Management: Gaining from training

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The Independent Online
The tale of the Emperor's new clothes seems to have caught up with the world of executive development. Increasingly, chief executives and those involved in human resources are pondering the mystery of why the results of executive training fail to materialise in measurable ways.

Some say that individuals may return from a training course highly motivated, but the effect, like a hangover, wears off quickly. If this is so, they argue, why bother? Yet two recent large-scale surveys of European industry by Sundridge Park, the management training centre, suggest that companies are set to increase spending on training.

Is this an act of blind faith or a reflection of the saying, 'I know that half of our training works, but I don't know which half'? When in doubt, it would seem, the best plan is to continue.

The same surveys show the priorities for development. Foremost is team building. A close second comes communications skills, because change happens through people. Third comes change management, a set of skills vital for large-scale organisational restructuring, particularly in manufacturing.

Organisations' preferences for addressing these priorities are changing. While the 1980s were characterised by open or public programmes run by business schools and management centres that offered wide perspectives and prepackaged formulae, the form has now swung sharply towards solutions that are specific to the company.

The surveys show a marked preference for short programmes coupled with practical learning in the workplace. Instead of relying on individual managers to become solo change-agents, the logic now runs that the people, or even teams, necessary for a specific change initiative should train and develop together.

This migration towards company-specific training is worldwide. Even the bastions of open programme provision, such as Harvard and Insead, are making tentative moves. They are not wholehearted because some academics believe this to be yet another flight of fashion fancy, with the return to open programmes but temporarily delayed.

The prognosis for this change of emphasis is not good. Instead of the historic problem of lone managers getting nowhere, we may now see armies of motivated people finding that change is as elusive as ever.

The way to avoid this problem is not hard to find, but the medicine may simply prove too bitter for many organisations. There will need to be a recognition of three key principles:

1. A company's development is driven by specific objectives. These have to be definable and measurable.

2. Individuals who are offered training must see that it is in their own self- interest: it enhances their personal marketability. It is not just for the good of the organisation.

3. The company must plan not just for training, but for what happens afterwards if the momentum is to be maintained.

The first criterion should be obvious, but we find that the correlation between the key performance indicators widely used in industry and the outcomes of training and development is often neither recognised nor understood.

People deliver most performance improvement, not technology and systems. As a result, companies should analyse closely what they are trying to achieve with each significant shift in attitude, knowledge, skills or way of behaving before planning a training initiative.

The second criterion - helping executives recognise the personal value to them - is a new idea, persuasively articulated by my colleague Professor Peter Herriot in his Career Management Challenge (Sage, London, 1992).

As executives become less concerned with job security (because the reality of job security may have gone forever), they need to be encouraged to look after their own marketability. This is no threat to the sponsoring organisation, since executives who can do more will generally do more.

The third criterion is the really difficult challenge. Organisations have been lamentable in their failure to ensure that the conditions for sustaining the gain from development are in place before the return of the prodigals.

Middle managers will rapidly decide that discretion is smart if they return from training courses to find senior management unaware, hostile or indifferent to new ideas.

Sustaining the gain comes from ensuring that the culture of the organisation recognises and values what is being brought back, even if it involves fundamental challenges. There are various ways of capturing the gain. These include projects with clear, deliverable business objectives, job moves, coaching support from line managers, recognition and reward for delivering change, and the adoption of a philosophy that recognises that customers remain loyal to organisations that practise continuous improvement.

The real prize for UK industry would be within its grasp if the avowed intent to spend more on improving people's skills were better planned - before and after the course.

The author is marketing director at Sundridge Park Management Centre.

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