Learning, thinking and doing
Learning, thinking and doing

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Learning, thinking and doing

4.1 What it means to be good at managing

What does it mean to be 'good at managing' and what part does systems thinking and practice play? One way to explore the first question is to ask what you know about your work that a school leaver, or someone fresh from university, would not know. Consider a senior secretary, for example, someone who clearly has a fair amount of managing to do, in our terms. Such a person must have certain basic skills and knowledge (in word-processing, filing, etc.) the foundation of which will have been laid in their training. But once they have become competent in demonstrating these skills they cease to be problematic. There may indeed be little difference between the word-processing-and-filing skills of the senior secretary and the college leaver.

But clearly, there is a difference between the effectiveness of the senior secretary and the college leaver even if they are competent at certain necessary skills. In fact, the issues and hassles that the senior secretary deals with, and which call for awareness and judgement, don't usually have much to do with these functional 'secretarial' skills. In order to reduce the disparity between the two it might be suggested that secretarial courses should teach some of these more general yet 'higher level' secretarial skills. Indeed, most secretarial courses do, and a bit on organisations and management is included in much professional training. Although useful in giving people some general appreciation of what they may expect, it is not difficult to see the limitations of such teaching. A student might be able to write elegant essays about various aspects of organisations and still be unable to cope at all creatively with one face-to-face (this was certainly true for me at the beginning of my professional career). Such teaching would inevitably be very general – any particular organisation is unique and all colleagues are different. But in practice it is the particularities that matter: knowing what makes particular people tick, which rules are important and which can be ignored, understanding the background to current issues and something of the overall context of one's work.

With this in mind it is tempting to say that these are all that matter, that managing well means having a good working knowledge of one's own activity, the people one works with, and how they all fit into the wider organisation. But this doesn't work either, because someone wise in the ways of organisations doesn't just cope well with their particular job. They can also handle changes in their work, or move to a different organisation, getting the hang of changed circumstances fairly quickly, working out how to make the best of them, how to get things done and knowing when and how to stand up for themselves. The difference is that rather than defining competence as being knowledgeable, fully informed and expertly qualified in particular functions, it is defined as being able to ask questions, keeping an open mind and how you relate to your colleagues so that both you and they can learn and develop.

Two other points also contribute to making competence an elusive quality. First, where two people doing the same sort of work are both competent, they often go about their work in very different ways. Senior secretaries, for example, can be competent in a great variety of ways. Secondly, if we were to ask senior secretaries what it is that makes them competent, we are unlikely to be at all satisfied with their answers. Competent people know far more than they can express. If you doubt this, ask a cyclist which way one should turn the handlebars when the bike has started to lean to the left. He or she will either give the wrong answer or think quite hard before replying. Even in very simple cases, things that people know perfectly well are not readily accessible to them when it comes to an explanation. Where the competence involves really complex judgements it is only with the greatest difficulty (if at all) that competent people can express what they know. So it is also necessary to have some concepts and theories which can help explain what people often know but cannot express.

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