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Social responsibility and sustainability

Blogger . 10/12/2010 11:39:21

By Dr John Blewitt, Director of the Lifelong Learning Centre, Aston University

Business is immensely important. It generates wealth and creates opportunity. It provides people with what they want through the incredible dynamic of producing goods and services. For many people, the ‘business of business is business’ or at least this is how many people used to see it. But not anymore. Business does not operate in a social, environmental or economic vacuum.

Most of us are now well aware of the massive challenges confronting the world in the 21st century – climate change, resource depletion, energy security, global poverty, biodiversity loss and a whole range of other risks and uncertainties. Given the immense power and potential of business to address these things it is now rather short sighted, indeed irresponsible, for business leaders and other practitioners to simply restate the old ‘business of business’ dictum. We are all on this planet together. In fact, we are part of it. We rely on it for everything including our capacity to generate wealth and opportunity. This means that many businesses are now looking seriously at their activities and missions from much wider, even holistic, perspectives.

New business models are being developed that will ensure wealth and opportunity is continually created in such a way as to bestow wide ranging social and environmental improvements. To do otherwise is becoming increasingly unthinkable.

A new MSc programme has been designed at Aston Business School to help existing and future business leaders to engage positively with the social, economic  and environmental agendas through their business practices. There is a lot to do because a lot is at stake.

Each week Carole Parkes and I will be offering our thoughts on issues of the moment and discussing some of the wider trends and tendencies that are affecting business, civil society and the environment everywhere.

Find our more about the MSc in Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

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Multiple perspectives

Blogger . 03/12/2010 14:49:17
By Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone, Director of the Centre for Executive Development, Aston Business School

I’m back! Survivor of return Qantas flights to Hong Kong, untroubled by engine issues and dazzled by the lights of that amazing city.

On the edge of East meets West, the city and its surrounding islands are a hive of activity, a confluence of different perspectives, impressive wealth, advanced engineering and teeming crowds scurrying in orderly patterns.  Mall after mall displays branded boutique after branded boutique to the point that it all merges into one phantasmagorical unbroken line of luxury. No point shopping. Not many are. Price tags frighten even the most comfortably heeled. Those who grace the stores with their presence float between display cabinets, sometimes modelling a bag. Others, like my daughter – recently arrived, a young team-leader for a global player on a two-year assignment - nonchalantly try on the odd Rolex “not the one with the gold face but the one with the mother-of-pearl back. Yes that’s it, with the diamonds.”  I glance sheepishly at my own Rolex, gold-faced and diamonded, and smile at my justification some twenty years ago to splurge. 

A short one-hour ferry away, seemingly contrasting Macau beaconed. The quaint down-town displays its Portuguese roots as unsophisticated shop after unsophisticated shop around the pedestrianized area sells almond cookies - so dry that ten days on I can still remember the feeling of having my jaws temporarily cemented – and dried-meats in blood-coloured sheets that look like liquorish. That is one part of Macau, dominated by the unlikely ruins of St Paul’s Church at the base of the city’s fortressed walls. A short taxi ride away, across the water causeway, over an impressive expanse of suspended bridge, we came to The City of Dreams, Hard Rock Cafe and The Venetian. Imagine over 100 football pitches side by side, gambling machines and tables lined as far as the eyes can see and beyond, many filled with Chinese players, some empty but for the croupiers anticipating their guests. And this housed within a mega shopping centre the likes of which I, an American, had never seen before. In fact, the Venetian itself, within which the largest casino in the world is housed, is a replica of Venice, complete with sun-set sky, canals and gondolas with singing gondoliers.

With the backdrop of this dramatic city and its surrounding islands, where mere mortals could be excused for thinking that not even the sky is the limit, one can see the benefits of superimposing multiple perspectives to break-down barriers of linear thinking.

Why not then use this sure-tested approach most often associated with creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to inform and structure mission critical decisions? Indeed, how dare we make momentous decisions in splendid isolation, or in the company of those who share our perspectives, who like ourselves share similar experiences? Especially, but not exclusively, when we have the time, how is it that we fail to consult widely to inform a richer, fuller view of the issues at hand?

Decision-making that, like brainstorming, brings in people with diverse perspectives is sure to be more robust than otherwise. Combine this with a clear auditable process that captures the ideas of different individuals, especially when each represents a different interest group, and you create a situation in which challenge and constructive debate is guaranteed to flush-out poorly considered and blinkered standpoints. By involving all who have a stake in the decision, all who see the decision-situation from a different perspective, in the process of decision-making, you not only enlist the different factions that those individuals represent but you also come closer to ensuring a richer decision, a balance consideration of all mitigating factors in the decision that you ultimately take.
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Lessons in teamwork from the Chilean miners

Blogger . 03/11/2010 12:30:11
By Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone, Director of the Centre for Executive Development, Aston Business School

What sensations I experienced as the first of the Chilean miners emerged from the rescue capsule on October 13th 2010!

Engineering at its very best had accelerated an unprecedented rescue. From an initial projection of four months, the miners were retrieved in less than 52 days. Amazing!

And yet more astounding than that was the feat of human hope demonstrated by those 33 men. Having endured 69 days underground, they, relatively uneducated folk, emerged to immediately reconnect with loved ones - as well as their billionaire president. Talk about juxtapositions! Humanity united them, what else mattered?!

How would I have handled it, controlled my emotions in meeting family, then, within seconds, the national leader?

I flashed back to their ordeal. In particular those first 17 days must have been nearly unbearable. Trapped, incommunicado with the outside world, fearful of being forgotten by those above-ground who knew of their marginal activity, unable to do anything to start their own rescue, those men could have been excused for emulating “Animal Farm” – for descending into anarchy. However, quite to the contrary, by the time they were discovered through the tiny borehole, they had established an orderly co-existence, an organisation within which they could live together, at least until rescued.

Rich psychological studies will follow, but eight lessons can clearly be drawn straight away.

These men had:

1. Shared purpose: to survive, to be rescued, to retain hope despite being trapped in almost total darkness, unrelenting heat and with limited provisions.

2. Clear objectives: to maintain dignity through designated areas for washing and sleeping, to share resources like tooth brushes and food which was allocated carefully to ensure that what they had lasted for as long as possible.

3. Clear roles: from when they were discovered, the leader was obvious. As the rescue mission kicked in, new roles were added. A team communicator emerged to gather messages from individuals within the group, and a “medic” to ensure the hygiene and health of all.

4. Strong communication: even before the borehole, amongst the 33, communication had to be open and transparent. There literally wasn’t sufficient space to uphold a “work persona” that was different to “the real me”. Verbal communication must have been negligible compared to the non-verbal messages that all could see.

5. Strong sense of belonging: there was no competition between the “team” that the 33 became and the other “teams” to which they individually belonged – their nations (the one Bolivian could have been ostracized), their families, their religious allegiances, their employer. Survival tied them together.

6. Shared meaning: fascinating how the most vociferous of the group, amongst the first three to emerge, chose to speak to the cameras and say “soy minero” – I am a miner - “y quiero regresar a serlo de nuevo” – and I want to go back and be that again. These men knew their “metier”, and were proud of what they did.

7. Strong sense of acceptance: I can’t imagine how those individuals felt below, as their idiosyncrasies and most personal habits were exposed – day after miserable day. Notwithstanding, each stepped out of that capsule as unique personalities, unbroken, ordinary yet straight-shouldered, anything but diminished. And these are miners, honest fellows, not, dare I say, politicians or movie stars, not accustomed to the limelight.

8. Time to reflect: on who they each were, to be unique, such that the youngest declared he would “never again” descend to the “pit” whilst his exuberant companion had declared the opposite.

This story of hope is in fact a remarkable example of team-work rarely seen in even the highest of high performing teams.
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Take a break

Blogger . 22/07/2010 09:45:35

By Dr Pat Tissington, Associate Dean Business Partnerships, Aston Business School

With the school holidays fast approaching, it is now the time that we think about taking time off. And we should - even though the idea of having time when you aren't actually at work and still being paid for it, is a concept our great grandparents would have not understood at all. But should we take holidays - and should managers encourage their staff to do so? I always insist any staff reporting to me take their full allocation - and this even back when I was personally paying their wages out of my own money. Why? The business case for doing so is even more persuasive than the pretty good moral one.

When I was running my own business, I was completely reliant on the ingenuity, intelligence and hard work of my team. In a way nothing has changed because of course I still am reliant on my team and colleagues, but I no longer physically write the cheques. So if they are not in the office, they are not productive? No. They can take their Blackberries with them and I can contact them from time to time when on holiday. Absolutely not! If someone is on holiday, that means no contact what ever - the only exception would be a major fatality but perhaps the readers would have other exceptions they might suggest?

My view is that if you are doing your job properly, you should have planned sufficiently well to be able to cope whilst someone is away. You should also be organised enough so you work the hours you are contracted and no more - more on this topic another time. Time away (completely away) from work gives you time to re-charge, to re-set yourself and potentially start afresh. It is amazing how different things can look if you genuinely come to them after putting them to aside for a while. I recommend my students finish their essays at least a week before they are due, put them to one side and them only come back to them having left them for several days. My experience is that often you can see glaring flaws which were invisible when deeply engrossed.

But you should plan for holidays - for yourself and your team. Make sure it is factored into project timelines, targets and that you have sufficient cover. It is completely pointless allowing someone holiday but not covering their work because if they will come back after holiday and essentially have to make up for the "lost" week or two. This is not a holiday. It is theft of your staff's time and shows a lack of planning and consideration. This sort of thing has a disastrous effect on motivation and therefore productivity. The best out of office email I ever saw said "I am out of the office until xxxx, when I return I will delete all emails so if your message is urgent, please re-send it after that day." When I tried it, how many emails were re-sent? One - and this was only to say "sorry for disturbing you whilst on holiday, the issue has been dealt with and I hope you had a nice time." I also got a complaint but this was only from a colleague who seemed to think I should be available to him 24/7. Sorry, but I try to be better organised than that.

So, my rules of holidays:

- insist your staff take all of their holiday
- take most of yours
- plan for it so there isn't a mountain of emails and a backlog of tasks when they return
- do not look at email or check voicemail when on holiday
- in fact, buy a cheap pay as you go phone ( you can get them for about a fiver these days) and leave your work mobile switched off and at home

Now for two cautionary tales about Blackberries. A very high flying business person I know went on holiday to a smart hotel somewhere very warm. On the first day, her daughter threw the Blackberry in the swimming pool. Surely the sign of spending too much time on mobile email. The second is similar but perhaps more heartbreaking. I have a friend whose small son used to take it very seriously when he was given a wish - the sort of thing you get when cutting a birthday cake. His wish was always the same: please take daddy's phone away.

Happy holidays!

This post first appeared on Dr Pat Tissington's blog for the Birmingham Post on 20 July 2010

To read further blogs please visit the Birmingham Post's Business Blog

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Birmingham set to create a Business ‘A-Team’

Blogger . 20/07/2010 09:45:20

By Professor Nigel Driffield, Head of the Economics & Strategy Group, Aston Business School 

As the Birmingham Post reports, Birmingham city council, along with promotional bodies Marketing Birmingham and Locate in Birmingham, are looking to create a business ‘A-Team’ to bring in further foreign and domestic investment to the city. The newly appointed team could perhaps take a leaf out of the book of Manchester, and start by examining the evidence available locally. Too often local inward investment policy is a national evidence base, driven by a desire within Whitehall to focus on certain sectors. Locate in Birmingham have started well, by engaging some consultants to identify some sectors that are key for growth, from both domestic and inward investment. I sincerely hope that these are sectors where there is some local competitive advantage, not merely the same sectors that every inward investment agency always claim to be chasing, such as IT, films, biotech and green energy. While all of these are important sectors, likely to play a role in the UK economy, identifying sectors through top down policy seldom helps the local economy.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, and one that may well fall on the new team with the demise of AWM is to distinguish between maximising inward investment, and maximising the benefits of inward investment. Most academic studies, irrespective of their regional focus  suggest that the employment created does not justify the size of the subsidy paid to attract firms, so the challenge for policy makers is to seek inward investment that will embed in the local economy, have high levels of local input linkages, and contribute to the local skills base through training. This is easier said than done, and as UKTI has recognised nationally, an empirical question. This is also likely to differ from region to region so the team will have to identify what is good for Birmingham. The final challenge for the new team is that over the last 15 years, high proportions of inward investment have been funded by debt, and this funding is no longer available. Equally, investment from the USA is likely to decline as American firms retrench into home production. Historically this is the main source of technology transfer into the UK.

