Many paths to reach the summit

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The Independent Online
Distance learning management courses are now more popular than face-to-face training. But, Ray Wild argues, today's boss needs a range of approaches

MANAGEMENT education and development is big business now because, simply, there is a great need for it. Consequently, business schools are happy with their lot. But is their optimism well placed?

Initially it was all straight- forward. Management education courses were provided by specialist organisations and held on their own premises. But now, increasingly, the courses are coming to the managers, often electronically through the Internet, or by computer and video conferencing, straight to the desk of the manager as and when they are needed.

Many believe that this new approach will progressively replace the traditional one. For one thing, it is much cheaper. Furthermore, managers are now more reluctant and less able to go away for their education and development. They have particular needs which must be addressed at a time and a place to suit them, and they expect to deploy the technology used in their jobs to access information and support for their own further development. This is a concern for some business schools who have noticed that approximately 10 times as many managers benefit from the new as compared to the traditional approach.

But these developments are just two of the faces of management education, and do not represent the complete picture. Replacing one approach with another is not really the issue at all. Certainly these are two "smiling faces" as there is ample evience that both are achieving something worthwhile in their different ways. There are, however, ways in which the smiles might not be justified.

The thinking goes like this: all management education and development is about change. The main purpose is to help people change so as to be able to do things better in the future. And the most potent form of development is experience itself. Both change and experience are dimensions, not entities. For example, people can change by small amounts and regularly, or more radically and probably less frequently. These changes - incremental and transformational - are parts of this dimension. Similarly, experience can be obtained in different ways; for example, on the job or off the job.

If we take these two dimensions together we can identify four types of management development: 1. Incremental change on the job; 2. Incremental change off the job; 3. Transformation off the job; 4. Transformation on the job.

In the first, managers must be supported as they develop themselves in ways to match their changing job needs. The second is to do with instruction - managers go somewhere to get the skills to do something that they need now or know they will need soon. The third involves challenge by exposing managers to things beyond their immediate context in order that they might gain a different perspective, attitude, approach and confidence. Finally, the fourth is to do with confrontation - the manager being faced with new and unexpected demands at the workplace.

The traditional model for management education and development is an example of the third. Typically, it is used to help those in functional roles prepare for more general ones. It is well established and most major business schools have done it for years. It is something they are good at and well equipped for as they can bring together managers from a variety of situations and with a range of experience, in a challenging but non- threatening situation.

The new or electronic approach is an example of the first. It is a means of encouraging and supporting the development of managers on the job. It is increasingly employed as a means for distance learning delivery of qualification courses. It is a process informed by current job experiences and needs. It enables managers to apply what they learn as they achieve it. This strategy is behind some modular and part-time courses provided by business schools, but is more evident in distance learning courses, which, while pioneered by business schools, are offered by publishing, media and other organisations.

The means to pursue the seond are also well established. It is the purpose of most training and short course provisions, which aim to deliver particular knowledge and to generate particular skills. Popular courses now are in the uses of IT, negotiation, and re-engineering. This provision is increasingly accessed by managers, and encouraged by their organisations to update their skills.

The big gap now is in the fourth approach. Business schools offer relatively little. Consultants do a better job for these managers, who are confronted with crises - with the need for immediate response. For them, big changes are required, and quickly. There is no time to go away and find out what others did in similar situations. Directors facing an unexpected hostile bid don't have time to do a course, nor do managers whose products are alleged by a press article to be detrimental to their users.

It might be argued that such situations should not confront managers. If, for example, they had been developing themselves in other ways they would have been prepared. But the unexpected will always happen, so we must have the means to help managers cope with it.

It seems likely that this must involve one-to-one support through some form of mentoring, along with the opportunity to access relevant experience from others through some form of on-demand, real-time networking. This is the type of service that business schools should be providing to their alumni as an on-going service, giving instant electronic access to other members of the alumni through regularly updated databases, with tutor support. Business schools would have an advantage over consultants.

Incremental change is as important in management development as it is in organisational development. It is what all managers should be doing all of the time. But such continuous improvement is not enough, as there will always be major changes in markets, competition, and technology, and thus step changes are required for organisations and for their managers too.

The traditional and new approaches provide some opportunities for management develop- ment. Clearly, we should ensure that one does not replace the other, for they do different things. They deal with two of the identified situations. But more importantly, we must ensure that adequate provision is available, for our four categories are all important and are complementary. They are not alternatives. When business schools offer such a service, their smiles really will be justified.

Professor Ray Wild is the Principal of Henley Management College.