Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten’s call for managers to do more to improve employee engagement shines the light on the productivity debate on the quality of management and leadership in Australia. Is he right and what should be done about it?

First, there is no doubt that Australia’s productivity is not at the level it should be, particularly when compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. The 2009 report Management Matters – How productive are we? – completed for the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research – concluded that one of the causes of our lagging productivity was that while some of our organisations stacked up well with the best internationally, there were too many that did not perform well at all, particularly when it comes to managing people.

Getting people, processes and systems to work productively is a challenge and the responsibility of everyone in an organisation, but in particular those in managerial positions. Creating, encouraging and reinforcing the right environment within an organisation drives innovation and, in turn, its productivity. More productive organisations obviously result in a more competitive Australia. However, getting people, processes and systems to work productively is a lot harder than it sounds.

We not only need to draw on what research tells us works, but also instil a mindset of constantly finding new and better ways. In the same way we emphasise innovation with respect to products and services, we also need a focus on innovation in business models and management practices.

As part of this, the debate in Australia would do well to go beyond “employers vs employees”. Indeed the distinction between the two is rather blurred. Is not someone in a managerial position also an “employee”? Former ACTU vice-president Anna Booth has a point when she says the current IR system is entrenching a “unions vs management” mentality.

We also need to think through what forms of organisation are needed now and may emerge in the future to meet customer demands.

Then, taking into consideration the changing needs and aspirations of the workforce, we need to create and develop the most productive models of management. There isn’t, and won’t be, just one right answer.

This leads on to the kind of skills, attributes and knowledge needed by managers. Acquiring and developing these will be the result of experience, experimentation, coaching and structured learning experiences. Getting this right will require dialogue between organisations, business schools, unions and government as to how to equip managers with the mindset and tools they need. If ever there was a time for collaboration, it is now.

The opinion piece was first published in the AFR.

Chris Styles is Deputy Dean and Director of the AGSM at UNSW.