Fast Track: Help Desk - `Without specialisation I fear I may hit a brick wall'

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The problem

I want to work in the field of change management. I have 15 years of work experience as a lecturer in further and higher education and have an arts degree. I am told by professionals in the business process world that this experience, together with my analytical and communication skills, would be looked upon as valuable. I am also told that in the area I am trying to enter, an MBA would not be particularly desirable. The approach to recruitment seems to be fairly open, with mentoring as the method of support for people from diverse backgrounds into this specialist work. Presently, I am sending out a curriculum vitae which highlights my innovative and analytical skills. I am using personal contacts, newspaper appointment pages, the Internet and the local university careers service to find addresses. Although people seem to be positive, I suspect that without much greater specialisation in IT or a technical/business subject - or indeed, evidence of direct experience of commerce - I may hit a brick wall. I really need to have a clearer view on how to progress. Is there an appropriate qualification which could enhance my profile? Or are there other strategies that I should be considering?

Jo Davison, Plymouth

The solution

Professor Chris Hendry, centenary professor in organisational behaviour and head of human resources management and organisational behaviour, City University Business School, says:

Since the ability to manage change is now seen as a key skill for the human resource professional, there is a considerable amount of competition in this field. In fact, almost every firm of consultants and every self- employed consultant claims to be doing it. How do you differentiate yourself, or show that you have a particular knack for this kind of work?

is not whether you are innovative or have good analytical and communication skills, but how you demonstrate this and persuade others to employ you. Change management involves sensitive and difficult issues and so credibility and track record are important. In fact, your background in further and higher education suggest you might first consider developing skills in change management in this particular sector, where there is considerable change going on. That said, you will still need to learn the "tricks of the trade". There is a large body of knowledge on change management and the process skills needed, but there are few specialist degrees. Short courses of a week or so are not really going to give you the depth you need, which leaves the MBA.

Many MBA programmes (such as our own) give special attention to change management and consultancy skills because many MBA graduates choose to enter this kind of work. But MBAs also provide a knowledge of technical and business subjects. This is important for credibility and effectiveness since it will enable you to understand the situations which create a need for change, as well as the possibilities for change in the round.

Calvert Markham, fellow of the Institute of Management Consultancy and member of its council, and managing director of Consultancy Skills Training Ltd (which specialises in skills development among consultants), says:

The task of change management is complex and demanding and when specialists are engaged, it is because they have superior skills in handling it. You may have the right raw intellectual material and some general experience of the world of work, but this is undistinguished and insufficient to be able to conduct this work in your own right. There are courses (eg, in organisational behaviour) that perhaps more roundly address the topic of change management than an MBA would. But change management is a practical skill and consequently also requires practical experience to achieve competence.

In the same way that other professionals learn their craft at work under expert tutelage, so, too, ought you to seek a position in an organisation where the craft of change management can be learned on the job under the supervision of experts. Such a position might be found within a consultancy practice, or the internal consultancy of a large organisation.

Ashley Unwin, head of change enablement, Arthur Andersen Business Consulting, says:

My first question to you is, "What do you mean by change management?" I rarely come across consistent definitions of change management in the field, much less consistent practice. These variations will have a significant impact on the type of work you do. Look beyond your "communication" and "analytical" skills - these are ambiguous words that cover a multitude of sins - and determine what really drives you, what you feel passionate about. For me, passion for what I do is critical. A key part of change management is making sure the right information is available for people to make informed choices. It is also about understanding, supporting and working with people and you need passion to lead this process.

Once you've determined what motivates you, seek out a consultancy or company whose view matches your own, and which offers career development. I would not advise sending out CVs randomly - change enablement is such sensitive work that you need to believe in your employer's approach. While an MBA may get you into the door of a consultancy, it is not a reliable indicator of capability in this field. The skills needed are in the areas of conversation, facilitation and coaching. This goes far beyond theory since what really counts is your ability to lead and guide on a live project. Having mastered these essentials, you may wish to develop a specialisation such as communication, leadership development, training and education or cultural transformation.

If you have a work problem and want expert advice, write to Carmen Fielding, Fast Track, Features, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2451; e-mail: