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
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The quote above is from an unpublished lecture by Herbert Casson, one of the pioneers of marketing and sales management, given at one of the Rowntree management conferences in Oxford in 1928.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.
IS A MANAGEMENT HISTORIAN, AUTHOR OF 21 BOOKS, AND A FELLOW OF THE CENTRE FOR LEADERSHIP STUDIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF EXETER BUSINESS SCHOOL.