Fast Track: I'm the boss today

A job-swap can teach you things you never thought you'd need to know.
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If you want someone to know how infuriating your job or boss is; if you can't understand why a department requires six weeks and seven forms to complete a simple task; if you want to learn, but not in a classroom; then perhaps what you need is a job swap.

Ever since David Lodge's Trading Places, in which a nerdy manager and a hip feminist academic step into each other's shoes, the concept of temporary job swaps has provoked sniggers among senior managers. But last week more than 40 companies decided to play musical chairs as part of an initiative organised by the Campaign for Learning.

Learning At Work Day saw such delicious job swaps as the head of Dorset County Council with the tea lady, a chief executive with an office manager, and a director of the National Grid with a man who climbs up pylons to inspect the lines. But what benefit is this to junior managers, who already have workplace theories from endless courses coming out of their ears?

Plenty, according to Professor Cary Cooper, head of Organisational Psychology at Umist.

"People have got stuck in a rut - into relying on traditional 9am-to- 5pm teaching courses," he says. "Most management learning is to be done from sharing other people's experiences, getting talking, exchanging ideas. Job swaps, shadows and sabbaticals are just ideal, if only for the interaction you get."

Bill Lucas, head of the Campaign for Learning, put his money where his mouth was and swapped with his office manager, Gloria Phyall.

"Experiential learning beats being told what to do. It can be humbling," he says. So he ordered stationery, booked train tickets and put the team diary in order. "It's ideal for graduate employees who need real experience and exposure to real business situations," he adds.

For Gloria, the day was also gratifying: "Now he's more aware. But there were a few funny moments - I had to point out that he was subordinate to certain people."

For Gloria, stepping into Bill's shoes wasn't as scary as it might have been. He supported her fully and they'd worked out ground rules beforehand. "I went into meetings knowing people wouldn't jump on me," she grins. Now she's lunched with his colleagues on an equal footing, she's happier speaking to them by phone, and she's seen how Bill works - "in top gear, all the time" - thereby appreciating his drive.

Jim Harris, human resources manager at the National Grid, found himself several hundred feet up an electricity pylon, inspecting power lines as part of his job swap. Meanwhile, his swap partner was lecturing within the company of the perils of his work as a linesman.

"I was nervous beforehand," Jim admits. "But what a fantastic day. And yes, I do appreciate the difficulties these people work under."

He hopes the move will have introduced employees within the National Grid to the concepts of self-development.

Bryan Hall, director of human resources at the National Grid, says he is receptive to any requests for job swaps that may arise within the company - particularly among graduates. "After all, we want our graduates to experience as much responsibility as possible," he says.

One high-profile exchange, between David Svendsen, chairman of Microsoft UK, and Michael Bichard, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education and Employment, highlighted the benefits of the public and private sector talking more closely. But are both sides willing to allow more junior employees to follow suit?

"I think, with imagination, most of us could do this more often than we do," admits Michael Bichard.

Harsh lessons were learnt at The document company Xerox, where a series of job swaps went slightly off the rails.

"You need to plan them thoroughly, and to give clear objectives and leave constructive tasks, otherwise people could feel out of their depth," says Graeme Neilson, an employee development manager.

One Xerox manager, Nick Lunn, agrees, but is convinced of the worth of stepping out from behind his desk after he quit his paperwork for a day to go out on the road with analysts. Beware of falling back into passively shadowing operations, he warns: "You can't just sit there staring into space; it's all about speaking to people, and getting the most out of a situation where it's not obvious what you should be doing."

So why have most companies neglected a seemingly easy, enjoyable and inspirational way of learning? Partly to blame is the inevitable downsizing, according to Professor Cooper: "So many companies now are just too lean. If people are away, there's not enough slack to take up the strain." Cynics also have a lot to answer for, he says: "People don't think they've got anything to learn. They say there's no proof it will benefit them."

True, there is little research on the gains of trading places, but then neither is there for the more traditional courses, he points out, adding that he'd like to see job swaps take place within and between companies at all levels. A day is too short, six months is most likely too tricky to arrange, but anything from a week to three months might teach you things you never thought you needed to know.

"Almost any exposure is useful, as long as you have objectives. Apart from anything, it gives you a break from your immediate environment," says Professor Cooper.

For Bill Lucas, at the Campaign for Learning, the whole exercise has been an eye-opener. Even cynics have sat up and taken note, he says. "This may eventually change how we motivate people."