The continuing re-education of Britain’s managers

03 March 2017 -


The most effective managers and organisations are those that continue to acquire new skills and qualifications. In our annual Peak Career special, we look at the latest evidence of the effectiveness of lifelong learning

Ian Wylie

Welcome to Kensalfield. With a population of 310,000, it’s the 12th-largest city in England and the 14th-largest in the UK. It was substantially extended in the 1950s and 1960s, alongside new towns such as Corby, Hemel Hempstead and Milton Keynes.

Home to five FTSE 100 companies, Kensalfield has particular strengths in logistics, warehousing and science, as well as a growing range of businesses focused on emerging technologies.

Never heard of it? That’s because Kensalfield doesn’t exist. It’s a notional city, dreamed up by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to exemplify how urban centres could become capitals of lifelong learning.

In Kensalfield, continuous learning prepares residents for any sort of employment, supporting families and individuals as they navigate multiple career transitions. The campaign makes a refreshing change from doomsday scenarios of a working world dominated by robots.

It was designed to show how we might grow cultures of learning in our neighbourhoods, communities and workplaces: in Kensalfield, no one leaves school with a CV devoid of experience; from Kensalfield, they enter the workforce with a love of learning and find roles with employers who are themselves champions of lifelong education.

So have we finally bought into the value of lifelong learning? Have today’s managers grasped that they should constantly strive to attain the next level, and the next qualification?

The facts – and the experts – suggest that, if you and your team want to hit ‘peak career’, you need to keep on learning.

Is retraining the way to fill skill gaps?

A popular prediction – cited by education bloggers Scott McLeod and Karl Fisch – suggests that two-thirds of the children entering our primary schools today will eventually work in jobs that don’t even exist yet. In these circumstances, simply reforming education systems isn’t enough.

“It is simply not possible to weather the current technological revolution by waiting for the next generation’s workforce to become better prepared,” warn the authors of the recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). “Instead, it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their current workforces through retraining, that individuals take a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning, and that governments create the enabling environment – rapidly and creatively – to assist these efforts.”

Does today’s workforce require new skills?

Almost half of UK organisations surveyed in the WEF report said that they were investing in further education for their employees. The question remains as to whether that training and development is nurturing the skills that we’ll actually need.

In a recent CMI/GoToMeeting webinar, the futurist Gihan Perera suggested that the 10 most important skills will be: cognitive load management, computational thinking, novel and adaptive thinking, transdisciplinarity, sense making, design mindset, social intelligence, new-media literacy, cross-cultural competency and virtual collaboration.

Whichever course or qualification you sign up to, interrogate whether you’ll be acquiring the skills that will set you up for the future.

Is it worth investing in older workers?

All too often, workplace training and development spending is front-loaded and invested in an organisation’s younger, rising stars. But that runs counter to demographic trends.

Workers classified as later-career workers – those over the age of 50 – currently comprise 20% of the European workforce and will represent 30% by the end of the decade, according to research by Tara Fenwick, a professor at the University of Stirling.

A study of 2,000 employees and 250 employers by insurer Axa PPP in 2015 found that, in the previous six months, only 25% of workers over the age of 50 had been on a training course. Only 27% had had a meeting with their manager to set or review their objectives, and only 28% had had a conversation with their line manager about their career.

So, instead of pigeonholing older employees as set in their ways and worth training only as a last resort, or to meet inclusion targets, the best organisations see them as an important, growing asset.

What if experienced managers resist training?

Researchers have found older workers to be 50% less likely to participate in occupational training and development than younger workers. But Russell Warhurst, a reader in human resource management at the University of Northumbria, says entrenched assumptions about later-career workers’ lack of learning need to be challenged.

His research among later-career managerial workers suggests that, although they may well have concerns about their employability and diminishing career prospects, many remain motivated by their work.

“Organisations are blinkered and living in the past if they see employees, managers included, over the age of 55 as in a state of terminal decline and to be managed out of the organisation,” he argues. “The return on investment in later-career managers is perceived to be low and individuals in this age group prefer to identify themselves as experts rather than learners. However, if attention is switched from the provision of ‘training and development’ to creating or recognising ‘opportunities for learning’, then a different picture emerges, with later career managers often learning a lot at work from naturally occurring sources of learning, such as new tasks, new challenges and managing younger staff. Informal learning from experience and from social interaction is likely to be commonplace for workers in managerial roles.”

Who really ‘gets’ training mature managers?

At IBM, every employee, regardless of age, is expected to complete at least 40 hours of training every year, and demonstrating skills development is part of all annual appraisals. Training is online, and all programmes are accessible to everyone.

Nationwide Building Society’s data showed that fewer older workers were being put forward for leadership programmes than might be expected. It responded by providing training on unconscious bias for all people managers and introducing self-nomination for its Future Leader Programme.

And Barclays has introduced a Return To Work programme to enable senior women to resume their careers after time away from the workplace.

What role for government training incentives?

For the necessary mind shift to occur, governments and businesses will need to collaborate more to ensure that individuals have the time, motivation and means to undertake retraining opportunities.

For example, Denmark allocates funding for two weeks’ certified skills training per year for adults.

Yet, important as it is that governments create the enabling environment, it is critical, too, that employers take an active role in supporting their current workforces through development and retraining, ensuring a healthy flow of talent at every level of the organisation.

What about the stress of undertaking more training? According to research carried out in 2016, one in seven of the top jobs in UK hospitals is unfilled because middle managers, fearful of the increased pressure, refuse to take the step up.

Yet a separate study, published in 2015 by Columbia University, found that middle managers in all kinds of sectors experience nearly twice as much job-related anxiety and depression as executives at the top of the organisational hierarchy.

The right leadership and management training and development would go a long way to addressing both these issues, which are common in so many industries. And individuals must adopt a proactive approach to their own lifelong learning, and be willing and able to upskill and redesign their career to be fit for purpose at any given time.

Does training itself need a rebrand?

According to Warhurst, ‘training and development’ is the wrong way to conceptualise the problem. Offering more opportunities for learning, he suggests, is a better way to understand what should be done.

“Later-career managers should be encouraged to recognise the learning potential in their evolving tasks and responsibilities, and to be a role model to younger colleagues in terms of the need for continuous lifelong learning.”

Ian Wylie contributes to the Financial Times on management education and learning

Powered by Professional Manager