Pilot program aims to develop regional business leaders
Regional businesses play a vitally important role in the Australian economy, but distance and a lack of resources can mean skills gaps for managers – something a pilot “peer learning” program is seeking to remedy.
The Regional High Performance Network (RHPN) program, piloted by a team of University of Technology Sydney (UTS) researchers, has found that peer learning can play a key role in accessing harder-to-reach regional small businesses where managers tend to have little or no formal training.
“Focusing on up-skilling in management and leadership has been recognised as a priority, but the question has long been how best to do this with regional professionals, given their geographical fragmentation and sometimes isolation,” says Dr Renu Agarwal from the Centre for Business and Social Innovation (CBSI) at UTS Business School, Chief Investigator for the RHPN project. “Peer learning allows regional areas to leverage local knowledge and expertise, which can be the most relevant and easiest to access.”
Regional businesses play an important role in Australia’s productivity and growth, says Professor Roy Green of UTS Business School, who contributed to the report. They are also at the front line as the economy moves away from a reliance on sectors such as mining. “We need to ensure we stimulate and enable management and leadership development in those businesses,” Professor Green says.
The RHPN pilot involved groups of up to nine managers – owner-managers from small business and senior managers from larger businesses or public sector organisations – being brought together across regional Australia in “learning communities” established with the aim of them becoming self-sustaining.
We made time for conversations that allowed us to see new opportunities
The pilot program was run across South Australia, Western Australia, NSW and Queensland, in Gwydir, the Hunter region, Armidale, Mackay, Port Lincoln, Port Augusta, Kimberley, Great Southern, Peel, Whyalla and St Vincent de Paul.
It involved six 90-minute learning modules on a range of management themes, ranging from Mindful Leadership to Efficiency and Effectiveness.
Peer learning provides people with space to reflect and challenge the ‘it has always been done this way’ approach, Dr Agarwal says. “Professionals who might not have had the opportunity to learn new ways of doing things are exposed to a range of approaches through interactions and sharing with trusted peers.”
Group dynamics were found to be critical in the peer learning process. A large contributor to group effectiveness is participants coming with the right attitude and believing that the experience of their peers is valuable, says Dr Agarwal.
The results also showed that groups perform best when participants come from the same organisation type – government, for-profit or not-for-profit – and have a comparable level of experience. Diversity within those groups then enhanced results, as participants acquired new knowledge and improved skills, developed a business mindset and gained higher levels of confidence.
“We are very pleased with these initial results,” says Dr Agarwal. “We’ve heard great stories of family-run businesses that have been very inwardly focussed for generations and are now embracing change.”
Chris Smyth from Ray White Bingara, NSW, says the program gave him confidence he could think and act strategically. “Before then, I thought it was a skill only available to those with a degree in leadership,” he says. “I learned that being strategic is a mindset that is available to anyone who wants to access it.”
Carmen Southwell, from Caroda Station, Bingara, says the RHPN encouraged her to raise strategic questions with her business partners, who up to then were very much focused on running the station.
“We made time for these conversations that allowed us to see new opportunities," she says.
Dr Agarwal says the pilot identified substantial demand for management and leadership development for regional Australia that is currently not being adequately addressed.
This research was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Employment through the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne.