Managers who fail to acquire new skills and keep abreast of developments in their field face extinction, writes Philip Schofield

We expect our doctors, engineers, lawyers and other professionals to keep abreast of developments in their fields. We would not trust them otherwise. We expect them to continue learning so long as they stay in practice. Yet a substantial minority of managers either see themselves under no such obligation or work for employers who are not prepared to maintain or develop their expertise.

One in five managers undertakes no training at all, according to a survey by the Institute of Management and Cambridge University, and in firms with fewer than 200 employees, this rises to one in four. The rest average two-and-a-half days training a year.

Keeping abreast of current knowledge is a major problem for many managers and technical specialists. Organisations are changing rapidly - in their structures, systems, technologies, markets, how they utilise their human and other assets and much else. As individuals we can find our expertise becoming outdated, so risking redundancy and poor prospects of another job. At the corporate level, failure to keep on top of current technology and systems makes us uncompetitive and puts the business at risk.

If organisations regularly up-date their employees' expertise, they are likely to maintain or improve their competitiveness and retain the motivation of their workforce. Training is a good business investment. But many employers invest little or nothing in training. According to a Department for Education and Employment report, Lifetime learning - a policy framework, only one in three adults has done any learning in the last three years, and a third have done none since leaving school.

Many professional bodies recognise the problem. They expect their members to undertake several days of approved learning activities a year throughout their working life. These schemes are known either as continuing professional development (CPD) or continuing, professional education (CPE) programmes. Some schemes are mandatory, many are not.

Those with CPD or CPE programmes include management consultants, accountants, actuaries, lawyers and engineers. The programmes usually involve a minimum number of hours for approved learning activities each year. These can involve training courses, distance learning programmes, in-company programmes, projects, seminars and conferences, but also reading text books and professional journals.

Many managers recognise the need to keep up to date in their chosen field. A major study by the Manchester School of Management at UMIST for the Institute of Management found that almost nine in 10 managers think that they will need to acquire new skills in the next five years. Moreover, one in three thought that they had received insufficient training in the past 12 months.

What sort of education and training do managers need? It can be grouped into three broad areas: a foundation of knowledge; a toolbag of "transferable" skills to enable then to function effectively in a variety of functions and working environments; and specialist skills specific to the job in hand.

Having a sound foundation of knowledge at the level now required by managers usually means a degree in a management-related discipline. Those who do not have a relevant degree increasingly feel the need to study for a formal business qualification. According to a survey of 724 managers by the Institute of Management and Ashridge Management College most of those surveyed believe that business or management qualifications will become more important because of a need for more broadly based business knowledge (70 per cent), because there is more competition for jobs (69 per cent) and because of the growth in managers' responsibilities (68 per cent). Just over half also believe that the demands of managerial jobs will become greater.

The survey shows managers take the need seriously. It found that more than half of those aged under 35 and 28 per cent of those aged 35 to 45 are studying for a management or professional qualification. The study, The Qualified Manager, also found that 32 per cent of company directors already have masters degrees. The higher education sector is the main provider of formal knowledge and qualifications.

With the exception of IT training, most "transferable" skills training is provided relatively early in one's career. It covers such topics as team working, communication skills, problem solving, prioritising ones work, time management and IT.

Many commercial providers offer one- or two-day "standard" courses covering a particular skill. Others, particularly outdoor development providers, may offer two- to five-day programmes tailored to the need of a specific company team, not only developing interpersonal skills but incorporating a package of other transferable skills.

Courses to provide the specialist skills needed for the job in hand, or to update knowledge or skills, may be run by professional institutions or by commercial providers specialising in a particular sector or function. However, such training is often provided in-house using external specialists. Managers who fail to use the many development opportunities open to them (and many today invest financially in their own development) become a liability to their employers and to themselves.