The Irish Management Institute aims to provide fresh ideas

Dr Simon Boucher believes they remain the best place for executives to learn their trade

 

It was established back in 1953 with the aim of training a new business elite that would lead Ireland’s economy out of the doldrums.

At the time, Seán Lemass had yet to assume power and TK Whitaker’s proposals to kick-start the economy had yet to be framed. The Irish Management Institute (IMI) is still alive and kicking but in an age when executive education courses are two-a-penny, does it offer value?

Now in its 62nd year and with a young and enthusiastic chief executive at the reins, the IMI is certainly talking the talk. Its national conference returned in 2013, after a gap of five years with a focus on game-changing ideas that can drive organisational growth. But,for all its upbeat enthusiasm about the opportunities that exist for Irish businesses, there is no doubting that the institute’s own fortunes are at a turning point.

During the height of the recession, when the IMI decided against holding a national conference, the organisation found itself busy dealing with financial difficulties, the prospect of a full merger with University College Cork (UCC) and criticism that it had lost its tongue at a time when Ireland’s business leaders were being widely disparaged.

As if this were not enough, a growing number of competitors are now offering the same type of courses that were once the sole preserve of the IMI.

Despite the challenges, Dr Simon Boucher, who joined the IMI in 2007 and served as its chief operating officer before taking over from Dr Tom McCarthy as chief executive in 2013, is adamant that the institute is as relevant now as it ever was.

“The mission when the institute was established was simple. Ireland had a long way to go to compete internationally and the standard of management was below that of our competitors. With training and development it was believed that Ireland could gain competitiveness,” said Dr Boucher. “The IMI exists for exactly the same purpose now and that is to improve the practice of management in Ireland. Our mission is as pertinent now as it was back in 1953.”

The IMI was enthusiastically backed by Lemass, the then-minister for industry and commerce at the time of its establishment and throughout the years it has been seen as being closely aligned to those who wield power. However, Dr Boucher is adamant that, while it may have received backing from politicians in the early days, the organisation has always strived to be independent of political influence.

“I think sometimes people perceive the IMI as a State body in some way but that’s not really the case. The institute was set up by an independent committee of business leaders and the State lent a limited amount of moral and financial support,” he said.

“We were established at a time when terms such as executive education were completely unknown and management in general was seen as something of an exotic concept. The institute was meant to reflect the needs of Irish business and to introduce best practice in management thinking. Out of that a number of other services arose, such as networking events, the setting up of a library and the first executive education programmes in the country.”

Crowded market

The rise of rival business schools, combined with the recession, dented the institute’s finances. Cutbacks on spending on training courses by firms affected by the downturn meant revenues at IMI declined by 50 per cent from more than €14 million in 2007 to €7 million in 2010.

The introduction of redundancies, a strategic alliance with UCC (possibly a step towards that mooted merger) and new specialised courses have all helped stem the tide somewhat.

“During the recession we practiced what we preached. We talk of innovating and responding nimbly and so we did this ourselves. Training and development is a difficult market to be in and therefore we had to reflect on what we offer and come up with a number of new products such as a flexible Master of Business programme. Our Masters Business suite has grown 46 per cent on average year-on-year over last the last four years.”

As much as he sees the IMI as fomenting educational revolution, Dr Boucher admits it is harder to appeal to businesses than it once was. He claims, however, that the IMI still offers far more than rival schools.

“We have a distinct position in what is a very competitive market . . . we think the key difference is that we are able to combine an understanding of best practice, but to tailor it in such a way that it leads to real-life practical learning for business people that is useful in their day jobs. Not only do we offer customised programmes based around particular companies’ needs, but if someone takes one of our masters courses, they are essentially learning to become an internal consultant for their organisation,” he said.

“Rather than doing examinations, individuals have to undertake management audits for their firms and write up consultancy reports analysing what are the best practices, how the company stacks up against rivals, what the gaps are and so on. This is presented back to us and then usually back to the student’s senior team, so as well as being great for the development of the individual, their learning also helps translate best practice back into the company.”

Dr Boucher is also keen to point out that, unlike other business schools, students tend to be far more experienced that those attending alternative educational centres, with students typically having 10 years’ management experience or more. This, he claims, makes peer learning happen more naturally as executives are more willing to share their knowledge with each other while studying.

Rivals (and readers) may be tempted to scoff, but the IMI must be doing something right. After all, it is the only Irish business school to be ranked globally by the Financial Times for the provision of customised executive education for the last six years in a row.

The IMI claims the decision to bring its national conference back was timely given that the economy is improving. Dr Boucher fends off criticism about the decision to suspend the conference during the recession by claiming there was less demand for it as executives were busy fire-fighting and couldn’t afford to take the time out to attend. It’s all change now though, he suggests.

“Chief executives are looking for fresh ideas, which is why we brought back the conference with the theme ‘Game changers for growth’,” he said.

“The institute fulfils a pertinent role for Irish industry and we don’t see our mission changing. Management has improved over the years but we are involved in benchmarking best practice and know that Ireland is still behind many of its peers in areas such as strategic goal-setting, performance management and so on. We intend to continue to work to translate best practice into practical learning”.

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