Guiding lights

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Five gurus have written John Taylor's management bible. He explains their influence to Andrew Mourant

The people running colleges could be forgiven for feeling all at sea, buffeted by the tempestuous changes in government policy. Few have expressed the state of perpetual flux that seems to be the world of further education more eloquently than Ralph Vaughan Williams: "The ground does not appear to be for the feet. Nor does there appear to be any path to follow."

His words have come to resound in the mind of John Taylor, principal of Sheffield College. Yet Taylor is no fatalist; quite the opposite, for while fatalists bow to the inevitability of events, taking what comes their way, Taylor believes in working to shape the future with whatever help he can get from management theorists.

His outlook has been moulded by several luminaries. "Colleges are uniquely placed to seek out these guides," he says. "Management theory is taught in our business studies faculty and we must rise to the challenge of practising what we preach."

Taylor has drawn upon the thinking of experts such as Joel Barker, Dr W Edwards Deming, Steven Covey, Peter Senge and Charles Handy. All, he says, "can assist our construction of the vision for leadership for the achievement of qualitative education".

Few senior managers deny the need to embrace change. Barker's Future Edge: the Changing Paradigms of Success points to the need for people to change their mindsets - "the lens through which they view the world" - as old paradigms become ineffective for solving new problems.

This may sound ethereal, but for John Taylor it conveys a strong practical message. "This is particularly significant as we face the challenge of electronic delivery of learning on an unprecedented scale," he says. "The need to fundamentally re-appraise our approach to learning and to re-engineer processes within colleges is a great challenge for those with managerial responsibilities."

Few responsibilities come greater than the one faced by Taylor on his arrival at Sheffield, where he was threatened with a strike by the lecturers' union Natfhe, whose members feared compulsory redundancies. But he had learnt some conciliatory lessons along the way - practical and theoretical - not least from his days in personnel at Allied Breweries, which he joined just after one of the longest strikes in brewery history.

At Allied, Taylor established contact with the Manchester Business School, and his fascination for management theory began. Now he encourages his own senior managers to read the theorists. For Taylor, no changeof mindset is too momentous.

"Baker maintains that the greatest paradigm shift in the last 40 years is summarised in three words: "made in Japan". Baker has a point: it seems almost unimaginable that Japanese goods were once synonymous with cut-price shoddiness.

The perception of Taylor's own institution needs changing. Sheffield has endured a turbulent few years and was severely criticised in a review of its performance earlier this year. "For 'made in Japan' you could change that to 'educated at Sheffield College'," he says ruefully. So how people regard the place is crucially important as the process of federalisation on three sites gets under way.

The why as well as the how of FE is, for Taylor, a fundamental question. "Charles Handy in The Hungry Spirit is self-reflective and asks about purpose," he says. "When it comes to marketing, you need to clarify your purpose."

Handy's book became summer holiday reading for Taylor when he was in Spain. While assimilating its messages under the sun, he was astonished to discover a man next to him engrossed in Steven Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People - another of Taylor's guiding tracts. The kindred spirit turned out to be a French engineer.

Covey has numerous messages that appeal to Taylor, especially when it comes to understanding a college's interdependence and place in the community. "He says organisations should first seek to understand, rather than being understood... and not just consider their effectiveness as an independent unit."

Taylor is also struck by Covey's exhortation to "sharpen the saw" - the need for individuals to renew their skills, sharpen their intellects and maintain fitness, "to ensure they are ready and able to prosper in times of rapid change".

From Deming - whom Taylor met, along with Covey, in the United States in 1992 - come lessons about quality management: "deadly diseases, obstacles, and his emphasis for the need for the achievement of a transformation of management style are a solid foundation for achieving continuous improvement in colleges". Deming is another who preaches the need to break down barriers within communities.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline, reinforces the message that you can't stand still and that there's no room for complacency, even in high-achieving colleges. "An organisation is always in a state of practising the disciplines of learning," says Senge. For Taylor, it's not simply these messages that strike home; it's the way his mentors deliver them. "They seem to capture things with great clarity of phrase," he says.

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