Think small, think narrow

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Ignore the strait-jacket of funding, advises Chris Hughes.

And for management training, offer customised courses to local businesses

Imagine if you owned a small business and could get a cheaper overdraft simply because you did a course at a college. Well, that's exactly what happens in Norwich. City College there worked in partnership with the regional manager of NatWest to fund Norfolk Small Business, aninitiative that helped firms improve their financial management. Other banks in the area signed up to the scheme and the result was thepossibility of cheaper banking foranyone who did the course.

This is just one example of how colleges already help business managers to update their skills, particularly those in small to medium-sized enterprises. Despite pockets of innovation, there is still wide agreement that in the United Kingdom we need to improve our approach to management and leadership training. It is an issue that is being taken seriously.

The Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership - established "to ensure that the United Kingdom is able to develop the managers and leaders of the future to match the best in the world" - is investigating the quality and quantity ofbusiness school education.

Developing world-class managers ready to tackle the challenges of a global economy is as much about training and development as it is about business school education. Too much is focused on what is learnt rather than on developing a capacity to learn. Thedevelopment of creativity and knowledge management is vital to managers today.

This involves the creation, capture and use of intellectual capital by an organisation for commercial advantage. But, according to business leaders such as the Institute of Directors, companies still do not know the best way to do this. Much training is toodiscipline based and remote from practice. The reality of management is that it istrans-disciplinary and problem focused.

The Scottish division of the Institute of Directors and Heriot Watt University have tried to tackle the problem. With small to medium enterprises in mind, they havecreated a service that allows members to learn from each other's experiences.

The programme , launched this month, will bring together groups of directors who will produce case studies from their own experience and will be encouraged t talk about the challenges they face. Management training works best when it is focused on solving real,practical problems and is embedded into taking businesses forward, as in the schemes inNorwich and Scotland.

However, funding mechanisms encourage colleges to provide courses that lead to qualifications, which in itself restricts innovation. The system can present a hurdle for those who want to help businesses with specific problems, which is the type of training that is particularly relevant to small businesses.

There is good news in theLearning and Skills Bill, though. The new local councils will have the power to buy provision that is not linked to qualifications. If they base their judgments on what is needed for their local area (and business will have a strong say in this), colleges could see opportunities for innovation in training.

Networks that encouragemanagers to come together to swap experiences and learn from each other's approach to problem solving is one example ofmanagement development that is grounded in reality. Another is learning sets, where managers from different sectors can find out more about how others tacklecommon management dilemmas.

Opportunities also lie in the new foundation degree. This is a long-awaited recognition of the importance of intermediatequalifications. It stands to provide prestigious academic recognition for the many people who are on the lower rungs of their career ladder and are interested in business management but do not want to commit themselves to afull-time course. In effect, it could open up business education to employees at manylevels and will be flexible enough to fit round their working lives.

At the recent business breakfast at No 11 Downing Street, this topic preoccupied academics and businessmen alike. It was clear that there is a consensus that management education in Britain needs to change. Agreement on how it needs to change will take longer. But a good starting point is rethinking training for those interested in developing skills in a way that is relevant to business.

Colleges are extremely well placed to do this and should be encouraged to provide customised training, rather than ready-made courses that are often too broad-brush to make a real difference.

Chris Hughes is chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency

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