Managing in a contracting economy

08 June 2018 | Columns

Grafton Whyte - After 26 years of growth Namibia is facing its first extended period of economic contraction.

This trend of low or zero growth looks due to continue for at least two or three years.

In this environment high-quality management skills are a real differentiator. This is true in the private sector, but even more so in the public sector. When times were good and the economy was growing at 5 or 6% per annum, management incompetence, poor service delivery and blatant dishonesty were mollified by the general feeling that the economic cake was getting larger.

In these difficult conditions poor management should have nowhere to hide. Managers who were previously feted for simply spending their bloated budgets (and many failed to even do this), now need to demonstrate that their expenditure is having the desired impact on their citizens.

To manage in this environment requires real competency and courage. The emphasis has to be on high-quality management practices, if we are to navigate our way out of these difficult times.

What management practices?

The easy answer is that managers provide direction for their staff, make decisions to solve problems, take action or implement what they have decided and reflect on their actions to see if they have achieved the desired results, and improve in future. However, life is not so simple.

Organisations are complex entities with problems that are multifaceted, which defy simple one-dimensional solutions.

This challenging environment in Namibia has given rise to four broad categories of managers, illustrated in the two-by-two matrix in Figure 1.

These four types of managers are classified by their experience (on the horizontal axis), the number of years of relevant managerial experience and their knowledge (on the vertical axis), formal training and education in management disciplines.

In the lower left quadrant, the absent manager is typified by a low number of years as a manager (less than 15) and low levels of management knowledge (perhaps educated to undergrad degree or diploma level). These managers may find themselves ill-equipped to handle the complexity of the working environment and therefore abdicate some or all of their core practices. In a real sense they are absent from their role.

Another prevalent category of manager is the accidental manager. They lack professional management qualifications but do possess years of experience. Typically, at some point in their career this category of manager experienced some success. Unfortunately, from that point on they spend the rest of their career looking for opportunities to reprise that success. To this class of manager every problem can be solved with their solution, in much the same way hammers treat every problem, as if it were a nail. We would suggest that without a mind shift and appropriate management development training, these managers are totally ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the contracting economic conditions.

Refreshingly, the Namibian picture is far from bleak. The new class of emerging managers are young, hungry and ambitious. They are short on experience but recognise that the working environment is complex and uncertain, requiring novel solutions; so they are busy occupying our business schools seeking to professionalise their managerial practice with an MBA or other higher management qualifications. Our emerging managers are positioning themselves to become tomorrow's professionals.

Management development programmes (MDPs)

In fact, the positive news is that business schools and management training institutions have never been so busy. Astute supervisors and managers (both existing and aspiring) are approaching our business schools daily, enquiring how they might enhance their management skills. One recent case is typical, a well-known business approached the Namibian Business School (NBS) at the University of Namibia (Unam) to enquire on behalf of its staff whether our range of management development programmes (MDPs) are accredited. The point underlying this enquiry is that companies and individuals do not want to waste money on training for which your record of achievement is merely a certificate of attendance. They want courses that have practical application and an academic basis, that provide students with credits that can contribute towards a university undergraduate, honours or masters degrees. Unfortunately, many academic institutions make a rigid distinction between academic and development programmes, failing to understand that their customers want both! At NBS we are attempting to respond to those voices.

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