Bespoke was a word you probably met a lot in the first few years of the decade. It was boom-time and bespoke was something we couldn’t just afford, in some circles it was something we couldn’t be seen to be without. Management development was little exception. As Colin Carnell, of Cass Business School London. has commented,

What is more important to note for business schools, is that the executive development market changes dramatically during major economic dislocations. Since 1992 the trend has been for fewer schools to offer open enrolment programmes – programmes which are open to participants from different companies. And those open enrolment programmes that have remained have become shorter. At the same time learning has gone on-line. From 1992 this change accelerated rapidly. The current financial crisis is likely to be a similar catalyst for change.”

That last sentence is interesting, isn’t it? Remember that what he’s describing is what’s taken place pre-catalyst. There is, of course, mounting evidence that ‘short sharp’ programmes don’t achieve a great deal: that programmes with well-supported, well-engineered follow-through activity achieve more. Now that we’re in (sorry for the pun) crunch time, that might start to matter rather more.

Carnell continues with a different point:

… in most organisations senior executives rarely talk about business models: they are assumed to be so fundamental that they are not discussed. Still less do executives consider how the business model might change. It would help to simply talk about the model they use and the capabilities they therefore require. This is a task of leadership.”

Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else that ‘closed’ programmes might not be the only answer here? That being able to ‘think outside the box’ (to use an expression now as terminally boxed in as is possible for a mere string of words) is surely easier if you’re allowed out of the box occasionally.

One element is that they are what they say they are on the tin – open. Without fresh inputs, a culture becomes a monoculture, replicating itself from an increasingly narrow pool. And monocultures are highly vulnerable: one unexpected turn of events, one new ‘disease’ and an entire monoculture may be gone. (Carnell comments on the financial sector and its bonus model: it’s hard not to see a failing monoculture analogy – a very large proportion of a sector wiped out as it fails to withstand the unwinding of a huge debt chain. United we fall …

Depending on our individual roles (if, for example, we are accountants or coaches), we may also have allegiance to a role or profession as well as an employer or organisation. Training events are one of our opportunities (especially for those whose line of work does not have a professional body) to enjoy the company of our role peers rather than our organisational ones.

Open programmes can be valuable new windows on the world both for individuals attending them, and for organisations. They allow us to benchmark our own situations – personal and organisational – against those of other attendees, gain reassurance that our struggles are not necessarily unique, that our feelings, hopes, ambitions and frustrations are to be expected. These are important human needs, as well as important development needs and opportunities.

Even if we do not accept the paradigm shift that Chris Carnell sees coming in management and leadership training, the open programme model is not a relic. In an article Slow burn for learning published in Management Today commenting on the same comparative fall from fashion in recent years, you’ll find the following extract:

Open courses still meet a real need, however. Wheatley  [Lancaster University Management School], says: “Tailored courses fall down for a narrowly focused company. It is not a question of the cost, but the learning experience.” Ashridge’s Dean, Peter Beddowes, says: “In management education you want to challenge people’s assumptions because in the hierarchy they have not been free to admit to mistakes or errors of judgement. You can not do that in front of people you have to work with the following day.”

Searching CIPD’s website, I found a lengthy PDF document that exploring decision making in learning and training purchasing. The following gives a flavour:

An external learning provider who runs open programmes may be prepared to bring their open course into your organisation and negotiate a fee that is significantly cheaper than the normal charges per learner. Sometimes the programme can be tailored to the organisation’s requirements so that you have many of the benefits of a made course but without heavy development costs. To the cost of the external programme would be added the costs of travel and subsistence; to the costs of the bought-in programme would be added any accommodation, food and beverage costs and such items as hiring equipment.”

But before we dismiss open programmes as eternally ‘second best’ (and CIPD’s wordings seems to implicitly do so), is it worth asking why we seem so keen to protect our thinking, culture and ways of working from the outside world. Will they not take the strain? Will they compare unfavourably? (And are we measuring comparative costs on the right criteria: if we’re not right about the business outcomes, are we even asking the right questions before we get the calculator about?).

Sometimes the right way to regulate the temperature and freshen the air is not to commission a state of the art, totally sealed air conditioning system. Sometimes opening the window is a better idea.

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