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Management training: overhead or asset?


Prof. David Towler, CEO of Cambridge Online Learning, looks at the growing interest in and demand for management development.

Before examining the ins and outs or, more specifically the inputs and outputs of management training, it would be useful to explore what UK businesses think ‘management’ actually means.

What is management?

A recent report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development highlights a range of definitions drawn from over 400 UK organisations:

“Management is doing things. Planning, co-ordinating, controlling and so on.”

“Management is overlooked as an issue. It just is not seen in many corporate contexts. The focus is all on analysis and business decisions. Conventional MBA programmes attempt to teach business, not management.”

“Management is a battleground. In some firms, management is effectively a constant series of battles over turf, resources, ideology or whatever.”

So, do we need special skills for this battleground, how and where do we go about finding them and will they actually work? In other words, is management training an overhead or an asset?

Making the case for developing managers

You’d be surprised how often we still hear of business leaders rejecting management training requests on the basis that this makes their staff more saleable to other companies, or even direct competitors. Such a response is, perhaps, indicative of the traditional style of training that many of today’s boardrooms experienced themselves. Increasingly, modern courses are based on Action Learning principles - enabling candidates to tailor their assignments directly to live issues and priorities within their own business.

This highly practical approach not only adds to an employer’s competitive advantage, by providing instant in-house ‘management consultancy,’ but also discourages that hard-earned advantage from walking out of the door - by engendering enhanced feelings of business ‘ownership’ and responsibility amongst candidates. Indeed, a recent study by the International Management Centres Association (IMCA) revealed staff retention rates of over 90% amongst a global sample of 1,000 management training candidates.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), many organisations put their performance at risk because their management practice is misaligned with business priorities. Indeed, 86% of senior managers from the sample of 400 UK organisations viewed ‘integrating management development with the implementation of organisational goals’ as a key priority.

The CIPD goes on to suggest three main routes to improved management and business alignment:

- Making the case for developing managers;

- Connecting business strategies, organisation and management development;

- Correct design, implementation, management and evaluation of learning strategies.

As such, the selection of a management course and the subsequent application of the resulting knowledge both provide the perfect catalyst for re-assessing your business management goals.

Growing scrutiny into UK skills gap

Making the case for developing managers should become easier as government, business analysts and the investment community continue to challenge the quality of management competence within organisations, and deepen their investigations well beyond board level.


Speaking at the opening on September 25, 2002 of the new UK office of the Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA), skills minister Ivan Lewis said:

"As a nation we face a significant skills challenge. Skills shortages lead to a loss of business, delays in developing new products, and lower levels of customer service - all of which hold business back.”

At the same event, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, echoed comments made by David Blunkett, MP, as far back as 2000:

"The best British managers rank with any of the best in the world, but there are still too many that are not up to scratch and lack key skills. People need good managers. Poor management and leadership can have a devastating effect on working practices that leads in turn to lower productivity and workplace performance. "

Investment community

Companies, investors and accountants are paying increasing attention to the contribution that well equipped managers make to bottom line performance. The adoption of management skills reporting metrics such as ‘extraordinary return rate’ and ‘annualised management contribution’ is becoming commonplace.

The CIPD cites e-learning, training workshops or programmes and coaching as typical ways in which businesses can help managers acquire the skills that today’s analysts and investors demand. The CIPD also suggests that much of this training can be achieved without the disruption associated with sending managers to off-site courses. Indeed in its survey of 400 UK organisations, office-based training came out as the most effective.

Management training in action

Examples of successful management training on a major corporate level include Tesco, who partners with Manchester Business School to develop their store managers so that they can do more with their own financial resources.

Sensing a decline in its growth of shareholder value during the 1990s, Boots put management capability at the centre of its ‘managing for value’ programme. The company now deliberately stretches people through strategic projects, international assignments and career moves.

Increasingly, public sector bodies are turning to modern management training techniques to fulfil new government targets for continuing professional development (CPD).

Does management training deliver?

The IMCA’s survey is, perhaps the most comprehensive research into return on investment (ROI) from management training. It was conducted between 1992 and 1999 on over 1000 management trainees from 15 countries around the world.

The survey shows that these 1000 managers triggered at least £30 million of investment to implement their coursework and action plans, with an expected ROI of £150 million. In addition, the study cited a wide range of non-financial benefits, including:

- Improved human resource planning;

- Reduced staff turnover rates;

- Increased market share;

- Identification of new distributors and suppliers.

Typical responses to the study by training candidates included:

- “My employer invested £1.2 million to fully implement my project. We gained a threefold return in the first twelve months.”

- “In developing our projects we learned what the other parts of the company did, their purpose and their methods of working.”

- “We stayed in business rather than making an undignified exit.”

Much as these benefits speak for themselves, they aren’t a stand alone solution to sustaining and growing a successful business. Having selected flexible management courses that suit all levels of target staff, the key challenge is to integrate that training offer into a broader development programme and, in turn, an enlightened culture that encourages your newly qualified staff to hang around.

David holds a Masters and Ph.D. in the management of SMEs, three professional fellowships and has extensive Board level experience. He currently Chairs the Leeds Group of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is Training Link Governor for his local primary school, and is a member of the UK Parliamentary Information Technology Committee.


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