High-flyers in the armed forces are going to management school.
After years of talk of takeover "battles", "captains" of industry, "leadership" and the like, it comes as something of a surprise to see the armed forces going to management school for inspiration. Nevertheless, that is what is happening, thanks to a three-year deal just agreed between the Ministry of Defence and Ashridge Management College.

The irony is not lost on the Berkhamsted centre in Hertfordshire, where Mark Pegg, the tutor responsible for the programme, acknowledges that management thinkers have tended to borrow military terminology rather than the other way around. However, he says the ministry people with whom he has dealt in putting the scheme together "came with quite an open mind".

Like other government departments, the MoD has seen great changes in recent years, he says. In particular, there have been moves to break down the boundaries between the public and private sectors as well as to run the organisation more efficiently. And staff have perhaps had greater contacts with the business world than colleagues elsewhere in the Civil Service because of the organisation's extensive procurement activities.

But whatever the background, the upshot is that the ministry's future high-flyers - civilians and uniformed personnel - will have a greater exposure to current business thinking than their predecessors would have dreamt of. Mr Pegg believes that the opportunity to mix with managers from the world of commerce in Britain and further afield was a significant factor in Ashridge being chosen for the project.

The scheme, which is due to start in the summer after a pilot programme, is designed to deliver a series of tailored programmes for newly promoted managers at the MoD. Mr Pegg envisages that the 200 who will attend each year will be of much the same status as those usually attending the centre's courses - heads of units and departments aged from their mid-thirties upwards. Most will be civil servants, but there will be "a sprinkling" of uniformed officers from the Royal Navy, Army and the Royal Air Force because many of them have civilians working for them. The friction between "the army way of doing things" and the civilian approach is one of the issues at which the programme is aimed.

The main emphasis, however, will be on helping "MoD managers" to achieve their personal development goals and enabling the ministry to bring about the significant changes it is seeking in culture and performance. In the words of Chris Williams, the ministry's head of defence management training, the initiative "represents a significant investment by the MoD in the training of rising managers at key stages in their careers".

Ashridge, which has great international renown and is especially proud of its interactive learning facilities, was chosen because of the combination of resources and understanding of the issues faced by the department. The ministry wanted to learn from "best in the class" management practice in the private sector, Mr Williams says.

The three-year contract, which can be extended for two years, will involve one-week residential programmes combined with practical projects and long- term personal development plans, and is clearly a feather in the cap of Ashridge.

Chief executive Michael Osbaldeston admits that it is one of the largest contracts the organisation has undertaken. And it appears that the staff are more than a little mindful of the traditions behind what Mr Osbaldeston calls a "historic change" in the ministry's approach to training and development.

Pointing out that the armed forces have got such a track record in training that "when there's not a war they are training", Mr Pegg says he is a little surprised that they have not gone down this route before. It sounds as if we should be prepared for a few more military terms to creep into our management-speak.

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