Forget Slough, opt for the US.

Tune into BBC 2 on Monday nights and you will see the face of modern British management: David Brent.

A middle manager in a paper merchant in Slough, Brent wants to be loved by his staff and he thinks he’s an entertainer. What Brent doesn’t recognise in himself – but what everyone who watches The Office knows – is that he is a failure with a crushing lack of ambition. And no self-awareness at all.

But if Patricia Hewitt has her way, Brent – and thousands of others like him – will not be with us for much longer. Last week the trade secretary announced that US management expert professor Michael Porter would head a UK management skills review after a series of surveys ‘suggested weak management skills partly contribute to the UK’s poor productivity performance’.

In other words UK plc is riddled with David Brents.

Although many UK managers tune into The Office (watching through their fingers, no doubt) others have not held back in their criticism of Porter’s appointment. They suggest that poor performance is less attributable to weak management skills and more to not entering the euro, among other economic factors.

Nevertheless, research by the International Institute for Management Development has shown that efficiency of UK business leaders lags behind most of our main competitors – Germany, France, USA and Canada.

Competitiveness indicators, according to the DTI, show UK managers are inadequately qualified, trained and developed compared with international counterparts. The research also revealed UK managers lacked adaptability and entrepreneurial and technical skills compared with USA, German and Japanese counterparts.

So perhaps Porter is the man for the job.

David Brent would certainly hate him. Based at Harvard Business School, Porter is a leading authority on competitive strategy and the competitiveness and economic development of nations, states and regions.

His ideas on strategy have become the foundation for one of the required courses at Harvard. He also leads the school’s programmes for CEOs of billion dollar companies.

When CEOs, heads of state, academics and business school students are stuck, it is said they turn straight to his books. He has has written 16 of them, as well as more than 75 articles.

His colleagues ooze praise. Thomas McCraw, Isidor Straus professor of business history at HBS, once said: ‘Mike Porter is probably the world’s most influential business academic and one of a handful of the most influential who have ever lived. His insights and models regarding competitive strategy have become the canon in this area of study and the starting point for a considerable amount of work by other scholars around the globe. In short, he has reconstituted the field of business strategy.’

The UK government review Porter is leading is to come to a close at the end of January 2003. He will present his findings in early 2003. If you thought his appointment was controversial, expect fireworks when he reports back. Especially at a certain paper merchants in Slough.

  • For a copy of the DTI productivity and competitiveness indicators go to
  • The Office is on BBC 2 on Monday nights at 10pm.

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