A new study shows that managers demonstrate a dishearteningly low ability to apply what they have learned when presented with situations that call for it.
Workplace learning and performance professionals always have been concerned about whether learners are able to apply their learning when it counts. When it comes to management skill, there is indeed cause for concern. According to a long-term study of 21,000 managers and 2,600 undergraduate management students, the average score on a timed test assessing their ability to apply management knowledge was 32 percent. High scorers earn up to 65 percent.
The study was led by Timothy Baldwin from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Bloomington, and published in the December 2011 issue of Academy of Management Learning & Education. In "The Elusiveness of Applied Management Knowledge: A Critical Challenge for Management Educators," Baldwin and his colleagues Jason Pierce, Richard Joines, and Shameem Farouk conclude that one of the limitations related to how we teach managers is focusing too much on content and skill and not enough on teaching them to recognize the cues for when to actually apply the knowledge and skill.
"The real issue in managerial performance is to get beyond just knowing principles (know that) or the ability to perform a certain management skill (know how)," note Baldwin and colleagues. "The best managers reach a level where they know when and where to take certain actions—what might be called knowing to. Knowing to means having access to one's knowledge in the moment—knowing to do something when it is needed."
The study examined results from the Managerial Skills Assessment Test (MSAT)—a timed evaluative in-basket exercise that evaluates managers' ability to respond effectively in eight common management scenarios. Surveyed were more than 21,000 managers in 75 diverse private sector companies in the United States and Canada during a 25-year period (up to 2008).
Results also were compiled from more than 2,600 undergraduate management students who were given additional assessments to test some of the hypotheses. The MSAT evaluates management ability in collaborative decision making, managing new ideas, managing poor-performing employees, delegating, managing meetings, coaching, managing stakeholders, and managing conflict.
The study also examined the impact of such variables as length of experience, how well managers knew the principles and procedures involved (conceptual knowledge), overall aptitude, and personality traits. While the results showed that scores improved as experience increased, the gains were not as dramatic as might be expected. Conceptual knowledge, aptitude, and personality traits also had only moderate correlations with the results of the MSAT. It appears that the ability to apply one's knowledge about effective management practice when it is called for is a distinct skill.
So what will make a difference in managers' abilities to apply the knowledge we seek to impart in management development programs? The study authors make several recommendations.
Because managers were missing cues to apply principles in common management situations, it might be beneficial to engage in scenarios, such as the in-basket exercise, during management training and development efforts. Managers may need more practice in discerning when to apply what they know amid all of the demands of everyday management practice. Along those same lines, it might help to design ways to teach management skills in a more holistic way rather than teaching one skill at a time—which is never the way we encounter the need for management skills in real life.