Certification: Tough tailor-made training proves its value on paper: A Northampton in-house management course can lead to a degree and open doors

THE GUIDING principle today in management training and development is relevance. Most executives are reasonably familiar with the fundamentals of business, thanks to management seminars, videos and texts and the increasing prevalence of MBAs. What they want is more instruction and guidance to suit their companies.

To a large extent, business schools and other management centres have responded to this demand through the introduction of tailored courses. But many organisations are still not satisfied.

This is partly because some courses are not as tailored as they are claimed to be. But there is also a feeling that the programmes are not as effective as they should be because they are not rigorous enough. While open courses usually bring qualifications, from the MBA to various certificates, in-house ones do not.

But a course being developed by Sunley Management Centre in Northampton suggests that this need not be the case. The centre, which is an associate college of Leicester University and on its way to becoming part of what will be Northampton University, has devised a flexible curriculum approach to postgraduate management qualifications, which leads to a Certificate of Management.

As Simon Denny, who heads the project, explains, this allows two things to happen. First, Sunley can work with a company and - after carrying out a proper analysis of training needs - develop a programme that splits the requirement into manageable chunks. On completion, the individual receives a certificate that qualifies him or her to study for higher qualifications, such as an MBA.

Second, the centre can work with companies that already have reasonably successful schemes in place but want some help in getting them accredited. It is, for example, collaborating with Top Rank to develop a programme along these lines.

Graham Cramp, franchise development manager at the truck-maker Scania - one of the first companies to sign up - says reward for the individual is an important part of the appeal.

'The certificate is something for people to take away. It appeals to a lot of people because we're in an industry where many left school without qualifications. The certificate helps them keep on the course because there's something at the end of the day.'

It is a view shared by Richard McCoy, managing director of ABR, a company in the sweeteners division of Associated British Foods. 'We want to develop it as a training system that people can walk away from with some formal recognition,' he says. 'They've got something that's transportable, but also something that we can build on within.'

It is no coincidence that both companies come from the area surrounding the centre. Although Sunley is confident that it is at the leading edge of a new trend in management development, it is at present restricting itself to 'personal contact and discreet marketing, rather than press ads'.

This is because it has the capacity to run only four or five schemes at a time and does not want to be overrun. Because it has not made a big investment in research, it does not incur the same overheads as other training providers - and therefore does not need to attract lots of clients, Mr Denny points out.

This personal touch does not seem to be lost on Sunley's customers. Having been dissatisfied with the results from previous tailored courses, Mr McCoy carried out a wide search before finding the answer 'much nearer home'. With 35 managers in attendance, he has been particularly impressed by the flexibility the course allows while remaining within the required academic guidelines. The focus has shifted from time to time as the company's business needs have changed.

Likewise, Mr Cramp - who has more than 130 people taking part, including himself, says: 'The main issue is their interest in talking about the business. They really want to blend academe and business - lots of others don't. It's quite obvious that they have tried to get under the skin of our business.'

Such comments add strength to Mr Denny's conviction that other organisations will be forced to follow Sunley's approach. Pointing out that the days of sending people off to prestigious international business schools for open courses are numbered, he says: 'Most large organisations and many small and medium-sized enterprises say 'We accept there are generic management skills, but there's a need for the provision of specific knowledge.' '

But as he acknowledges, satisfying that need within academic restrictions is easier said than done. The business relevance is largely dealt with through the detailed examination of the company that precedes the course. But an important factor is also ensuring that senior managers attend - so as to demonstrate the level of the company's commitment, and to enable them to know what is going on and order any changes that may be required.

Although delivery methods differ, with Sunley adding flexibility by using trainers outside its own staff, the central plank in the academic aspect is the assessment task on which delegates are graded for the certificate.

'The trick is to devise with the company an assessed task that will enable the delegate to apply the material to his or her work,' Mr Denny says.

To be awarded the Leicester University-accredited Certificate of Management, a delegate will typically be required to have done about 350 hours' work and completed seven or eight assignments. These can be delivered either as business reports or as verbal presentations. They are marked in the usual manner, from A to E, with D and E signifying failure.

And the risk of failure is highly important. As Mr Denny says: 'You can't give away certificates. If you do that, you're dead.'

(Photograph omitted)

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