Developing managerial learning styles in the context of the strategic application of information and communications technologies

Professor Clive Holtham and Nigel Courtney

City University Business School

This paper reports on an applied knowledge management approach that has been developed to enhance the skills of middle and senior managers in relation to the strategic application of IT. The approach has involved close collaboration between a research university and a consortium of companies using IT, including both large and small organisations.

This project has involved developing and refining theories of executive learning, then implementing practical knowledge management tools and methods based on these theories. This is characterised by a 'menu of options' that broadens a spectrum of serialist, versatile and holistic learning styles to take account of a manager's 'proximity' (the extent of peripatetic working) and 'intensity' (the pace implicit in a learning option).

Learning material and content was designed and produced to appeal to a variety of individual learning styles and strategies. These included original research-based publications specified by the participants and some 450 best practice case studies available via a private extranet. A model, dubbed the Executive Learning Ladder, was used to structure this portfolio into events tuned to a range of executive experience levels.

Executives working for the consortium organisations were then invited to choose from and attend a selection of 50 learning events staged over a 12-month period. Feedback from the 561 attendances is analysed and presented. The perceived benefits recorded by the participants are used to assess the success or failure of elements of the project.

In part, the results confirm intuitive beliefs about executive learning styles. For example, that for most managers and especially very senior executives face-to-face contact is a critical factor for the successful development of managerial competencies in the application of IT for business benefit.

But they also indicate that executive learning styles – seen by many authors to be inherent from birth – tend to change with the acquisition of business experience. For example, experienced executives are attracted by the use of metaphor and 'transitional objects' to speed up their unlearning of earlier theories and the absorption of new.

At the start of the project a significant minority of our sample of senior managers declined to use asynchronous communications methods. This behaviour changed steadily after the majority voted for all minutes and research papers to be made available only via the extranet. Similarly, the results show a clear 'cascading' effect caused by the practice of the less technophobic executives to sample new events before sending subordinates to repeat sessions.

The Executive Learning Ladder has proved to be a powerful concept and we conclude that it not only needs relevant materials but also requires key roles in IT skills learning to be filled adequately within each organisation.

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