Management is a science, argues Sherman Roberts, and the business leaders of the future should take time to master it. Martin Ince reports.
Anyone who wants to tempt 100 of Europe's top movers and shakers to spend two or more weeks of their valuable time at an Oxford college needs a pretty impressive sales pitch. Sherman Roberts of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government has one of the best. He says his International Leadership Programme, which will run at Keble College this summer, will do more than give participants an insight into running companies and organisations. It will also give them the inside track on a general theory of human behaviour.
Roberts, a likeable Texan whose leadership programmes at Harvard brought in more than 3,000 top US executives last year, says that "how people perform and how they can perform better" is starting to be knowable science.
Indeed, Roberts believes management and leadership fall within the grand structure of science now emerging, rooted in the basic properties of the universe and extending through mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology to provide "the substrates" of human behaviour and performance.
He says that most of the faculty who teach the course and the students appreciate that most of the good things in intellectual life right now are happening at the joins between disciplines.
Some time soon, Roberts says, insights such as those from brain imaging, in which the areas of the brain in use in different mental activities can be seen, will feed teaching on management. He hopes to gain insight into how people think through complex situations. For most of history and prehistory, he says, people have been hunter-gatherers, who have had to make simple, "commonsense" decisions quickly. This is a less than ideal background for decision-taking in an era of complex societies and organisations suffering information overload.
There might also be insights into the ways people work in groups, such as the tendency to seek colleague reinforcement, which can make for bad decisions at key points. There will also be a focus on reinforcing realism among executives whose success can incline them to excesses of self-belief. Roberts says: "It is tough to teach executives that they can fall into traps. They are prone to over-optimism and over-confidence." Expensive mistakes could be avoided by helping them to share some of the burdens, he says.
One of the aims of the Oxford course is to give business and other leaders experience of people who can "get from improvement to innovation". On the day creativity is discussed, they hear from Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse and himself no small part of the Oxford mystique. When negotiation is on the table, they hear from Sir Marrack Goulding, warden of St Antony's College Oxford and previously UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping. The theory is that negotiating a pay rise is tricky, but getting Iran and Iraq to talk to one another might put it in perspective.
Also on the agenda is Hugh Lunghi, a veteran of the British Military Mission in second-world-war Moscow and the Yalta talks, again on the basis that executives may be tough to deal with, but Stalin was probably tougher.
This approach marks a substantial change, Roberts says, from the era of management education when the focus was on making staff conform to the needs of the corporation.
Roberts does not think that transplanting Harvard's wisdom to European shores involves significant cultural problems. "We will be careful about having too many baseball expressions," he says. But at a deeper level, he thinks that cultural differences are there to be bridged. "All our speakers have extensive international experience. But we look for commonalities and do not teach anything too culture-specific. For instance, negotiating business in either Japan or Germany involves reciprocation between the two parties, even if the way it is done differs."
In its early days in the US, the course was heavily biased towards the private sector, but more and more students are now coming from the public sector.
In the US, Roberts says, the public sector and, more gradually, the not-for-profits have realised that it is worth spending money - £11,500 for two-and-a-bit weeks in this case - on developing top people. The programme's managers add that the course can be bought in one-week modules and note that at £800 a day, their offering is affordable by comparison with nearby Templeton College, whose Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme comes in at twice the price.