Business has never been tougher, and a company relying on yesterday's ideas has no chance. Staff training and development have become matters of vital strategic importance, argues Stefan Stern.
Do you want the good news first, or the bad news? Here's the gloomy bit: 'The UK's economic performance is being held back by a shortage of appropriate and practical leadership skills. These skills are in short supply from the top to the bottom of organisations.'
That is not the saloon-bar rant of an over-refreshed journalist. It was the summary view contained in the report published earlier this year by the Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership (CEML) on the UK's business school community and its work with business. The good news is that both business academics and business leaders alike know that we can and must do better.
Britain now has more than four million managers. According to economists, management is the fastest-growing 'occupational segment'. More undergraduates - one in eight, 220,000-plus people - study business and management than any other subject. We also produce 13,000 MBA graduates a year from our 100 or so business schools.
Indeed, higher-education staff should be grateful for the panoply of business courses and degrees available, as these account for 15% of university activity and provide generous cross-subsidies to other less commercially attractive disciplines.
So why the angst about the state of British management? Well, take a look at the international league tables on productivity and competitiveness, and then recall the quote in the opening paragraph.
'It's no use going on about being the fourth-largest economy in the world,' says Professor Tom Cannon, chief executive of Respect London, and visiting professor at Manchester and Kingston business schools. 'We're only the fourth-largest now because we used to be the biggest!' (As a devoted fan of Everton Football Club, Cannon needs no lessons on the decline of former British successes.)
In fact, Cannon feels that the record of British business schools is essentially highly positive, albeit within limited parameters, and crucially achieved without the support, wholehearted or otherwise, of British business.
In a presentation to the Work Foundation earlier this year, he outlined the tragi-comic history of the British business school, and showed how our b-schools have quite efficiently done what was asked of them - educated tens of thousands of managers. And this without the huge financial endowments enjoyed by US b-schools.
'There are some star performers among British business schools,' the CEML report conceded. But it also expressed doubts about the ability of many business students to perform at the highest level. CEML criticised b-schools for being too slow out of the blocks in developing an international perspective, not offering real training in leadership skills, and failing to understand the needs of employers, their end customers. In other words, until fairly recently there has been an unbridged gap between academia and business, between theory and practice.
Education, training and development for managers, especially in the UK, traditionally fell into the 'nice to have' category rather than the 'must have'. According to the 'amateur spirit' view of business - which is amazingly persistent - managers are 'born not made, you've either got it or you haven't'. Bosses would declare that their people were their biggest asset, while allowing this asset to depreciate through neglect. Chief executives, who would insist on having properly trained surgeons or lawyers working on or for them, would leave managers to muddle through.
No longer. Competition and the pace of change in business require continuous improvement - and that means continuous learning. And the market for business education has grown with a proliferation of courses, full- and part-time, 'open' and bespoke.
But business education is about more than just leafing through a fat prospectus with its healthy range of options. It is strategic. Debate over the famous 'war for talent' focused at first on remuneration, fun and glamour.
Today, learning and development opportunities rank high among the concerns of talented employees. Support for management development, in whatever form, is perhaps the strongest weapon that a business can use in its struggle to retain the best employees.
So the world of business education does indeed offer good and bad news.
In the next few pages we are going to accentuate the positive. What sort of further training and education should you be opting for? How does that fit in with your organisation's strategy? And what sort of results should you and your business demand?