President Boris Yeltsin realised this when he called on G7 countries for assistance in 1997. He asked for help in training a core of 5,000 Russians to build up the country's infrastructure. There has been a generous response, and the roll-out has started in 14 countries. This month, the first eight managers arrived in Britain as the vanguard of a projected quota of 540, mostly aged between 25 and 35, who will visit the UK in teams during the next three years. The British Council is managing the process, which is funded by the Department for International Development's Know How fund: the universities of Wolverhampton and central Lancashire will provide orientation, while companies volunteer to take managers on a two-week placement with a view to future business collaboration.
Pauline Medovnikov, of the British Council, is keen to encourage British companies to take part in the venture: it costs them nothing, except a commitment to give the visitor an insight into their industry. Strenuous efforts are made to match the visitor with the company. "In St Petersburg, Britain was the number one choice for managers. We have got a good reputation. The managers who came this month were surprised at how non-hierarchical it is. They have been able to meet senior management while on their placements."
Andrei Konev is typical of the new breed of Russian manager. Serious, fiercely intelligent, fresh-faced at 23 and with an intense approach to hard work ("I haven't got a family so I concentrate on my career"), he graduated with a degree in applied mathematics and is now in senior management at Digital Design, a software development company based in St Petersburg. He studied for nine months at the International Management Institute part- time (four evenings a week, and every Saturday) and on his visit was placed for two weeks with his company's associate, IBM.
"I had a clear objective - to understand how IBM performed its business processes. I wanted to see the roles of the different departments. A large company can be a good model for a smaller company, because smaller companies become larger," he says.
He concentrated on two aspects: project management and quality management. "IBM has an integrated product development process, which is very simple. They see the process in five stages; concept, planning, implementation, testing and lifecycle. What was important for me was that they have a clear system of review for each stage where a decision is made, and that reduces the number of projects reaching the implementation stage."
Mr Konev plans to open an IBM training centre in his city: his company already has a small subsidiary office in the UK. "We will improve the quality of the workforce, which will make a significant difference to the product. At the moment people have only two options: leave the country, or find a job not related to information technology. We can help them see the value of that education and stay in Russia."
Ekaterina Anisimova, 26, is the marketing manager for a construction company in Rostov-on-Don, in the south of Russia. Like many of her contemporaries, she also studies and has another job: as an interpreter in Italian. She was impressed with the flexibility and openness of the managers she met in the UK. "People are more friendly and sincere than I thought they would be," she says. But she claims that in the UK, experience is prized more highly than further education - the reverse of the situation in her home city. "It's not so common in Russia to leave a company to get more knowledge."
She will take back with her specific ideas which she hopes to put to her seniors: fostering a sense of community by a policy of constructing one-storey buildings rather than tower blocks, for example; and using a PR agency to market the company's image. But she acknowledges: "I am afraid that we have so many problems for today that it will not be easy to present the ideal. I think I will have some disappointments."
A third manager, Andrei Altukhov, has set up his own company to deal with energy efficiency and metering systems. Both he and Mr Konev say that their visit to Britain has opened their eyes to the value of networking. Mr Konev hopes to embark on an MBA in the UK or the US this year, and to make connections further afield. Mr Altukhov, meanwhile, wants to start closer to home. "I want to establish a new association."
Any company wishing to participate in the British Council scheme should contact Pauline Medovnikov (tel: 0171-389 4103).