Made to measure

By:AnonymousMarch 25th, 2013HRNo comments


Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone explains how business schools can help in the development of employees

Why do major companies use business schools to develop their employees? After all, the most significant corporates recruit the best people from the best academic institutions in the first place. Beyond this, a well-connected industry of headhunters matches the most appropriate individuals to organisations for specific, often senior, positions. Surely once integrated, these are presumably suitably skilled for their task?

Do I hear you suggest we look to the big “c” word for an answer? I hope not.

Change as a constant is factored into recruitment strategy. Major corporates do not only attract and select individuals whose technical and personal skills add most value in the short term; the long-term strategic needs of the organisation are also considered. Corporates recruit people who can flex and adapt to changing business needs.

Having their human capital in place, you would think major organisations are best placed to develop their own talent. After all, existing executives must be the best “developers” of others within and beyond their organisations.

Who best to learn from than those who have succeeded in their given environment? In this vein, references to “mentors” and “coaches” pepper both organizational conversations and management literature.

So why do major companies commission business schools to train their best people?

One reason could be that, as evidence suggests, young talented individuals seek to join companies that will invest in their formal development. To be an “employer of choice”, corporates will increasingly be pressured to tangibly develop the talent they wish to attract and retain.

A second reason could be to provoke fresh thinking, sparked by the external and systemic perspective that research and management theory from business schools provides.

A third explanation could be the useful networking opportunities that are a by-product of cross-organisational development programmes. Nothing beats open discussion around a structured theme to fuel cross-matrix and business-unit collaboration, especially when moderated by an apolitical external expert.

Customised programmes provided by business schools serve these purposes particularly well and complement induction programmes, on-the-job projects and coaching provided by corporates themselves.

Though the objectives of customised programmes differ from one corporate to another and are at the best of times connected to an organisation’s strategy, three generic aims drive demand for differing types of programmes:

To improve an organisation’s “economic performance”

These programmes aim to enhance the ability to grow sales, reduce operating costs, tighten working capital, lower external charges (including taxes) and/or reduce the capital intensity of operations.

Though they can be “functionally biased”, they are in many ways a business school’s “bread and butter”. They fit well within a typical school’s capabilities and draw on the knowledge pools that feed its MBA and EMBA programmes. In some cases, customised programmes also allow business schools to showcase emerging thinking from research groups and PhD output.

To enhance the “strategic thinking” of key players

This type of programme tends to cut across business disciplines and to help people think across the business as a whole. They present a collage of subjects such as economics, finance, marketing, supply chain, operations and programme management wrapped in the context of leadership.

Clear storylines are important to carry the fil rouge (or main theme) of what could otherwise be a poorly connected series of independent albeit important topics.

To the chagrin of business schools, such programmes are occasionally called “mini-MBAs”.

To raise the “leadership skills” of talent

These programmes often begin with behavioural competencies and data from 360° or performance appraisals. They can be among the most creative of those delivered. Arguably, their design logic needs to be the clearest of all.

More than with “strategic” programmes and much more than with “economic performance” programmes, the effectiveness of leadership programmes depends on the social context created within the session itself.

For leadership development programmes to be effective, an environment must be established where participants are willing to look at themselves and their own behaviours honestly and personally. Only in so doing will they take on the concepts explored during the sessions.

On the other hand, participants also need to be impacted by new incisive knowledge about themselves and at the same time feel that they are in a safe place and not under judgement, free to acknowledge and explore what are often uncomfortable novelties. They need to think out-of-the-box about themselves – and about themselves relative to significant others.

Of course these three categories interface with each other. Often differences are subtle. It is therefore important to be clear about the emphasis and purpose so that faculty may gear their material to achieve what the corporate intends.

Generally speaking, emphasis on taught “tools, models or frameworks” within programmes decreases progressively as you move counter-clockwise, from those that focus on “economic performance” to those that focus on “strategic thinking” with those concerned with “leadership skills” being least reliant on “how to” tools.

One manifestation of this is that the stronger the focus on “economic performance”, the more concrete the sessions become and the more structured the learning can be.

An example of a customised programme that emphasized “economic performance” is the four-part suite called “Management Fundamentals” created for French energy group EDF’s corporate university, which has run since 2004.

