Evidence of the extent to which work and how it is done is changing throughout organisations can be seen in the growing use of a breed of manager called the "interim executive". What started as a little-publicised, add-on service for recruitment consultancies and even a few management consultants has grown into an increasingly important phenomenon.

However, a survey published last week, claimed to be the first significant study of the area, indicates that it is still not well understood. While 75 per cent of those taking part were familiar with the term "interim executive", 25 per cent had no knowledge of it. And nearly 50 per cent of those familiar with the term categorised it as temporary/ short-term contract work.

Nevertheless, Boyden Interim Executive Services, which commissioned the research by MORI, was encouraged by the finding that more than 40 per cent of respondents "more correctly understood it to mean" the provision of senior executives at or near board level as an alternative to management consultants, or to implement change for a certain period of time.

The key advantages of interim executives were seen to be their depth of management experience, better implementation, faster achievement of the required results and greater commitment than was generally the case with consultants.

The survey includes endorsements from a number of chief executives, such as Ian McKinnon of British Aluminium and David Sim, former head of Nurdin & Peacock. Among the comments were: "You get the benefit of an outsider with a lot of experience of handling change at a cost which is roughly half that of a management consultant"; "With the right interim manager you are buying experience. He gets the ship afloat fast"; and "He certainly didn't just keep the seat warm; he saved us lots of money."

Martin Wood, director of Boyden Interim Executive Services, said that the growing use of such personnel required clients to understand what they were buying. And he pointed out that "two distinct and very different services" were being offered under the phrase "interim management".

Though significant numbers of people realise it means "a high-level resourcing option where implementation of change at or near board level is a prerequisite of the role", few respondents to the survey had really used the concept in that way.

"Unfortunately, there has been liberal use of the term as an alternative title for upmarket `executive temping'," said Mr Wood, "where the executive is put in place to `hold the fort' or `keep the seat warm'. This has hindered its strategic application as a real alternative to traditional management consultancy, and demeaned its true worth."

He added that true interim executives numbered only a few hundred in the UK, and that the accelerated use of the idea would be "critically dependent on the accurate matching of these few hundred against well-understood assignment briefs".

Roger Trapp