Fit for pur­pose?

In Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Her­minia Ibarra talks about ‘out­sight’—the valu­able ex­ter­nal per­spec­tive you gain from di­rect ex­pe­ri­ences and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion—and how op­posed to in­sight, it changes the way you think as a leader. De­vel­op­ing this

The Smart Manager - - Contents -

Mor­gen Witzel, Ex­eter Busi­ness School, tells us why MDPs are not an end but the be­gin­ning of an ex­ec­u­tive’s jour­ney of con­tin­u­ous learn­ing.

The other day I was en­gag­ing a sales man­ager for a com­pany and I asked, “Do you un­der­stand sales­man­ship?” He replied, “I know it from A to Z.” So I said, “Get out, you know too much! I have been sell­ing goods nearly all my life, and I only know it from A to F!”

The quote above is from an un­pub­lished lec­ture by Her­bert Cas­son, one of the pi­o­neers of mar­ket­ing and sales man­age­ment, given at one of the Rown­tree man­age­ment con­fer­ences in Ox­ford in 1928. (I will come back to Rown­tree and his con­fer­ences later, as I think they have some im­por­tant lessons for man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment to­day.) The point Cas­son is try­ing to make, hu­mor­ously, is that all of us in­volved in man­age­ment are con­stantly learn­ing, all the time. Else­where, Cas­son com­ments that any­one who thinks they know ev­ery­thing about a sub­ject is

ready to die; for learn­ing, he says, goes on through­out our lives, and never ceases.

Cas­son is ab­so­lutely right. The older we grow, the more we re­al­ize how much we do ‘not’ know, and how much there is still to learn. And learn­ing, for any­one who is in an ac­tive pro­fes­sion, must be a life­long, or at least ca­reer-long process. When we cease to learn, we stag­nate. We no longer keep up with the rest of the world. We drop be­hind, and slide into obliv­ion.

When I teach about knowl­edge, on MBA and MSc pro­grams, the ques­tion some­times arises: how much knowl­edge is enough? Is it pos­si­ble to know too much? The an­swer is an em­phatic ‘no.’ For a start, who is to say when a par­tic­u­lar piece of knowl­edge might be­come valu­able? It might be im­por­tant to­mor­row; equally, it might lie dor­mant for ten years, or twenty, and then sud­denly come in use­ful. My ad­vice to stu­dents has al­ways been to stuff them­selves full of knowl­edge un­til they are ready to burst; and keep on do­ing that for the rest of their lives.

That is the pur­pose of man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams, or ex­ec­u­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams as they are known in some parts of the world. Learn­ing for man­agers does not end with the pos­ses­sion of a de­gree, not even a post­grad­u­ate de­gree. MBA and MSc pro­grams are a be­gin­ning, not an end. They launch man­agers on those ca­reer-long learn­ing tra­jec­to­ries.

Along the jour­ney, man­agers will learn from many sources: the ex­pe­ri­ence of their peers in­side and out­side the or­ga­ni­za­tion, the ex­am­ple of their se­niors and lead­ers, the cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion of their team mem­bers, events and trends in so­ci­ety and the world at large and— most im­por­tantly and of­ten over­looked—self-re­flec­tion and look­ing in­ward, learn­ing from one­self. Ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing in an or­ga­ni­za­tion or an in­dus­try is vi­tal in terms of giv­ing con­text and color to learn­ing: we look, con­sciously and sub­con­sciously, for ways of ap­ply­ing learn­ing to our work, and ex­pe­ri­ence is a key tool in help­ing us to do so. But there are times when we also need to step com­pletely out of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and learn from ex­ter­nal sources. There are times when, no mat­ter how old or ex­pe­ri­enced we are, we need to go back to school.

learn­ing from out­side

There has been for some time an on­go­ing de­bate about which kind of fur­ther learn­ing is more suit­able: com­pa­nyspe­cific pro­grams that pro­vide the con­text and prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion that I de­scribed above, or gen­eral pro­grams that bring peo­ple to­gether from dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies to en­gage in learn­ing out­side the work­place. Com­pa­nies are of­ten re­luc­tant to com­mit funds and em­ployee time to learn­ing pro­grams where the learn­ing is not di­rectly rel­e­vant to their own or­ga­ni­za­tion and/or sec­tor. On one level, this is un­der­stand­able: money spent on man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment is an in­vest­ment, and there needs to be a re­turn on that in­vest­ment.

Com­pany-spe­cific, in-house de­vel­op­ment pro­grams are use­ful, for a range of rea­sons. They are a great way to up­grade skills and im­part knowl­edge about new mar­kets and new tech­nolo­gies. Well de­liv­ered, they can also as­sist in team build­ing and re­in­force cor­po­rate cul­ture, and they are a great place for lead­ers to con­nect with other mem­bers of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. But while these things are nec­es­sary for a well-run or­ga­ni­za­tion, they are not suf­fi­cient.

Man­agers also need to learn from other or­ga­ni­za­tions and from the world at large. Get­ting out of the or­ga­ni­za­tion into an open man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­gram—run by a rep­utable in­sti­tu­tion—re­mains one of the best ways of do­ing so. Among the ben­e­fits de­rived from these pro­grams are:

■ the chance to bench­mark against other or­ga­ni­za­tions

Smart busi­nesses learn from other busi­nesses, in­clud­ing—es­pe­cially—ones from other in­dus­tries and sec­tors. There are all sorts of in­stances of

MBA and MSc pro­grams are a be­gin­ning, not an end. They launch man­agers on those ca­reer-long learn­ing tra­jec­to­ries.

best prac­tice—IT sys­tems, team de­vel­op­ment and man­age­ment, mar­ket anal­y­sis, qual­ity con­trol and as­sess­ment, cus­tomer re­la­tion­ship man­age­ment, justin-time sourc­ing, the list goes on and on—which can be trans­ferred from one sec­tor to an­other. And where there is no com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment, where com­pa­nies are not ac­tively try­ing to reach the same cus­tomers with the same prod­ucts, there is no rea­son not to col­lab­o­rate and share knowl­edge. Man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams of­fer man­agers a chance to rub shoul­ders with peers from many dif­fer­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions and learn from them. That kind of learn­ing is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, if not im­pos­si­ble, to ac­quire through in-house pro­grams.

the chance to learn about broader move­ments and trends

Whether by de­sign or by chance, in-house de­vel­op­ment pro­grams tend to be in­ward look­ing. They are good at an­a­lyz­ing the com­pany and its spe­cific prob­lems. They are less good at putting those prob­lems into a broader con­text. My ex­pe­ri­ence of in-house pro­grams is that when they do try to em­brace the wider world, they tend to do so in brief and rather sim­plis­tic terms; ie, they do not do it very well. The broad range of ex­pe­ri­ences and insights among par­tic­i­pants on open pro­grams of­fers more di­ver­sity and wider learn­ing; breadth to com­ple­ment the depth found on in-house pro­grams.

the chance to con­cep­tu­al­ize and de­velop the­ory

This is a ben­e­fit that some­times is over­es­ti­mated or over­looked. There is more to man­age­ment than just gath­er­ing sta­tis­tics, writ­ing spread­sheets, and ap­ply­ing tools. Man­agers need to be able to think cre­atively, in or­der to man­age risk and spot op­por­tu­ni­ties. The­o­riz­ing and con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing are ex­cel­lent ways of in­creas­ing men­tal ca­pac­ity and en­cour­ag­ing flex­i­ble think­ing. Busi­ness school are par­tic­u­larly good at pro­vid­ing these kinds of op­por­tu­ni­ties; left to their own re­sources, com­pa­nies of­ten strug­gle. the chance to build ex­ter­nal net­works

Of course, man­age­ment and de­vel­op­ment is not just about learn­ing. One of the of­ten-re­marked ben­e­fits of man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams is the last­ing im­pact of peer net­works among par­tic­i­pants. In­house pro­grams only of­fer the chance for man­agers to net­work with col­leagues in­side the firm. Ex­ter­nal pro­grams al­low for much broader net­works to de­velop and flour­ish.

