How Managers Learn

For years we have dragged managers into training programs then do it again in a year or two to “renew” their skills or expose them to the “next  thing” sparked by the newest management trend.  But take the time to ask managers how they prefer to hone their skills, they invariably offer informal approaches like trial and error (experience), observing other managers, and sharing with trusted colleagues.  A couple of studies I like (one newer and one a little older) validate this informal approach to learning and provide some interesting models that can help shape approaches to management development.

What do Managers have to tell us about how they develop skills?

The first comes from Good Practice, an interesting informal learning service for managers and leaders.  Last year they commissioned a survey of hundreds of managers across a variety of industries on learning activities and their effectiveness.  The study, which you can download here, found that the most frequent and effective learning activity  is an informal chat with a colleague (82%) and that 55% of managers will use trail and error at least once a month.  Four primary conclusions are drawn from the study:

According to the study, the top 5 learning methods used by managers are the following (interesting how self-directed each of the strategies are).

  1. Informal chats with colleagues
  2. Search engines (internet resources)
  3. Trial and error
  4. On-the job instruction
  5. Use of professional literature

How managers develop core management competencies

An earlier study of over 200 managers in the Insurance industry got similar results but made the link to specific core management competencies. You can review it here.  Investigators (from the University of Connecticut) asked to what extent and in what ways managers learned core managerial skills through formal training and informal learning. Results found managers consistently reported learning twenty core managerial skills mostly from informal learning activities. The diagram below, from their study, shows a comparison of the number of managers reporting that they learned each specific managerial skill formally and informally.

Click for larger view

Drawing from these and other results from the study the authors offered, quite accurately I think, a model for how managers learn.

Click for larger view

In the model informal learning mechanisms include job experience (solving problems through action) watching other managers, and interaction with others.  These activities build tacit and explicit knowledge which, when regulated through goal setting and other meta-cognitive skills develops proficiency over time. Notice the role of formal training. Managers apply what is learned only if relevant to their job experience. This doesn’t negate the influence of formal training but again reinforces how job relevant it needs to be before you can expect any transfer.

The future of management development?

Managers have always learned through informal methods. The last thing we want to do is get in the way or start over-formalizing these successful “informal” approaches. Social Media offers an interesting platform for manager informal interaction (especially in the form of Communities of Practice) but managers are still warming up (or not) to on line networking.

I think informal management development needs some direction and shape from proven management practices from both inside and outside the organization.  And to keep the wheels of informal learning greased, action learning facilitation, useful performance support tools and access to on-demand informal learning assets are all a part of the mix.   Any strategies that provide managers with a forum and support to discuss and share their experience in the context of leading ideas and best practices will clearly be received well by managers.

Sparked by the recognition of untapped market for informal learning services, new vendor services are emerging that are likely the forefront of a shift in management development services.  Internal and external Communities of Practice like What Do You Want from Them are starting to emerge.  Traditional management development companies are re-purposing their content for more flexible delivery on line like Good Practice. And informal coaching services like Coaching Ourselves, driven by content from leading academic thinkers, are gaining real traction (see my  discussion of Coaching Ourselves here).  Formal management development isn’t going away (and shouldn’t), but shifting more of the load to informal learning may start to produce the business results long sought after by management development practitioners.

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6 thoughts on “How Managers Learn

  1. Kindly let me know if your company has a good essay on How best a managers can learn and develop. I’m looking for a scholarly work on that area. I need the article which has models on learning and development and also should be well referenced. Please provide me with the quation as well. Thank you
    A masters Student

    • Esther;
      Thanks for your note. This is not a company blog. However some of my favourites are Results Based Leadership (David Ulrich), The Leadership Engine and The Cycle of Leadership (both by Noel Tichy), Building Leaders (Jay Congar) and Managing (Henry Mintzberg). Also here’s a great bibliography on the use of Action Learning for Management Development http://bit.ly/g9U29o

      Tom

  2. Hi Tom,
    Thanks for your excellent blog! I’m working directly with our Senior Staff on “effectiveness” in our different departments, and needed some good guidance on how to approach the topic with them. Do you know about Manager Tools? They’ve got excellent podcasts and information (mostly free) and is a great resource. http://www.manager-tools.com/

  3. […] Using the management model as a guide, create a series of realistic scenarios, cases,  and business challenges  (whatever your term of preference) that will be the core of your management development program.  We know the best management development is built around authentic problems, tasks and opportunities.  Managers also tell us it’s the way they prefer to learn. […]

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