The Missing Middle - IEDP
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The Missing Middle

Learning and development for over-looked middle managers


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Recent research by Amy Armstrong and Ayiesha Russell at Ashridge has focused on the large but also largely over-looked section of ‘middle management’. As Armstrong and Russell point out this group ‘act as a crucial filter between day-to-day operational demands and the board’s strategy’ and that ‘relations between middle managers and their direct reports can make or break an employee’s motivation, productivity, satisfaction and retention’ – so middle management are both the glue and a key tool to improving organisational effectiveness. Yet this group is under-represented in research which has tended to focus on current and future leaders – and graduates.

The research explored UK middle managers experiences of learning and the results, while not startlingly revelatory are indicative that the bulk of the UK management class feel let-down and are clear as to how this might be improved, though cost implications may present an obstacle to this being achieved. There are also some disconnection between what the research respondents perceived about learning and what they had experienced themselves.

The primary result was that ‘informal (on-the-job) development experiences are perceived as being more effective than formal learning experiences’ – this clearly is an area that businesses can build upon as it draws on the concept of ‘managers as teachers’ and is implementable at little extra cost or disruption. However, ‘short-courses’ and ‘ formal learning’ are reported as the first and second most powerful learning experiences within or outside work. So formal learning still clearly has a lasting impact on this group. The top three experiences for self-development are the ‘on-the-job’ ones , stretch assignments/working under pressure; giving/receiving feedback; and leading/managing people.

To those with a familiarity with the 70:20:10 principle of learning, this general structure is re-assuring. The formal learning element, where new ideas and data are delivered, the 10 of the above ratio, equates to occasional short programs and training. The 20 element, the feedback. And the bulk of learning is recognised as happening ‘on-the-job’ – particularly the stretch assignments that take people out of their comfort zones.

The Ashridge research indicates that the large majority (73%) of middle managers see themselves as working in organisations that support learning and development, but only 50% believe they are given sufficient time to pursue it. A similar 78% have had discussions about their development needs in the last year, but a full 80% say that it is up to them to drive their own career development.

‘Influencing, leadership and management’ are seen as the three most important current development topics by the respondents, with communication and presentation skills running shortly behind.

In terms of what prevents further access and engagement with more learning and development the survey confirmed the usual suspects – time and financing constraints and job pressures. What is striking is that the fast-growing potential solution to over-coming these constraints, e-learning, was clearly dismissed as an attractive or effective alternative delivery channel, coming last in a list of 12 options in ‘perceived effectiveness of early and later career development experiences’ and in second place in the list of ’least effective learning and development practices’. It is not clear from the survey how many of the respondents had actually experienced network or e-learning recently however, and the authors offer the explanation “Perhaps this is a generational response, since only 11% of respondents to this survey were under 30 years of age”.

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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