Can the UK learn to manage?

Is it worthwhile giving managers time off to study for an MBA? Ross Bentley finds out.

Is it worthwhile giving managers time off to study for an MBA? Ross Bentley finds out.

A large proportion of the four-and-a-half million managers in the UK do not receive adequate or relevant training, says Andy Westwood, head of policy research at The Work Foundation.

"In recent years there has been an increased focus on managers on the front line. In the private sector they are charged with driving performance and in the public sector they are responsible for ensuring the efficient delivery of public services," he says. "But our levels of productivity remain lower than many of our European neighbours so obviously it is time we revisited the way we train our managers."

Westwood says although the UK has as many, if not more graduates studying for MBAs than most countries, we still underperform. So the problem does not lie with a lack of high-level management development. "We obviously don't want more of the same," he says

Where we underperform, he says, is in the provision of intermediate qualifications - this is where we require more concentration on policy and thought leadership.

"The needs of our management population are bigger than what the MBA can provide. At the present rate it would take 500 years to put all these people through an MBA. The MBA is a real red herring."

He adds, "If we are to drive productivity, the last thing we need to do is to give managers a year off to take an MBA and then let them work themselves back into the workplace - we simply haven't got the time if we want to improve service."

Westwood says there should be more emphasis on training our managers within the context of their jobs and industries. "It seems as if management is seen in isolation. The current thinking is, 'You are a manager, therefore you can transfer these skills from industry sector to industry sector', but we need to add some relevance to the training. There is a big difference between managing a team of nurses and a field sales team, for example.

"There should be a lot more learning and assessment on the job. The Government has set a target of 50% of people going through higher education - a lot of this can be achieved through the workplace."

Westwood quotes supermarket chain Tesco as a good example of a company which has found success through training its managers on the shop floor. Tesco has outperformed its competitors in recent years yet its management programme is virtually all in-house.

Once a year it sends its trainee managers off to Manchester Business School but that is only 10% of the entire programme.

By training on the job, Westwood says, managers will experience greater tangible returns from their learning. Vocational training and in-house coaching and mentoring have been neglected.

What the UK is lacking, according to Westwood, is more management training at levels below the MBA. He calls for qualifications such as the NVQ 3 and 4 in management and elements of management training found in some undergraduate courses to be given greater credence. "While the NVQ has been criticised in the past, it has matured and it is time we started to see it as a viable option. This type of training is particularly relevant to small and medium-sized businesses," he says.

Given the responsibility heaped on managers in the current climate it is remarkable, says Westwood, that their training and development has never been subjected to the sort of thinking that would accompany the preparation for other professions of similar importance.

Doctors and engineers, for example, have to go through rigorous training and are required to so do by law. "There is no reason why it shouldn't happen in the boardroom as well as at the sharp end," he says.

Vital management training issues have been clouded by the constant turnover of management fads and fashions and the rise of the celebrity manager. Westwood says, "Management is a big industry, and to a certain extent it has been hijacked by showbiz managers, such as Bill Gates, Jack Welch and even England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson."

Westwood also criticises the fad for outdoor activity courses - paintballing and the like. Some of these programmes, he says, are of dubious value.

"We are all searching for that elusive ingredient that will make us top managers - the fact is that this ingredient does not exist."

He adds, "It's about what you do and how good you are at doing it."

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