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How to kick more goals in business – a masterclass straight from the horse’s mouth.

Posted by Kransdorff, Arnold at Saturday, 12/22/2012 1:13 pm
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3.2 from 17 votes
A fitting end-of-year gem of a post could be the instructive seminar given to Harvard Business School students by one of the world’s most successful football managers, Sir Alex Ferguson. Harvard was hoping he’d let slip how he’s managed to win almost every trophy in the game during his 26-year tenure with Manchester United. For those who want to do better the business of business, he did.

I know the wisdom he disclosed is only sports but given that he’s turned Manchester United into an annual £300 million-plus turnstile, his thoughts were both important and edifying, with lessons relevant to every department in the dough-making - or as we say in Britain the dosh-making - process.

The excuse for festive language aside, the main difference with ordinary business and commerce is that Sir Alex’s 11 principal employees are all millionaires and probably more difficult to manage than us mere mortals. The other variance is his own tenure. He has brought to the Old Trafford soccer pitch an uninterrupted and long tenancy, unusual in other football clubs as well as the rest of commerce and industry. This distinctive landscape has meant that the club’s head decision-maker has not had to constantly acquaint himself with new environments and circumstances, a not unimportant advantage for his employer.

On top of strategy, he gave colorful advice about leadership, delegation, induction, the importance of caring and criticising his players, how to deal with competitors, public relations (especially the press) and the importance of doing due diligence.

But, interestingly and significantly, he left his interstellar advice to the last, not only for his successor but for the organization who writes his monthly stipend. “When you're in the twilight of your career, share everything you've learned with the next generation.” While his long tenure clearly prompted the scheduling of the need to share his knowledge, the lesson for the rest of commerce and industry must be to do this more often, no thanks to the flexible labor market, where employees - including top decision makers - have as many as eight different paymasters in their working lifetimes. For non-Manchester United employers, this has meant constant disruption, widespread corporate amnesia, repeated mistakes, reinvented wheels and the other unlearned lessons that transitory employees make in every department.

And this, quite coincidentally, has been going on for the last 40 years, not with all the explicit knowledge we’ve efficiently collected in our massive data banks but with the more important tacit knowledge, a component of wisdom that business education has forgotten to teach how to acquire.

What Sir Alex was saying has everything to do with the vital discipline of experiential learning and its derivative influence in areas such as KM, decision making, HR and IT that industry and business education have overlooked for eons – and without which their ability to progress organically has been seriously disrupted. It’s an unintended consequence of a well-meaning strategy to give employers a better reaction time to changing circumstances but, philosophically stated, if the elder can’t teach the younger, then progress falters and when the memory fades, converses. All that hard-won and expensively paid for tried-and-tested practice thenceforth has become a waste of time. Just look at the southward direction of the OECD’s productivity growth in an era when business education has never been more available. What we’re doing is giving ourselves the business equivalent of Alzheimers.

Sir Alex avoided most of the downside effects of flexible working by also being a very skilled experiential learner. Is it not time for Industry, commerce and business education to copycat him? See for more of the why - and how. Happy holidays!

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