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09:22 on Saturday
20 December 2003

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Back to Basics

People are using the R word again, especially in the manufacturing sector. I believe that if it happens, the downturn will be brief: people I talk to say that, except in particular industries hit by the Sept 11 tragedy, things are 'bumping along the bottom', and should recover soon. But even the threat of bad times on the horizon makes senior management start thinking about where to make cuts. Management Development is usually a prime target.

It should not be.

At the same time, Management Development must prove its value. It is an investment, not a cost, but how do you measure the return on it? Traditional accounts have been bad at showing returns on this kind of investment - but does this mean such returns cannot be demonstrated?

Most companies now use some kind of Scorecard to compliment traditional accounts. These scorecards start from the fundamental truth that it is customers that make or break all businesses, then work back from that point to find metrics within the company- standards of delivery, and behind them, of internal processes. Ideally, every person in a 'well-scorecarded' company should have an idea of what they are contributing to the business's success. And, of course, these figures can be monitored over time. 'We sent x on that course last year - how much more is she contributing?'

Internal reporting of this quality should provide Management Development professionals with plenty of ammunition. Because, of course, cutting training is a false economy. In bad times, more than ever, your people need to 'work smart'. What does need to be cut, of course, is poor training. The latest management fad, taught at an absurdly luxurious venue... Bad times are times to get 'back to basics', to ensure your team have the basic essentials solidly in place. I believe that the two most basic skills of management are motivation and learning. If you cannot motivate people, you cannot manage. If you learn inefficiently, change will become a nightmare rather than the challenge it should be.

In booms, you can motivate people with trinkets like stock options; in recessions you have go back to understanding your people and what they want out of working for you. How well do your managers understand basic, tried and tested motivational theory: Maslow, Herzberg, McGregor, Schein? And how well do they understand your own organisation - its culture, its values, what really makes it different and worth working for? Hard times will test their loyalty, so ensure they understand what they are getting up in the morning to do.

Difficult times are also times to look forward. The downturn will end, and the economy will leap out of the starting-blocks again. Who will leap with it?

Experience tells us the answer is the quickest learners. So now is a time to look at how your people learn, and ensure they have the general skills that facilitate fast learning.

Learning is often seen as a simple process, but it is not. Back in the seventies, studies isolated six fundamental types of learning. Our own research at The Wadenhoe Centre revealed that only one or two types of learning takes place in most organisations.

The six types are as follows. Conditioning is the simplest, rats-pressing-levers type of learning beloved of behaviourist psychologists. It's an important part of habit formation, but less relevant to the large, fast adaptations required by the modern business world.

Next comes Information Transfer, the accretion of facts.

Above this, Cybernetic learning involves processes and procedures, knowing how to do things.

At the top of this chain comes Cognitive learning, which is about overall patterns, 'The Big Picture', knowing why.

Added to these four are two more emotionally-based kinds of learning, Experiential and Social. Experiential is all about self-knowledge, knowing what it is like to do particular things. Social learning is about cultures, how to fit into various human structures and organisations.

Management requires skills ranging from attention to the smallest details to understanding the most overall contexts, as well as personal and emotional skills - in other words, all learning types are required.

Yet our research points to managers being really only masters of Cybernetic ('how to') learning, with perhaps skills of Information Transfer and, in larger companies, some measure of Social Learning (corporate acculturation). The lack of higher, 'cognitive' skills is of particular concern: continuous adaptation requires a broad view.

Particular 'cybernetic' techniques can work well in one environment and become disastrous when that environment changes.

Learning skills can be taught. Natural curiosity, often drummed out of us as kids, can be reasserted. Now is an ideal time to ensure that managers are equipped with the ability to learn at all levels.

Hard times tend to bring out certain automatic reactions: cost-cutting, risk avoidance. This is necessary - but remember those starting blocks. Don't let them get rusty. Make sure your people have those basic skills of motivation and learning at their fingertips

January 2002





Article by: Peter Hall
Peter Hall is former director of the Management Development Unit at Cranfield, and is now Chairman of The Wadenhoe Group, a Consultancy and Research organisation based at Wadenhoe House near Peterborough.

Wadenhoe Group
Tel: 01832 720123
Email: [email protected]

Wadenhoe Group Website

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