Managers tuned in at the BBC

A drive for professionalism has yielded results with the first batch of MBAs. Roger Trapp reports
When John Birt became director-general of the BBC four years ago, he committed the corporation to taking a professional approach to management training. That vision moved closer to reality earlier this month, when the first group of "middle managers" were awarded MBAs from Bradford University's management centre.

Ian Hayward, the BBC's head of organisational development, thinks the programme has been a conspicuous success but he is adamant that this is only the beginning.

Indeed, the initiative, designed with Bradford Management Centre, is supposed to affect the whole organisation.

Bradford - which was selected against competition from Manchester and Warwick business schools - was required to tailor its teaching to the specific needs of the BBC and is updating courses as required. For instance, the teaching of finance especially takes into account that the corporation is a not-for-profit organisation. Tutors regularly meet senior BBC officials to ensure courses include the latest developments in such areas as digital technology.

Alistair Ostell, course director for the BBC programmes, says the initiative has so far worked well and it is not just the broadcaster that is gaining. "Where we have learnt new things or where we've thought we could do the teaching better, we've adapted," he says.

This flexibility was only one of four elements Mr Hayward rates as crucial to Bradford's success in tendering for the contract. The others were the school's strong academic standing, experience of public service organisations and the design of the course, which is spread over three years and split between distance learning, residential study and workplace projects.

Mr Hayward feels the workplace projects have been especially successful because they enabled candidates to apply what they have learnt to the job and given the corporation an immediate payback on its "significant investment". He believes they have helped to break down the cynicism that greeted the management changes initiated by Mr Birt and his colleagues.

Mr Hayward explains that a prime objective has been to create "a cadre of business professionals well versed in all aspects of managing", but he insists that all this money is not being spent purely for the benefit of a "privileged few". Accordingly, a mentoring programme has been set up under which MBA candidates are paired with senior managers and are encouraged to join the multi-functional teams being set up all over the corporation.

Perhaps most importantly, the corporation has sought to make sure that candidates for the MBA and the two-year diploma course set up to complement it in 1994 are drawn from a wide cross-section of the BBC. However, it is keen that programme-makers feature strongly on the grounds that an MBA-type training will help them manage better in the more commercial world in which the BBC now operates. Mr Hayward points out that since each programme is essentially a project, there are many commercial skills that can be brought to bear. He says the benefits most often cited by participants are better time management and greater self-confidence.

The first MBA group, which started in November 1993 and has just graduated, was 22 strong. That figure has since been reduced to a more manageable 15. On the other hand, up to 50 people a year may study for the diploma. The response has been so strong that only about 40 per cent of those who go through the rigorous one-day assessment and submit a written piece of work on a management issue are selected.

Although the BBC has issued a detailed prospectus on the course, Mr Hayward says he cannot tell would-be candidates how much time to devote to their studies. "It is not a uniform investment over the year. There is peaking and troughing," he adds, explaining that some people at times do about 15 hours a week study on top of their regular work.

But he points out that there are clear rewards. Seventy per cent of the first group had been promoted over the three-year course, compared with just over 50 per cent of their peers. One person had taken advantage of newly-won skills to leave.

This departure does not unduly concern Mr Hayward, who joined the BBC six years ago after setting up a similar initiative at British Airways. It is possible to handcuff people that you are training or demand reimbursement from them if they leave within a certain period. But if the idea is to increase motivation, these restraints will lead to failure. "If you don't take risks, you end up by not developing the organisation in the way you ought to," he says.