the ben­e­fits are not just per­sonal

All these things ben­e­fit in­di­vid­ual man­agers. They im­prove their men­tal ca­pac­ity and their abil­ity to learn, they give them con­tacts across a range of in­dus­tries, and they im­part a broad range of knowl­edge. For the hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor count­ing the cost of in­vest­ment in in­ter­nal pro­grams and seek­ing for that all-im­por­tant re­turn on in­vest­ment, what should he/she be look­ing for?

more creative, flex­i­ble, and dy­namic think­ing by man­agers

Com­pany cul­tures, over time, de­velop cer­tain set ways of do­ing things and par­tic­u­lar rou­tines that they ad­here to. While these can be highly ef­fi­cient and ef­fec­tive in the short term, over time they can also be­come stul­ti­fy­ing and rigid. Rou­tines can con­strict ef­fec­tive think­ing by ex­clud­ing any­thing that does not con­form to the rou­tine’s own de­mands. Ex­po­sure to other cul­tures and other ways of do­ing things will help man­agers to think out­side the box, break­ing the shack­les of rou­tine and pi­o­neer­ing new meth­ods and tac­tics bet­ter suited to the time and place. bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment, broadly as well as spe­cific to the com­pany

Some trends in busi­ness are quite nar­row and af­fect only a few sec­tors, or per­haps even only a few firms within a sec­tor. Oth­ers—the im­pact of so­cial me­dia,

One of the of­ten­re­marked ben­e­fits of man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams is the last­ing im­pact of peer net­works among par­tic­i­pants.

for ex­am­ple, or in­creas­ing pres­sures for so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity—af­fect al­most ev­ery busi­ness, al­most ev­ery­where. Un­der­stand­ing these trends also means un­der­stand­ing the im­pacts they can have. See­ing how other firms in other sec­tors deal with the chal­lenge can im­prove ef­fec­tive­ness closer to home. greater tol­er­ance for and un­der­stand­ing of the value of di­ver­sity

By this, I mean not just eth­nic and gender di­ver­sity, but also di­ver­sity in terms of how things are done and how the world is viewed; the ‘soft­ware of the mind’, as Geert Hof­st­ede called it in his book of that name. This again is an aid to creative think­ing and prob­lem solv­ing. The more dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives one can bring to bear on a prob­lem, the more quickly it is usu­ally solved. Again, ex­ter­nal pro­grams can pro­vide a much greater ex­po­sure to dif­fer­ent cul­tures and men­tal frame­works.

It is, of course, hard to quan­tify these things, and harder still to mon­e­tize them, but HR pro­fes­sion­als and oth­ers re­spon­si­ble for or­ga­ni­za­tional learn­ing need to ask them­selves this: what is the cost to the com­pany if cre­ativ­ity, knowl­edge, and di­ver­sity are ‘not’ en­cour­aged?

en­gag­ing with the world

It is for this rea­son that the Rown­tree con­fer­ences, I al­luded to ear­lier, were set up in 1919. They ran for twenty years be­tween the First and Sec­ond World Wars, and en­gaged with hun­dreds of man­agers from Bri­tish firms large and small. Al­though not man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams in the mod­ern sense—there were no as­sign­ments or ex­ams and no as­sess­ments, just lec­tures fol­lowed by in­tel­li­gent dis­cus­sion—their pur­pose was the same. Ben­jamin See­bohm Rown­tree, the Quaker choco­late man­u­fac­turer who es­tab­lished and spon­sored the con­fer­ences, be­lieved that all com­pa­nies had two things in com­mon; all ex­isted to pro­vide ser­vice to the com­mu­nity, and all shared com­mon prob­lems that could be over­come by work­ing to­gether. As well as the Rown­tree con­fer­ences, Rown­tree set up or­ga­ni­za­tions known as Man­age­ment Re­search Groups, where small groups of man­agers from dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies met to share and dis­cuss man­age­ment prob­lems, and he was a spon­sor of the In­ter­na­tional Man­age­ment In­sti­tute, an early at­tempt to cre­ate an in­ter­na­tional fo­rum for dis­cus­sion of man­age­ment is­sues.

