Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Management Development as Public Policy: Australia's Frontline Management Initiative (FMI) 1995-2002

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Management Development as Public Policy: Australia's Frontline Management Initiative (FMI) 1995-2002

Article excerpt


In Australia, in the 1990s, the skills of management were problematised by the poor performance and unethical behaviour of certain Australian businesses. Thus the Karpin report in 1995 recommended (among other things) competence-based training (CBT) for Australia's 'frontline' managers (formerly known as supervisors) (Karpin 1995a, 1995b, 1995c). The resulting training program was known as the 'Frontline Management Initiative, or FMI. Despite the extensive debates about CBT, there have been few critical empirical examinations of its application, especially to management development, at least in Australia. This article reports the results of PhD research covering the period 1996-2002 (Rozario 2004). The research examined the implementation of the FMI in six Australian organizations, using qualitative research methodology, in particular in-depth structured and semi-structured interviews. It also examined the effects of the much-criticised public training institutions on the implementation of the FMI. We argue that the weaknesses in CBT were exacerbated by problems in the Australian National Training Framework, and this undermined management development as public policy.

Section one briefly canvasses the critique of CBT, and thus questions the decision of Australian policy makers to opt for CBT as the central training technology of the new system. The inherent difficulties of conceptualizing the 'frontline' management process and therefore applying CBT to it only add to these concerns. Section two locates the origins of the FMI in the 'politics of reform' in the early 1990s. It sketches the failures of training reform, in particular widespread and well founded concerns over exploitation of trainees and compromised assessment practices. Section three shows how the implementation of frontline management training was corrupted by flawed training institutions. Section four turns in more detail to the implementation of the FMI in the specific organizations under study. Key problems specified in the previous sections are followed through to the case study organizations, where they mesh with some familiar issues of organizational politics. Despite a generally unfavourable picture emerging from 'inside the frontline', the Government and key stakeholders paint a rosy picture of outcomes.

Competence-Based Training and Management Skill

This section argues that the attempt to apply competence-based training and assessment to management development is inherently very difficult for two reasons: first, the contested and problematic nature of CBT itself, and second, the contested nature of management work and the skills needed to perform it. Taken together, these two factors made it very difficult to achieve the stated public policy goals of the FMI: to draw up and apply lists of competencies that are at once generic and enterprise specific, and to spur management learning in organizations with the aim of improving organizational effectiveness and, of course, national competitiveness.

CBT is primarily:

a form of assessment that is derived from the specification of a set of outcomes that so clearly states both the outcomes--general and specific--that assessors, students and interested third parties can all make reasonably objective judgements with respect to student achievement or non-achievement of these outcomes Wolf (1995: 1).

The claimed advantages of this behavioural approach are attractive: unproblematic, 'tick the box' assessment, by generically skilled assessors. But critics argue that the precision with which competencies are specified is misleading. The behaviours that sum to a competent performance are far too complex to be captured in this way, even for lower-order tasks (Wolf 1995: 24, 109, 115, passim; Ashworth and Saxton 1990). And while there may be different ways to perform any given work task, the form taken by competency standards often seems to assume that there is only one single model of competent performance (Wolf 1995: 17). …

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