

These were the TASKS which senior managers wanted guidance on how to improve performance. The second part of the group's activities was to analyse HOW the groups developed into high performing teams through an understanding of group dynamics. This was described as the PROCESS the groups went through. The Company brochure described these group projects on the following way;

'In its simplest from, action learning involves groups of managers learning through joint analysis of real management problems. Within these groups, or 'sets', members explore and compare insights and experiences and discuss projects they have been set which feature improving the performance of their departments. They also discuss the workshop subjects and define what they have learnt and what their individual development needs are in each area of knowledge or skill. Students take responsibility for managing their own learning and contributing to the development of their peers.'

One of the most stimulating elements of the group projects was the satisfaction stemming from learning how to operate as an effective group and from individual and organisational improvements in performance.

The second part of some set meetings was given over to skills workshops. These workshops were one of the major ways in which the programme addressed the key competencies required for effective management performance. The workshop subjects were;

  • Presentation skills.
  • Influencing skills.
  • Problem solving.
  • Running effective meetings.
  • Negotiating skills.
  • Communicating skills.

Personal Development Plans

These were described in the following way by the Company;

'The PDPs encourage self-directed and self-managed learning and can lead to high levels of commitment and direction towards improving individual managerial effectiveness. The key to this element of action learning is to get the participants to realise that their day-to-day activities are learning opportunities to be documented in their log books. Participants are given the responsibility for assessing their own development needs and setting their own learning objectives.'

The Programme Director presented a template of what a PDP should include, what excellent organisations do in defining the generic competencies they want their managers to possess and how best practice suggests these competencies can be developed. Individual tuition was given to ensure managerial strengths were built on and weaknesses removed during the programme and participants learned how to learn from reflecting on their day-to-day experiences and then take action to improve performance.


The programmes won the UK National Training Award because;

  • It contributed to creating competitive advantage.
  • It appealed to busy line managers concerned about the lack of effectiveness of traditional knowledge-based training.
  • It solved real-life business problems and focused on sustainability via the learning process and documenting it for posterity.
  • It met the original aims of the programme

Above all, the Company was delighted because;

'The results of the individual projects have already led to savings of more than £250,000; group projects to more than £1million. Other improvements included; demonstrable improvements in service levels to external customers; development of a critical mass of managers committed to TQM and continuous improvement; erosion of the traditional functional boundaries and constraints; identification of waste by outside contractors.'

In addition, the nominating managers of the participants highlighted the following results also published in the Newsletter;

  • All the participants were awarded the Diploma.
  • An increase in the 'quality' of output from participants (ie improved job performance).
  • Opportunities to propose and sponsor business projects with significant payback in their operational area.
  • A framework in which to become actively involved with the coaching and development of their staff.
  • Valuable insights at senior levels, into middle management perceptions of organisational problems and challenges.
  • A measurable improvement in confidence and competence of participants.
  • A broader commercial understanding of the business, its goals and challenges by participants.
  • The opportunity to bring about significant change and learn from the process.
  • Exposure to and interaction with the most senior managers of the Company.'

The success of this programme led to;

  • Three, one-year diploma programmes for Shell Brunei, one of Shell's major oil producing areas. The business challenge here was;
         '... related to Bruneianisation, ie the need to increase the number of jobs held in the organisation by Bruneian citizens – particularly at management and senior staff level. The need was to develop a critical mass of local staff with the confidence and belief that they could influence the direction and performance of the Company and to encourage them to take an active interest in and an 'ownership' of the business'.
    These 3 programmes involved 20, one-week visits to Brunei by CBS faculty. All 3 succeeded in producing significant savings. For example, several group projects looked at logistic support to the offshore facilities with benefits claimed by management of $20m. In addition, the senior management team said;
         '... the growth in confidence, enthusiasm and capability of the participants was very noticeable and facilitated the immediate promotion to senior roles for many of the participants.'
  • Shell's first in-company MBA programme accredited by Durham University which CBS faculty designed and delivered.
  • CBS being invited by Oxford University to become an approved centre for national vocational qualifications.
  • An invitation from the Director of Bradford University Business School to take the product into his organisation through which CBS faculty supported by University faculty delivered 10 in-company MBAs and a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) in the Caribbean.

This realisation of the business challenge described earlier was of particular significance to the Executive Committee of Brunei Shell and the Head Office HR team who commissioned the action learning programme.