Fresh eyes on the old firm

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The Independent Online
Andrew Finney hates the word "re- engineering". But the managing director of Hambro Countrywide Relocation could be about to embark on one of the truestapplications of a concept that has been devalued by misunderstanding and overuse. He is in the process of hiring two recent graduates to help him to examine how his company operates - and competes with the opposition.

Mr Finney, who is responsible for the relocation arm of the financial services group Hambro Countryside, is aware that "any business that's going to succeed has got to look continuously at the ways it does things" - in essence, what the much-hyped business process of re-engineering is all about. He says that he has plenty of good people working for him capable of doing that, "but they are at the coalface and digging away".

Consultants are the obvious answer. But like many other managers, he feels they can be apt to arrive with solutions that they claim have worked elsewhere and which turn out to be short-term. "I wanted something different," he says.

The idea that led to an advertisement in a recent edition of the Independent grew out of the company's developing involvement with the business school at Reading University, the closest university management centre to its Basingstoke headquarters. While sending executives on the school's management skills course, Mr Finney came across the Teaching Company Scheme, which was set up by the Department of Trade and Industry to assist in the transfer of technology from universities to business. In the two decades it has been in operation, it has helped more than 1,500 companies and has been backed by just about every university in the country, but by its nature it has been associated with manufacturing rather than services. In particular, the scheme normally requires projects to have a specific aim of building or doing something.

But Mr Finney was not put off and believes he has established the scheme's first partnership between a university and a service company. With the assistance of the university and the DTI, which was won over after six months of trying, he and his colleagues came up with an idea for two business associates to be employed by the company for two years to examine its working practices. One would look at general management and the other would concentrate on information technology. They would be supervised by Simon Booth and John Ogden, two of the university's faculty members with extensive consultancy experience. In effect, the two associates, who will be paid pounds 18,500 a year, will be jointly managed by the university and the company.

Some might question the wisdom of basing the company's future on the thought of two neophytes. But Mr Finney believes he will benefit from the freshness of thinking they will bring. Accepting that the two people he will select from more than 50 "highly qualified" applicants are unlikely to have established consultancy skills, he says they are "designed to be a little bit of grit in the oyster".

Rather than a weakness, it will be a strength that they will not have preconceived ideas of how a company should operate and will not be influenced by the systems and structures of other business operations.

"They will say, `Why are you doing it this way?' and they will challenge people to justify the way they are doing things," he adds. But that does not mean he expects them or the academics supervising them to come up with the answers. "We hope they'll stimulate our people to come up with the answers."

Not that Mr Finney sees himself and his company as the sole beneficiaries. The project could prove to be a ground-breaking programme for the Teaching Company Scheme and further consolidate Reading University's reputation in this area. The operation based in the university's cybernetics department draws on the skills of a range of university departments to service a variety of businesses in the Thames Valley region and farther afield, including SmithKline Beecham, John Laing Construction and Sun Microsystems.

But it could also give a real boost to the careers of the two recent graduates who emerge from the pack ready to begin work in April. At the very least, it stands to give them valuable work experience that they can take into a future permanent job. But Mr Finney also sees it as a sort of sponsored research programme that will be monitored by Dr Booth, director of management studies at the university's economics department, and Dr Ogden, a teacher specialising in databases and systems analysis.

"It will provide an excellent platform for a masters degree," he says, adding that the marketable skills they will emerge with could take them into consultancy "or we may end up employing them".