The managers' crystal ball becomes cloudy

Companies can no longer predict the nature of their environment, says Philip Schofield
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The Independent Online
Intelligent managers could, until recently, reasonably predict the intentions of their competitors, the behaviour of the workforce, developments in technology, the preferences of customers and the expectations of the public. But as Chris Hayes says in his introduction to Managing Learning for Added Value, a report published by the Institute of Personnel and Development, fewer and fewer organisations now live in such a cosy world of relative certainties. Managers cannot escape from the combination of frequent step changes and increasing complexity in their environment.

Mr Hayes, chairman of the New Learning for New Work consortium, gives examples of unexpected change. Supermarkets not only compete in food retailing but also in banking, financial and travel services, dry cleaning, clothing, dental and ophthalmic services and car distribution. New competitors appear on the internet and steal customers - as has happened in the book trade. Microsoft has taken only 12 years to become the world's most valuable business. And customers and investors no longer act like rational economic beings but are swayed by political, ethical, ecological and other "issue" considerations.

In this climate of rapid change and growing complexity employees need to be trained, developed and managed in new ways if they are to make an effective contribution. The report's authors, David Guile and Nickie Fonda, argue that managers must recognise that the future competitiveness of an organisation relies on its ability to add value and manage knowledge. Success will go to those who mobilise everyone in the organisation in taking responsibility for managing their contribution to corporate performance. This requires habits of behaviour in addition to knowledge and skills. But they argue that "the challenges facing people management and development are still being addressed using outdated assumptions and approaches".

Managers need to challenge and leave behind four common assumptions: that all that counts is the performance that top management can see; people's future employability is of little or no concern to management, people are like computers (you need only give them the data needed for their current job); and managers decide what people need, and trainers/educators implement.

Instead, the authors argue for a new relationship between front-line staff, managers and development specialists - one that values the viewpoint of staff as highly as the views of customers. They want the development of people to focus on tomorrow's employability as well as today's performance, and they want to see the creation of work environments that "will both support and challenge". These should be integrated into "a new process for the management of learning, the purpose of which is capability development".

Managers listen to what workers say and respect their viewpoint. Managers are also clear about the kind of capabilities expected of the organisation's whole workforce, and communicate these to everyone. And they are aware that these capabilities can be developed only in an environment in which people experience relevant performance challenges. They also work to the principle of "subsidiarity" - in which accountability, authority and responsibility move to wherever people in the organisation have the information needed for "value-adding" decisions and action.

These managers also recognise that people need support - information, understanding, know-how and emotional - in order to identify and respond to challenges and issues. They understand that everybody has their own talents and interests and that it is pointless to expect people to take responsibility for issues and situations that they are not interested in, or not good at dealing with. Finally, they are conscious that this "challenge and support" environment does not just happen, but must be fostered and encouraged.

The message for the individuals is that they "must cater for their own employability. You must not only find out what expectations employers have, but also the trends which will affect your employability". These in turn "will affect the way in which you both acquire the knowledge of your subject area and also how to deploy it".