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No feather bed for fledglings

In the first of a series on how leading companies train their managers, Roger Trapp looks at the ICL way
Pui-San Wu's introduction to the British computer company ICL was not unusual. She saw a booklet and was interested enough to attend a presentation given by the company at Bath University, where she was on an exchange programme from her course in the Netherlands. Suitably impressed, the former business administration student joined the company last June and is finding the experience of working in the information technology consultancy division "better than I expected".

She is particularly excited about the time and money the company - part of Fujitsu of Japan - spends on developing the 180-odd young graduates it takes on each year. "They help you to develop a career and skills. They encourage you to take courses and give you time to learn on the job," says Ms Wu.

Similar tales are told by other recent graduates. For example, Melanie Woodward, who has been working in software development since obtaining a technology management degree from Staffordshire University last summer, says: "Having ICL training on your CV looks good."

With the advantage of having done an industrial placement with the company as part of her studies, when the time came to decide on a permanent job she put ICL's reputation for training ahead of the fact that she could be earning more money elsewhere.

All of which is nothing new to Peter Forbes, the personnel director responsible for graduate recruitment. "I think our biggest 'sell' is training of people," he says. This in itself must be testament to the success of Sir Peter Bonfield, who has just been lured from heading the company to become chief executive of BT, and his senior managers in converting the company into an early British example of a "learning organisation".

The team has constantly pointed to the importance of training in enabling it to transform the languishing operation of several years ago into a potential world-beater. It has even gone so far as to set out the company's values in something known as the ICL Way.

With 23,000 people and sales of about pounds 2.5bn, the company has a strong presence in the information technology field. Profits are being boosted by its role - through its membership of the Camelot venture - in servicing the computers that run the National Lottery.

But Mr Forbes is anxious to stress that this size - and adherence to core principles - does not mean that there is a set approach. Like many large employers, it has abandoned the "sausage machine approach" and instead sets out to provide a framework for training and experience.

A central part of this is that graduates are recruited for specific jobs rather than to join a set management course. The initial job typically lasts for 18 months to two years and, while some may decide to stay on in that role, there is the chance to move to a variety of activities and locations.

Ms Woodward, for instance, points out that the range of the company's operations and the resulting plentiful opportunities were another attraction. In her current post she has met colleagues who are proof of this range of possibilities. "There are people who've been there for 20 years and have had diverse roles," she says.

Even those who join the company because it enables them to pursue a particular interest picked up in the course of their studies acknowledge that working for an organisation with many international operations in a variety of sectors offers almost limitless possibilities.

Stefan Hiebenthal joined last summer after studying electrical engineering in Hanover. He is nowworking in the telecommunications part of ICL Enterprises, largely because he specialised in the field while at university. But he is excited about what he might be able to do in a couple of years' time.

It sounds exciting, but it is not without a downside. Mr Hiebenthal has already surmised that "a great deal depends on who you're working for - like the amount of exposure and the amount of dealing with the customer you get". And Mr Forbes is at pains to point out that ICL bears out the recent assertion by the Association of Graduate Recruiters that self- reliance in your career will be a key skill for the next century.

"We need people who are very resilient because I think what you won't get is stability. We need people to challenge paradigms," he says. To this end, the company provides support but does not feather-bed individuals.

For some time it has used the currently voguish concept of the personal development plan - under which an employee agrees on goals with his or her manager and achieves them with the help of managers, peers and mentors. The idea, explains Mr Forbes, is that they should "mentally carry it in their back pocket as they go along".

Nor is such a reputation for training all plain sailing for the company. It leads other companies - often those less inclined to make the financial and other investments necessary - to poach its staff. Mr Forbes says that ICL does not suffer "tremendous haemorrhaging", but adds that sometimes it is annoying to lose people just as they are becoming influential.

The company seeks to stem departures by keeping staff motivated, and an increasingly important part of Mr Forbes's job is to look at the relationships between graduates and their managers. He also believes that the company's approach of moving people around helps to ward off the boredom associated with staying in a single job and keeping your head down until retirement.

As an international company, ICL is constantly looking to transfer staff between territories, particularly within Western Europe. This starts right at the beginning, since about 10 per cent of UK jobs are filled by graduates from outside the UK. Though this might pose something of a problem for British students, who do not typically combine the science background usually required with linguistic ability, it is all part of the attraction to people like Ms Wu. With several languages to her name, she is keen to work in other locations overseas - and therefore fulfil Mr Forbes's aim of hiring "people with a good education and a European perspective".