Roffey Park: Sixty years of shaping HR

It was the first year of peace after the Second World War, Clement Attlee’s government was pushing its Bill to create the NHS through Parliament, the United Nations’ General Assembly had held its inaugural session and, probably of most importance to the average Briton, bread and flour had just been rationed for the first time.

For HR professionals and managers, however, 1946 is most memorable for the creation of the management institute Roffey Park, which has just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

Rehab for returners

Roffey Park was the brainchild of psychiatrist Dr Thomas Ling – who worked for industrial giant ICI – and the King’s physician Lord Horder, who in 1944 set up a rehabilitation hospital on two adjoining estates near Horsham, West Sussex.

The aim of the Roffey Park Rehabilitation Centre, as it was known, was to treat workers suffering from non-specific psychological disorders such as stress, exhaustion and mild depression, and return them to productive roles in industry.

Today, it offers a range of executive development and consultancy programmes, a hotel and a purpose-built training centre, so it could not be more different.

But graduates argue that Roffey’s original mission – to support the health and well­being of the individual – remains the key to understanding its continuing impact on HR and management thinking.

Former Roffey Park chairman Rob Hudson first used the institute in the late 1960s, when he became managing director of a French automation company.

“The facilities were extremely basic. You started off in the stable block, which had been converted into about 10-15 rooms, and then walked through the woods to the hospital next door, where they had the training rooms,” he recalls.

“What Roffey taught me was that by working with people you could achieve not only a more effective company, but you could make it a more fun, innovative place in which to work. It created a sense of family, a team, of belonging and valuing people,” he explains.

At the other end of the historical spectrum, Chris Jones, head of training at Colindale-based construction firm HBG, has been through a number of Roffey’s programmes over the past 15 years, including – most recently – its principles of management course.

“It has had a tremendous impact on the managers who go there. There are so many management training providers out there with a focus on skills. That is important, but what Roffey Park addresses is behaviours,” he says.

“Their approach to delivering courses involves a lot of reflection and feedback from tutors and from delegates themselves. People know that they can challenge things in a constructive way.”

The key to Roffey is that its core values have not changed, agrees Roger Leek, HR director at Fujitsu UK, who went through various Roffey programmes during the late 1980s and 1990s, first with Volvo Cars, then BNFL and Fujitsu.

“It allows your inner mind to calm down. It definitely changed me as a person, in how I interact with people and how I lead people. In particular, it affected my self-awareness. I am now much more aware of the impact I have on my company and how I influence people and decisions,” he adds.

Modern mission

Linda Holbeche was director of research and strategy at Roffey Park for 12 years before taking up a new role at the Work Foundation in January this year.

She believes that its original mission, to repair mental health after the Second World War, is still there – it’s just the application of it that has changed.

When Holbeche first joined, she recalls being thrown into an environment that felt truly cutting edge. “It was genuinely developmental stuff; how to lead change processes by experiencing change in the training room.

“The mission was clearly about health and wellbeing, but increasingly in the time I was there the research side reinvested the mission, in that we were looking at a whole range of work-related issues that were relevant to people and how to make the workplace more enlightened,” she recalls.

Roffey pioneered HR initiatives such as the adoption of learning sets and the notion of self-managed learning, and its ability to draw high-profile thinkers drew a large audience.

“We had some fantastic gatherings of ­people to come and hear leading-edge thinkers,” remembers Holbeche. “You would get people making a detour and coming to speak at Roffey. It was known as a hub for thinking about management development, and I hope that continues.”

Future perfect?

But this is the challenge for Roffey. A reputation for leading edge thought can only be sustained if your thought and activity remains just that.

In an increasingly competitive, even cluttered, management development and training environment, it is a hard balancing act for a charitable institution such as Roffey to build a brand that is financially profitable without losing the reputation for independence of thought and outlook.

The current chief executive, John Gilkes, recognises this challenge. He describes himself as “holding the golden thread between the inspiration of the past and the future”.

Predicting what is going to be the next big idea is never easy. Nevertheless, Gilkes suggests that many organisations are now looking beyond simple leadership development to more enlightened ways of working and concepts such as ethical leadership.

“People want their organisations to be more meaningful. They are more concerned about how their work fits into their broader life,” he says.

Roffey Park chairwoman Val Hammond agrees. “We have to re-invent Roffey to meet the needs of the future, while hanging on to the values that have served us well in the past,” she says. “We always say that we are working for the thinking, questioning manager – the person who wants to be on the edge.”

Holbeche, for one, insists Roffey can remain a thought leader. “Before I left, there was a real sense that Roffey was ‘rebooting’ its intellectual development offering – that it is a learning hub, a community in which it is safe to experiment.”

Pioneering programmes

The areas of HR and executive development that Roffey Park has shaped over the years include:

  • Training for trainers
  • Development of notion of learning sets and self-managed learning
  • Recognition of importance of emotional intelligence within the workplace
  • Use of assessment and development centres and psychometrics within talent management
  • Most recently, research on organisational development, strategic HR, 360-degree feedback, creativity and knowledge management within the workplace.

Roffey Park timeline

  • 1943 Roffey Park acquired to set up a rehabilitation centre.
  • 1946 Roffey Park Institute established.
  • 1947 Launch of residential development programme and first research studies.
  • 1953 Launch of first bespoke development programme and first international programme
  • 1954 First “training for trainers” programme launched
  • 1967 Roffey Park Institute registered as a charity.
  • 1987 First qualification programme – Advanced Diploma in Management Development – is run.
  • 1993 Launch of MSc programme.
  • 1998 Publication of first Management Agenda research report, providing an annual snapshot of the world of work.
  • 2003 Opening of new conference complex, including a replacement residential wing, new reception area and extended dining/catering facilities.

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