An Identity Crisis
A surprising number of team leaders and managers in ICT organizations do not see themselves as professional managers, but as individual contributors who have been saddled with (mostly unwelcome) additional duties of managing a group of people.
Little wonder then that few of these bother with developing their management skills, and then similarly neglect their staff in two crucial aspects: being a role-model for ongoing professional development, and looking after the development of those who report to them.
This inappropriate self-identification also leads to another unfortunate behavior pattern – a strong tendency to “go it alone” on management-related activities and problems rather than seeing themselves as part of a Community of Practice (CoP) across the organization (and further afield) from which they could draw advice, instruction, or resources. It is quite typical to see such a person valiantly but unsuccessfully trying to solve problems that have been encountered and mastered by other managers many times before.
One foundational principle in Knowledge Management is to avoid repeating mistakes and to take as much advantage of vicarious learning as possible. A learning Organization is one in which a mistake or difficulty leads to modification across the entire organization and an active process of diffusion of knowledge is embedded in the organizational behavior.
In this situation though, managers would be learning in isolation and little or no diffusion of learning would take place laterally, and would range from aspects of managing upwards, reporting and setting KPI’s, as well as best practices and how to manage staff.
A manager who sees themselves as primarily a Software Engineer or a Project Manager is unlikely to regard a manager in Customer Service or IT Infrastructure as a likely source of information, and would fail to recognize the degree to which their roles as managers were similar.
In several cases I have seen duplication of effort on things as simple as acquisition of contractors or reporting of results or issues.
This leads to duplicated effort, wasted opportunities, and increased costs – and even worse, unattached and underperforming staff.
The Current Approach
Where this situation is recognized as a significant problem by the senior leadership team, management training is often used to rectify the problem – with varying and often poor results.
The costs are usually high for Instructor-Led Training (ILT) – which often involves off-site courses or at least significant disruption to the business when managers are on training courses.
Because of this it is common for only a subset of the managers to go on training and for training to be restricted in scope or duration, leading to low transference and poor retention.
Management training is also often poorly suited to the real operational environment, and may lean heavily on fads like “adventure team-building” or outdated psychological models like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Team-building is usually only successfully transferrable where the activities are strongly correlated to the actual working conditions – so unless the business environment involves armed combat, building a team with paintball exercises is highly unlikely to have any lasting effect or any significant degree of transference in the workplace.
Likewise, learning about “character styles” usually has little relevance to the operational needs of a manager other than simply being aware that people aren’t all clones. – Which one could safely assume they already knew!
Unfortunately the training (even where appropriate to the business environment), is often piecemeal and of a short duration, and the effect is transitory and slight simply because it fails to connect well with the corporate mission or be used enough to be retained sufficiently.
Finally, this kind of training often fails to gain traction because it is unlikely to be seen as a priority or as relevant by a manager who regards management as something they have to “do” as a distracting sideline, rather than as “what they are” and their core responsibility. If they don’t see themselves as management professionals, then why would training in management be seen as significant and much more than just another unwanted and unwelcome distraction from what they perceive as their “real job”?
A Knowledge-Centric Approach
To successfully address the problem the first and most significant step is a cultural one – senior management have to make it plain that the most important role of a team leader or manager is to enable and empower their teams, and that any other duties are secondary. No amount of training or reward or punishment will be effective unless the executives make this point clearly, plainly, and forcefully – and unless members of the SLT take ownership and lead by example, nothing positive will be achieved.
The second step is to build the environment for the development of a CoP for professional managers and to provide infrastructural support for them to interact with each other, and to exchange information in order to build best practices and standards that are specific to the organization and industry.
Part of this is to deploy training as a blended model with ILT bracketed between eLearning fore and aft to reduce costs and to get better value from ILT, and to add a layer of in-house training that mirrors the generic training and provides specific context for each competency element. For example: If the generic training calls for standardization of KPIs, then specific and assessed training must be provided that explains the context in the organization as well as the specific KPI’s that would be used in that organization – simply providing and testing comprehension of generic material is entirely insufficient and will lead to low transference to the job.
Giving eLearning upfront drives better preparedness for ILT and more conformity of their level of knowledge when they are in the ILT sessions, and therefore allows learners to focus on the higher-value parts of the ILT sessions and derive more benefit from the investment.
eLearning afterwards achieves better retention and participation, and raises the transference rate of material to the job.
In addition, it is important to build social networking components such as blogs, discussion forums, and tweets around the training. This drives participation and allows the learners to interact and learn from each other – thus setting the stage for on-the-job interaction in future.
Managers that have cooperated and exchanged ideas and perspectives during completion of the course materials are more likely to do so as part of their daily work, and to view each other as sources of useful information and guidance.
A community of mutually-supporting middle-management is a vital part of a company that is built to last, and no CEO can afford to have a management cadre that is unaware that they are meant to be professional managers!
Matthew Loxton is the outgoing director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at www.matthewloxton.com
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.