A positive track record

The OU MBA is having a revolutionary effect on Merseyside's rail network
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The Independent Online

"Until last year we didn't have control of the trains," said Neil Scales, chief executive of Merseytravel, the passenger transport executive for Merseyside, and one of the first graduates of the Open University Business School (OUBS). "We felt that they wouldn't really improve until we had the power to make decisions about the service."

However the law, as it stood, prevented them from doing so. "If it hadn't been for my training with the OU I'd probably have given up," he explains, "but the OU helps you to think more laterally and approach problems in other ways. It allows you to think in a systems environment. So we influenced government ministers and eventually got the law changed to bring the trains under our control. We're the first local government body to take such responsibility over local rail. The trains are now more reliable and all our stations are staffed, as that's what the public want."

Improvements in the local transport network are vital as Liverpool gears up for its role as European Capital of Culture in 2008, and Merseytravel are already well ahead with plans for new tram routes that will link the airport, business parks and other outlying areas with the city centre. It all stands as a contrast to London, which still hasn't resolved long-standing arguments over the Crossrail link, despite bidding for the 2012 Olympics.

Neil Scales got his MBA in 1991 and went on to tutor various MBA courses. He was so impressed with the OUBS's materials that, when he joined Merseytravel in 1998, he put several members of his management team on to the MBA programme. "The course can shortcut 20 years of experience, and with the OU you can build your own MBA, so my staff could tailor the units to suit their needs."

Seven of his managers have now done the MBA and two more are studying for it. "It's allowed us to build capacity in the organisation. It helps people think outside the box and gives them a toolkit that helps them cope with the changing business world. I see managers using clear diagrams and mind maps to analyse problems and data, for instance. That wouldn't have happened before."

Neil Scales feels that the MBA teaches people how to deal with different working cultures, something that's vital at Merseytravel, which is controlled by five different local authorities. It also shows managers how to get the best from their staff. "The MBA teaches you that you're only as good as the people who work for you." Training is an important part of staff motivation and development, and Merseytravel now has its own learning centre, Merseylearn. Staff are given time off to go there and develop their literacy, numeracy and computing skills. Spanish language taster sessions have also proved very popular.

Neil's enthusiasm for the OU is shared by his team. "Taking the MBA really changed my life," says Jim Barclay, director of resources, who joined Merseytravel in 1992 with a background in management science and accountancy. In 1999 he took over a department that had a number of ingrained problems such as low morale, an insular approach and high levels of absenteeism.

"I found the MBA reinforced what I was doing at work. It gave me practical ways to change the culture of the department, and gave me new methods of understanding. Communication was improved, we set up weekly meetings and found ways of giving staff greater job satisfaction. If you create the right environment, then people will work better."

Jim feels that the MBA gave him a more open mindset, which has had a direct impact on the way he deals with issues at work.

"One of the most significant options I did was Creativity and Innovation," he says. "It gave me a new way of looking at things. I realised there are blockages to thinking, and that we need time and space to think clearly, more reflectively. I think more widely now. For instance, we look at the whole journey experience of our customers, from the moment they leave home, and think how to make sure it is pleasant and safe. So all our stations are staffed, and we've invested in good CCTV. We also have meetings with outside bodies like the police and youth workers, to see how we can work together to make travelling better for the public."

Linda Walsh, another of Merseytravel's OU graduates, had no academic background prior to taking her MBA and had previously worked as a swimming pool attendant. Now she's a principal infrastructure manager, in what is still a male-dominated industry.

"I was frightened before I started the course. In my family the girls weren't expected to go to college, so I left school at 16. But the MBA gives you confidence. I've now got a sound base of how management works and know how to motivate people better. My department has its own training programme. I make sure all front-line staff have the right attitude." Linda is now developing quality standards in bus stations. "Our bus stations are now much cleaner and staff have a higher profile, so the public feel safer."

With the focus increasingly on Liverpool as it prepares for 2008, you would think that Neil Scales had enough on his hands. But he is now working on his PhD, looking at how his successful strategy with the railway could be adapted to other public facilities such as hospitals. If it works as well as it has on Merseyside's trains, it can only be good news for the NHS.