Back to the future

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Last week, the business writers on the Independent and the Independent on Sunday began an unusual experiment. We went back to university. To be precise, we began a six-week course at the London Business School designed to cover the state of the art in how a leading business school teaches management.

The idea, which was greeted enthusiastically by the LBS principal George Bain and his staff, was to change subtly the way we understand and write about businesses.

British business journalism has traditionally been City journalism: the mainstay of most business sections involves reporting and analysing the financial results of quoted companies and the behaviour of financial markets.

This is an honourable trade, and it is a great strength of this newspaper, which has once again been voted the most popular general newspaper by City analysts and institutional investors in the latest Mori poll. Our columnist Gavyn Davies is the City's top- ranked economic analyst. Jim Slater has come up with a bevy of tips to beat the market. And the City team's own share tips have consistently outperformed.

But many of the senior business writers here have wondered whether we could build on those strengths, and do more to break out of some of the constraints of the traditional form.

Are we doing enough to communicate the excitement of so many business developments? Or is an excessive concentration on financial results too dry? After all, you only have to look at American newspapers and business magazines - let alone Continental European newspapers - to realise that there can be much more to business stories than finance.

So how do we incorporate stories about successful (and failed) strategies, marketing campaigns, new ways of running organisations or motivating staff? How do we get behind the financial results to understand the longer-term factors and the corporate culture that ultimately determine a company's success?

As we have expanded our coverage, we have added both an international dimension - we are the only general paper to have a business correspondent in Frankfurt as well as New York - and an emphasis on management issues. Peter Drucker is an occasional contributor. We regularly review management books. Tom Peters writes a management column on Sunday. And we run management pages in the daily and Inside Business on Sunday.

But the most successful way of taking new ideas on board is not to bottle them up in a special page marked 'European business' or 'Management'. Big European business stories never seem to break on the day that newspapers set aside a page. The best solution is to try to weave new elements into the tapestry every day.

That means ensuring that international and management issues are part of every writer's set of interests and expertise. Hence the LBS course. We gave the programme director, Professor Nigel Nicholson, carte blanche to take us on a tour of the state of the art in management issues.

The idea is for the LBS's leading thinkers on business subjects to set out how they see the latest developments in their fields. In each case, they are drawing heavily on recent case studies.

I'm sure that our LBS course can only be a start. In the financial and business worlds, the pace of change is accelerating each year. Every organisation will find itself investing more and more time in thinking about how to change products and processes radically and how to learn new skills.

Just look, for example, at the explosive growth of derivatives - financial instruments like options whose price is derived from the price of another security, and which are far more volatile. Derivatives trading made Swiss Bank Corporation the most profitable house in the City last year.

Look, in the industrial world, at the steady convergence of the telephone industry with the television business: even if the world of information super-highways delivers only half of its promises, thousands of businesses will alter radically.

Video rental and CDs will be replaced by videos and music on demand through the cable network. Home banking will mean screen banking. And you will order the weekly groceries from the television remote control.

Next week, one of our sessions is entitled 'The Learning Organisation'. I hope we are. Are you?

Hamish McRae returns next week.