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Can the UK learn to manage?


Can the UK learn to manage? Chris Daniel examines a wealth of evidence published over the last few years to attempt to establish an answer to this question.

The below summary is compiled from the paper by The Work Foundation, January 2003 and is commented upon briefly with regard to other recent pertinent publications.

Most would accept that a trained doctor or engineer is functionally superior to someone without such training which is recognised in law. This is, at best, contestable in the case of managers and is not recognisable in law. In 1998, a KPMG study referred to by the Work Foundation found that mergers and acquisitions enriched shareholders in just 17 per cent of cases (in the rest there was either no improvement or impoverishment). British managers are the most enthusiastic deal-makers when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, yet – something is lacking in management practice and development. No-one would accept an 83 per cent failure rate in surgery or child protection or judicial decision making.

Managerial decisions will not always be life-or-death concerns, although the role of managers in many organisations increasingly appears to be taking on this level of responsibility. Reference the Victoria Climbie enquiry:

"It is not to the handful of hapless and inexperienced front line staff that I direct most of my criticism. The greatest failure rests with the managers and senior members of authorities whose task it was to ensure that services were properly financed, staffed and able to deliver good quality support. Whilst after the incident, junior staff were suspended and faced disciplinary action, some of the most senior officers were being appointed to better paid jobs. This is not an example of management accountability that impresses me much. Sometimes it needed nothing more than a manager doing their job by asking pertinent questions or taking the trouble to look in a case file. There can be no excuse for such sloppy and unprofessional management". Lord Laming, 28th January 2003.

Public services can and should be managed much better. Politicians have begun to realise that scrutinising and improving management practices and training is one of the keys to unlocking the economy's productive potential. It seems the country's economic future lies in our collective management capability.

The first in a series of recent influential studies into management, leadership and its relationship to the UK's economic standing was 'Managers and Leaders; Raising our Game', and the government's response by the Centre for Excellence in Management and Leadership (see As the title suggests, the focus was on developing management into leadership roles and the influence of training and standards. The CEML reported that current management and business leadership development was dysfunctional, and the UK’s economic performance was being held back by a shortage of appropriate and practical leadership skills. The police service in the form of HMIC has been influenced by the buzzwords 'raising our game' as a euphemism for raising performance, as well as seeking internal and external accreditation for many of its roles.

For a 'local' perspective on the quality of managers and leaders in Wales and its critical impact on the economic performance and development, see Wales Management Council – Management and Leadership Development and Training in Wales, An Agenda for Action Consultation Draft. This draws heavily on the CEML's report and advocates embedding a culture of learning among the 163,000 managers in Wales, but recognises the negative attitude towards management development, particularly among SME's -which account for 99 per cent of businesses. Among the initiatives suggested are mentoring and membership of professional organisations with a need to be innovative and self motivated and greater awareness of diversity among management.

The DTI's 'High Performance Workplaces' discusses styles of management, and comments that "command and control is no longer a sufficient model" and a more collaborative framework will harness the talents of all employees. It continues; "...A modern forward-looking business does not keep its workers in the dark about important decisions affecting them, it trusts them and involves them, striving for leadership at all levels".

The productivity gap which places the UK at the bottom of its competitors (see 'Can the UK manage to learn?') is aligned to the lowest ranking of qualifications amongst managers and administrators (1 in 5 had none, or only Level 1 qualifications compared to professional workers. In 1998, 130,000 managers were working towards a management NVQ). Charles Handy said in 1987 that "Management Training in Britain is too little, too late, for too few". More than half of firms provide no formal provision for training their managers. The productivity gap is said to be due to a number of factors including the relative failure to invest in the skills of the workforce, and organisational issues. The lack of creativity and innovation is evident in organisations' tardiness to become learning organisations.

The work foundation quotes research that suggests the most innovative form of Management Education and Training (METD) is coaching, project work or career moves. ‘genuinely self-directed management learning is relatively rare and the organisation continues to determine to a large extent how individuals should develop and what knowledge and skills are relevant. This approach inhibits change, pushing managers and their organisations towards incremental approaches to organisational change, rather than encouraging a more radical approach or transformation’.

