MT GUIDE TO BUSINESS EDUCATION & TRAINING: Firm Choice - In selecting training schemes, one size never fits all. Organisations must match the training needs of individuals with their own strategic aims. Stefan Stern reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In selecting training schemes, one size never fits all. Organisations must match the training needs of individuals with their own strategic aims. Stefan Stern reports.

Down on the farm, sheep dips may still be necessary. But businesses planning their training and development should adopt a more individualised approach. Do they? New research from the Roffey Park management institute suggests that although organisations may be prepared to support a manager financially - it costs between pounds 10,000 and pounds 50,000 to complete an MBA - only 26% have formal procedures to find out what the benefits to the organisation are.

'Time for your management training, Smithers. Pick a course, any course' seems to be the attitude. It is an incredible waste of money.

The best organisations make training and development work for them in a considered and coherent way, believes Rob James, head of consultancy at OPP, the management development advisory firm. They match the development needs of managers with the strategic aims of the business. 'Leading firms make sure their management development is demand-led, not supply-led,' he says. 'Courses used to be imposed on people regardless of what they needed. You have to take a more individual approach, based on competencies and development needs.'

In selecting training and development programmes, one size will not fit all. Nor can one course or degree be expected to do the whole development job. It is the menu of options that is offered, a complementary range of learning opportunities that will make sure new skills and learning are properly embedded, helping managers to raise their game and fulfil their potential. Practical, interpersonal or presentational skills training may fill the gaps left by more formal or more academic work.

So the first step is making sure that, as an employer, you are serious about providing a varied and targeted range of programmes for your managers that will support what your business is all about. And this means accepting not just the cost but also the inevitable time sacrifices involved.

Roffey Park's recent work on the use employers make of MBA courses suggests that, though money may not always be the main issue - you are, after all, investing in your prime talent - time spent away from the workplace remains a serious concern.

This point is backed up by OPP's James. 'New technology can bring a lot of training into the workplace. Sometimes, in-house staff can deliver courses. There are also short courses to consider - Insead, Ashridge, Henley and others all offer three-week programmes where managers can get away from the day-to-day business for a limited period.'

David Norburn, dean of Imperial College Management School, London, cautions against some of the short-course quick fixes though. 'You may well get dazzled by an impressive operator on a five-day course,' he says, 'but what happens the next Monday morning? How much of it do you remember?'

The crucial task is to identify the really useful development programmes: to distinguish between those courses that offer specific learning points, skills and knowledge that genuinely add value and can be put into practice back at work, and those that are, at best, 'expensive entertainment'. If it jars with the culture of your business, is out of tune with your strategy or fails to meet the development needs of your managers and your organisation, steer clear.

How can an organisation get the most out of the business school and management development community? 'The employer really has to be part of the process,' says Imperial's Norburn. 'The more substantial courses represent a big commitment on both sides, employer and employee. And, crucially, you mustn't just offer someone their old job back once they have completed a programme.'

Kate Bridge, researcher at Roffey Park agrees: 'The one thing most MBA graduates really want to do is use their learning. The organisations that enable them to do this are less at risk of losing the employee once the process has finished.' So its responsibility doesn't end when the fees for the next course are paid and your colleague disappears into the lecture hall. You need to support the learning that is going on, welcome your newly enhanced colleague back, help put the learning into practice and measure the benefits of what has been acquired.

Adds Norburn: 'I always say to business partners: 'Get involved in class.' It's a two-way street. We have what we call proximity partnerships. They keep their name in front of the students, the 'young heroes'. That's good for recruitment too. Our techno-preneurs, as I call them - PhDs and so on - have floated off 60 businesses here in the last four years. You bet venture capitalists are interested in that.'

Staying close to the schools also means being able to design specific courses in collaboration with the academics, and these may prove more successful than the generalist, open courses that the business school may already be offering.

How businesses relate to and work with educational institutions and training providers is crucial. Big corporations often have their favourite business schools. Ford of Europe has developed a relationship with 12 European schools, from which it takes most of its MBAs. These include a few top British schools such as LBS, Cranfield, Warwick, Manchester, Edinburgh, the Said Business School in Oxford and Imperial College London. Ford fast-tracks MBAs for three to five years so that they can catch up with those who joined at 21. The classic Ford fast-tracker has a first degree, five years' achievement in business, followed by an MBA from a top school.

Some businesses develop corporate 'universities' in-house. This idea was slow to catch on - General Electric and Motorola were among the pioneers of this approach - but there are now nearly 1,800 of them in the US, while German firms such as Lufthansa and Allianz have long maintained their own training centres for company management.

Despite being hyped in some quarters as representing a challenge to the business schools, dedicated in-house learning facilities should act rather as a complement to the more rigorous academic 'thought leadership' being offered by the b-schools.

What are companies demanding most from their business school suppliers at present? Imperial's Norburn is clear. 'It's doers who are the scarce resource,' he says. At this time in the business cycle, with belts being tightened and sober realism prevailing, 'getting things done' becomes the priority.

So we can expect perhaps a little less intellectual elegance and more pragmatism from the groves of business academe in the coming months and years. Value for money and practical results are what is wanted. Let the buyer, and the provider, beware.

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