Business students taste life at the sharp end: The LBS is trying to forge closer ties between classroom and factory floor

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The Independent Online
RECENT emphasis on more mature students has not been able to rid business school graduates of a fundamental image problem. The world at large - and, more important, prospective employers in industry - see them as flashy youngsters hooked on financial solutions, with little real experience.

It is fitting, then, that London Business School - which because of its proximity to the financial centre is seen as particularly prone to this approach - has sought to change perceptions. Its 'Week in Line Management' course is designed to take MBA students out of the classroom and into companies where, as the course title suggests, they will work with line managers on real problems.

Chris Voss, BT professor of total quality management at the school and director of the Centre for Operations Management, which organises the course, said it was an 'immensely powerful' way of introducing desk-bound people to problems of industry that they might not otherwise encounter.

Since the course started two years ago, 150 students have spent time in about 70 companies. Prof Voss said feedback from both sides had been 'excellent'. While the companies came back for more, he said, the students had found the experience taught them what management was all about. 'It's not just about strategy. To make companies work, you have to manage effectively at the line level.'

The project typically involves students spending one to two weeks with the line managers. During this time, they will gather information, analyse problems and sort out how solutions can be implemented - to report back to the managers concerned.

It is, however, just one way in which the Centre for Operations Management is attempting to strengthen the business school's links with industry management.

Its central role will be research in four main areas. In the first, manufacturing strategy, the group is already involved in a number of ways. They include a project that might seem to be taking coals to Newcastle - running workshops in the United States designed to help academics deal with this area.

The second category concerns total quality and service management. Staff involved in this have produced an assessment of British organisations and are now looking at the involvement of employees in these concepts.

In technology management, the group has embarked on projects designed to make British companies more innovative. Particular attention is being paid to the part that benchmarking - a current management buzzword that involves a company comparing its performance with others - can play in this.

Finally, the centre is drawing on close ties with Japan to focus on that country's manufacturing methods.

Despite the range of projects, there is a common thread. By 'developing tools' for industry, the school hopes to help it become more competitive.