NZIM – RESEARCH: Forget The Crisis, Focus on Fundamentals

Robin Dunlop has enjoyed his tenure at the top of NZIM. “I have enjoyed trying to bring about some change to the organisation and getting us all singing from one song sheet,” he says resolutely. By that, he means that the National body of NZIM and its three operational regions, Northern, Central and Southern, are now working to common strategic plan and further restructuring.
NZIM’s long-standing fragmentation, caused by the strongly independent approach of the regional societies has, in the past, made it difficult for NZIM to present cohesive national vision and direction. The regions didn’t always offer common training and development services.
“There will still be regional differences,” says Dunlop “but at least we are now all headed in the same direction.” It has, he says, become increasingly important for NZIM to offer common and consistent programmes to corporates and to government – both local and national – organisations.
NZIM has significantly lifted its national profile with government and other sector groups under Dunlop’s watch. That’s not altogether surprising given that he was, until 2006, one of New Zealand’s top-ranked public servants as head of Transit New Zealand and the Ministry of Transport.
NZIM was leading light in the creation of the Ministry of Economic Development-sponsored Project Collaboration about three years ago. This public and private sector partnership initiative was set up to lift the country’s business and management capability and looks set to continue even under the new National Government.
But Dunlop’s attempts to negotiate greater understanding and flexibility from government organisations toward recognition of NZIM qualifications has proved rather more difficult. “We are still working on that,” he says reflectively.
An exclusively unit-standard approach to management development is more challenging, he says generously. “It is difficult to put management development and training into little boxes. It is quite easy to do it for something like hairdressing.”
If progress in refocusing NZIM on national strategy and integrated approach toward developing and delivering regional business plans gives him some personal satisfaction, it is the external message to managers that Dunlop wants to emphasise as he leaves the office.
The danger he sees for managers who have been in charge through boom times is that they forget about management fundamentals. In particular, they stop thinking about risk management strategies. “They stop asking themselves what they plan to do if and when things turn sour,” he says. “And downturns happen. They are cyclical. You don’t have to look back far to see that.”
He concedes that the current financial crisis and its recessionary consequences are far worse than anticipated. The global nature of the world economy means managers can do little to avoid the predicament in which business finds itself. But, while managers cannot predict crises, they should always plan for worse case scenarios. “If you do the thinking first it is easier to react when trouble strikes,” he adds. 
The other fundamentals Dunlop suggests managers focus on include:
• valuing good employees;
• maintaining good communications;
• involving employees in what the organisation is trying to achieve;
• managing cash flow; and
• remaining committed to innovation and research.
And, perhaps because of his transport and engineering background, Dunlop views project management as critical performance success tool. He thinks New Zealand’s general shortage and failure to apply project management skills is costly to both individual enterprises and to the nation generally.
“This has an enormous negative impact on productivity,” he says. “Managers and businesses that do not plan their day’s activities waste resources. The companies and the countries that get their [project management] act together will succeed in tomorrow’s world. I think this is major issue for New Zealand. It is lost opportunity and very expensive.”
While he believes NZIM’s project management course is very good, Dunlop is concerned that many of the organisations that should pick up on it, particularly the state-owned and small-to-medium enterprises in the economy, are not doing so. The trick for NZIM and for the country is to find ways to change this reality and lift project management in the priority of everyday management thinking.
The recession will, says Dunlop, present managers with challenges many have never encountered before. On the other hand, he expects some businesses to do “very well” out of it. For example, the liquidation, receivership and other rather more unfortunate aspects of business will flourish.
On the more positive plus side, recessions tend to shake out questionable management and governance practices. Dunlop includes among these the kind of short-term management strategies adopted over the past 20 years to deliver unrealistically high shareholder returns at the expense of long-term viability. In his opinion business should keep focused on the long term. “Management should be encouraged to think and act with the organisation’s long-term interests at heart.”
Business models might change as the world emerges from the current credit crisis, but in Dunlop’s opinion good management “is still, and will continue to be about getting the fundamentals right. It’s about employing and keeping good people, good communications, proper risk management planning, managing cash flow and the effective application of project planning.
“One management fundamental that has changed is the use of new technology,” he adds. “New technologies can, on the other hand, present double-edged sword. They unquestionably offer the opportunity to lift productivity. They can also present employees with the temptation to misuse technologies such as the internet for their own purposes during work hours which, in turn, reduces productivity. Organisations that understand how to use and deploy new technologies effectively will do well.”
Tomorrow’s manager should also focus more closely on resource use. “This will be increasingly important for managers. There will be increasing cost, market and legislative pressures to manage all the environment’s resources more effectively,” he adds.
While he is reasonably happy with his period at the head of NZIM, Dunlop is even more optimistic about the future and the opportunities for his successor. He is particularly encouraged by “what he has heard” from the Government on the need for more and better management education and training. “The message the Government is sending that enterprise should look to lift the capabilities of people is an opportunity for NZIM and good for New Zealand generally.”
He also sees the trend toward more diverse careers for individuals, in which they may work for variety of organisations, as an opportunity for NZIM. “Individuals can’t look to the organisations they work for to provide all their personal development needs. They will have to take more responsibility for their own upskilling and development. NZIM can, and does, do lot to help individuals develop their personal management capability – particularly through our mentoring programme.”
Dunlop got involved with NZIM in 1996 when he became director of the Institute’s Central region. He became chair of the then faltering division and, by the time he stepped down in 2002, Central was back on track and Dunlop moved across to the National board. By the time he steps down this month he will have been National chairman for three years.

Reg Birchfield FNZIM is member of NZIM’s National board.

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