Though there are sessions on “Strategy” and “People” within the suite its purpose is to accelerate the transformation of the group from a state-owned monopoly to a multinational commercial utility operating competitively in all of its regions.

The storyline across the suite is to “understand your market so that, within it, you can position EDF’s strategy, strategise within your own business unit and lead your people to increasingly impressive performance”.

By contrast, a programme whose emphasis is on “strategic thinking” was that created for France Telecom Orange and which ran for six years. With a remit to raise the entrepreneurial spirit among promising managers and first-line directors, the programme was designed to explore a group-selected business project in order to create an entrepreneurial opportunity.

Often for the first time in their professional lives, participants were invited to rise above their functional discipline, think beyond their business unit boundaries and extend well beyond the normal annual and quarterly business cycle to plan the launch of a new market offering.

Exemplifying a “leadership skills” programme, Oracle’s “4Sight” was created in 2007 to support Oracle EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Asia) in developing its future leaders.

Successful, competitive and determined participants (directors and senior directors) brought their significant experience, knowledge of the market and personal drive to the debates.

Though this programme was packed with tools, its purpose was to enable participants to lead more effectively in their different contexts – as collaborators, as peers and as business unit leaders.

Benefits derived from executive development cannot always be measured, particularly in the short term. Indeed, what can easily be measured is not always the most important. And often, development programmes, like slow-release capsules, build for the long term, their value taking effect over time.

Some benefits, however, can and should manifest themselves immediately.

Take, as an example of a “taught” element from an “economic performance” programme, the ability to select between mutually exclusive projects by calculating their discounted cash flow. Application of such knowledge and the value it creates is relatively easy to track.

Application of learning, and the value associated with such application, from strategy programmes is harder to assess.

Application of learning from leadership sessions is hardest of all to measure. In part this results from the more indefinable nature of “strategy” and “leadership” as concepts and topics. It is also a consequence of the fact that things “strategic” and “behavioural” are much more “relative, situational” than things appertaining to “economic performance”. Application is more subtle. Cause and effect are less inextricably connected.

Though models exist that can form the backbone to strategy and leadership programmes, these models only serve to frame new and emerging thinking. It is from such thinking that the true value of these programmes derives. Clearly, the increased complexity of these subjects and their interdependence with often innumerable factors influence the direct measurability of such programmes.

To this end, to ensure development is purposeful and delivers measurable results, key questions related sequentially to the three categories listed above, will be:

  • What new level of performance do you want individuals to be able to deliver?
  • What new conversations do you want individuals to provoke that they are not currently undertaking?
  • What behaviours do you want to see in individuals that are different from the way in which they currently conduct themselves?

Put simply, one client director regularly asks participants at the end of development programmes: “What are you doing differently?”

Having said that, improvement in corporate results is seldom the effect of just one action or change of approach. At best one can only say truthfully that an executive programme was one of several contributors to an improvement in performance in the period following specific interventions.

Clearly the above applies to an even greater extent to programmes whose purpose it is to enhance a population’s “strategic thinking” or “leadership skills”.

Arguably the only bona fide way of measuring specific quantifiable benefits from an executive development programme is to track value added through the application of unique tools, models or frameworks taught in the programme. Business benefits from such an approach can be evidenced.

Fundamentally, the expectation that application of programme learning will be tracked and measured to quantify a programme’s return on investment should be written into the programme timetable.

Participants, aware from the start that this is a vital feature of the programme, will look for ways to apply the learning to their reality as the programme unfolds.

Equally, faculty will be conscious of the need to be practical in their delivery and relevant to the level of the participants in order to ensure that their sessions feature among those that add tangible value to the commissioning organisation.

The probability of seeing “action” and “use of tools learnt” increases significantly when measurement is hard-wired into programme design and participants’ post-programme application of learning is tracked.

Such foresight is purpose-driven and accountable, demonstrates integrity and inspires many to deliver greater results.

This article is an edited extract from Corporate Development Journeys by Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone, published by Palgrave Macmillan, June 2010.

Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone is Director of the Centre for Executive Development, Aston Business School, UK

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