Far from training provision being a one-sided fault on behalf of employers, balanced against this is the global study by Taylor Nelson Sofres which revealed that employee commitment in Great Britain to their work is 60% and, to their company, 49%.

Shifting Goalposts

The UK’s projected workforce will be faced with increasingly unfamiliar territory with fundamental changes for management in the form of technological literacy – according to the Taylor Nelson Sofres study, half of senior board members didn’t know what their IT budget was, and 80% did not know what cost saving such systems were achieving. Between retirements and the elimination of middle-management, jumps (and responsibility) between positions are greater, leading to one of the longest working hour cultures in Europe. The trend is for increasing periods of learning to be undertaken in employees own time. Future perceptions of needs are for more highly skilled and intelligent managers, although there are little specifics of what will be required.

Traditional models of management have cast managers as Policemen or women, spies, controllers, dispensers of reward and punishment, decision-makers, sources of wisdom and expertise, order givers and arbiters between competing claims. The new model of management paints them as teacher, coach, mentor, facilitator, resource controller and ‘servant’ of the team. Change of type raises profound implications for METD. It is not clear that mangers trained for the older functions possess the skills to achieve the new model / goals, and moves people management to centre stage. Paying lip service to the old adage of ‘people are our most important asset’ will highlight skill deficiencies.

Research reveals that one of the largest skill gaps in UK management appears to be the ability to handle people issues in constructive and innovative ways, and to put to best use the skills of those they employ. Patricia Hewitt has commented that the management style of TV’s bumbling David Brent is sadly close to the truth! The battle often being fought out within organisations of the two opposing visions of 'command and control' versus leadership is of "fundamental importance to the future shape, purpose and skills profile of UK management as it enters the 21st century". There are divergent demands between the above conceptions, and the solution has been to attempt to offer generic qualifications, without fully understanding or exploring the concepts and their differences.

Claire Spencer, Head of research at TSO Consulting has expressed the opinion that (performance) targets should be ditched in preference to investment in leadership training (Personnel Today, February 2003). The management command and control type of practitioner are seen as doers, fire-fighters and Action Men or women, rather than as analysts or reflecters.

The problems posed by the latter for command and control style managers are summarised by one respondent as, "What would my organisation want with reflective practitioners ? What would we reflect upon other than the decisions taken by our senior managers, perhaps critically. They wouldn’t like that". Perhaps yet another example of the difference between management and leadership is quoted by Warren Bennis (1994); "Managers do things right and Leaders do the right things".

Recommended training to enhance skills

Evidence suggests (see 'Can the UK manage to learn?') that training on offer is heavily concentrated on the most senior managerial staff, particularly where innovative forms such as coaching are concerned. MBAs are also described as having a very small numerical focus, and the solution is felt to lie more in the collective management capability. Greater effort needs to go into promoting and developing the range of options, rather than focusing heavily on the MBA as a flagship offering.

The relationship between management and the productivity gap was further commented upon by John Purcell, Professor of Human Resource Management at Bath University (Personnel Today, February 2003) whilst discussing problems in middle-management with a client, who was referring to high-flyers. When asked how the client would describe the others, he replied, "donkeys". Patricia Hewitt raised some heckles last October when she described the average British manager as "lagging well behind the rest".

Purcell believes that there has been a failure of frontline management – those at supervisor and junior management level who perhaps are not on the career track, but at the heart of any organisation's productivity. Managers are too often promoted to management because they are good at the technical side of their job, but then offered little or no training (and virtually no innovative forms of training such as coaching or mentoring) and guidance in the softer skills of motivation, leadership and appraisal. They are often vulnerable to bullying (by the workforce and senior management) and office politics.

Chris Daniel is an Inspector with South Wales Police, Chair, South West Wales CPD Association, Chair, Chartered Management Institute – Swansea Branch and Treasurer, Women in Management (South Wales).


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