The pur­pose of these lec­tures and dis­cus­sion groups was ex­actly what I have al­luded to ear­lier. First, they

pro­moted more creative and flex­i­ble think­ing. Rown­tree in­vited psy­chol­o­gists, mu­si­cians, and artists to ad­dress the con­fer­ences, hop­ing that they would of­fer lessons for un­lock­ing cre­ativ­ity. Sec­ond, they were de­signed to pro­mote a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment. Politi­cians and econ­o­mists were called in to ex­plain trends in trade and po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments. And fi­nally, there was the need for di­ver­sity of opin­ion. Speak­ers at the con­fer­ences were not just the great and the good, but also fore­men, shop stew­ards, and oth­ers rep­re­sent­ing the point of view of the worker, not just the man­ager or the cap­i­tal­ist.

Nearly a hun­dred years on from Rown­tree’s pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts, the needs of busi­ness re­main, at root level, much the same. The na­ture of the prob­lems has changed; the need for more col­lec­tive ac­tion to find so­lu­tions re­mains. Busi­nesses solve prob­lems much bet­ter when they work to­gether. They also need part­ner­ships with busi­ness schools, which pro­vide the­o­ret­i­cal re­search bases that com­pa­nies them­selves of­ten lack.

The­ory and prac­tice are both im­por­tant. Yet Rown­tree would have been sad­dened to see the di­vi­sion which is be­gin­ning to open up be­tween them. Skep­ti­cism about the value that busi­ness schools can pro­vide is grow­ing; in the so-called ‘post-truth’ world, there is a dan­ger that the dis­trust of ex­perts that we see man­i­fest­ing it­self in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics could spread still fur­ther in the world of busi­ness. But busi­ness schools are also do­ing them­selves no fa­vors. In­creas­ing num­bers of them are now get­ting out of man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment and ex­ec­u­tive ed­u­ca­tion in or­der to con­cen­trate on re­search, which they see—wrongly, in my view—as their core pur­pose.

It is true that there are many in­ef­fec­tive and badly de­liv­ered man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams out there, which do not of­fer value for money. (There are also some amaz­ingly good ones.) In or­der to mend the prob­lem, in­stead of com­pa­nies and busi­ness schools drift­ing away from each other, we need to bring them closer to­gether. Busi­ness schools need to en­gage more closely with the cor­po­rate world, and cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives need to un­block their ears and lis­ten to what busi­ness schools are say­ing.

There are many ex­cit­ing things that could be done in ex­ec­u­tive ed­u­ca­tion. For a start, both sides could rec­og­nize that learn­ing is a con­tin­u­ous process. In­stead of a two­day or one-week pro­gram ev­ery year, or for a few years, busi­ness schools could start de­liv­er­ing man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment on a con­tin­u­ous ba­sis, thread­ing it through work and or­ga­ni­za­tions. Teach­ing and re­search could be com­bined with man­age­ment prac­tice, for ex­am­ple, by teach­ing in live-ac­tion sit­u­a­tions and then ask­ing par­tic­i­pants to im­me­di­ately ap­ply their knowl­edge. Cour­ses could be de­liv­ered in a more in­no­va­tive way, on busi­ness premises rather than in arid, badly de­signed class­rooms. Peer learn­ing, as hap­pened at the Rown­tree con­fer­ences, should not be a side-ef­fect, but a cen­tral fo­cus of ev­ery pro­gram. These are just a few op­tions; there are many more.

To make man­age­ment de­vel­op­ment pro­grams fit for fu­ture pur­pose, we need to first re­mem­ber what the key ben­e­fits are for both in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies, and de­sign pro­grams with those in mind. Then, we need to look at ways of de­liv­er­ing those pro­grams for max­i­mum im­pact so that the knowl­edge of busi­ness schools and the prac­ti­cal wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence of man­agers are com­bined to best ef­fect.

In or­der to mend the prob­lem, in­stead of com­pa­nies and busi­ness schools drift­ing away from each other, we need to bring them closer to­gether.

MOR­GEN WITZEL

IS A MAN­AGE­MENT HIS­TO­RIAN, AU­THOR OF 21 BOOKS, AND A FEL­LOW OF THE CEN­TRE FOR LEAD­ER­SHIP STUD­IES AT THE UNIVER­SITY OF EX­ETER BUSI­NESS SCHOOL.

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