Both national and local policy makers in the UK are then turning to cash rich firms from Asia, but they are looking to either acquire UK firms or establish themselves within Europe to protect relative new sales at a time when demand is uncertain. Investment from Asia is still strong if firms believe demand is there, but these firms create jobs with below average pay. Overall, the agencies concerned are right to seek to establish an “A team” but the focus must not simply be on selling the city. With budgets under pressure, and an emphasis on value for money, the new team will have to take all of these issues into account, and examine the best available evidence in deciding on target sectors, and even target firms.  

To give an example of what may be done, a team of academics from Aston Business School, working with the Manchester City Region identified a number of sectors, some traditional, some less so, that were in a position to benefit significantly from inward investment, building on existing competitive advantages. Similar work for Birmingham would help to build a new evidence base, and give the newly appointed team a flying start.

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Scoring goals in business

Blogger . 14/07/2010 12:07:14
By Professor Michael West, Executive Dean, Aston Business School

Reflecting on the World Cup it is easy to see that it offers a perfectly contained illustration of the workplace, in particular team working, in its rawest form.

Although the misfortunes of the England team maybe at the forefront of our minds, watching teams that take risks, expend energy and create opportunities for individual and team success, provides us with an a exhilarating example.

This may sound far removed from our day to day working environment but being part of an effective team can transform a workplace from the daily grind to a place of creativity and deep satisfaction.

What we see in world-class football can be shared in business.  High performing teams are very clear about their strategy and their objectives, they prepare carefully and they back each other up in the normal course of what they are doing, but also during crisis times. They communicate intensively the whole time they are engaged in the job.  They are, however, not beholden to strategy but review and reflect on their performance – and will take decisive action for change when required.  

The key to successful successful World Cup teams – indeed any team -  is shared, clear and challenging  objectives. For a business the objectives might be to win a particular number of contracts, be the best in industry for customer satisfaction and win the award for the best employers in the region. It is vital for all team members to be clear about the team’s objectives – and committed to them. And each team should have no more than five or six objectives – measureable and motivating. Individuals too should have personal objectives that are clear, challenging and ideally are measureable.  All too often we see teams in organizations whose members assume they have clear shared objectives, but a little probing quickly reveals they are unclear and the content differs depending on which team member you talk to.

Having a good leader is as essential to business teams as to world-class football sides too. Effective leaders have a vision; they believe in that vision and inspire others with that vision. They also take effort to build good relationships between team players – and do not tolerate people creating negative relationships within their teams.  But if people genuinely are unable to work in a team they need to find alternative roles, anyone else should be coached to help them pull in the right direction.  A positive, optimistic leader who inspires confidence in followers so that they feel they can achieve the vision is particularly important in tough times and when results may not be going they way team members want.

When teams appear exhausted an effective manager makes a substitution to inject new life into the game. The same can happen in the workplace with new recruits. Businesses can often spend too much time trying to mould new employees to the team rather than benefitting from their fresh perspective.  They need to ask new employees what they can bring to their new organisations, what surprises them about the team they have come into and what they would recommend.

Communication between team members should be constant too, just as between players on the pitch.  Teams have to take responsibility for the success of the team rather than leaving it all to the captain. And that is one of the biggest lessons business leaders can learn from World Cup managers about building a successful team – once you’ve trained your employees give them enough autonomy to find the best ways of meeting their targets. Hold employees accountable for achieving their objectives but give them the freedom to work effectively to achieve what needs to be achieved. This way when team members comes to work it does not feel like a place where they are playing listlessly through to the final whistle but somewhere they can enjoy the learn and grow and find the fulfilment of experiences of ultimate success that comes from being a part of a word class team.

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Recovery from set backs

Blogger . 09/07/2010 09:43:02

By Dr Pat Tissington, Associate Dean Business Partnerships, Aston Business School

We have all been there - our employer is suddenly hit with some bad news. The market crashes or our main customer decides to go elsewhere or there is an accident at the plant. Perhaps the public sector organisation we work for suddenly has to change the way it operates as government policy changes. Indeed at the moment, the public sector seems most likely to experience these sorts of major Organisational challenges but the private sector has traditionally had these to cope with as markets and economies shift - just ask suppliers to the motor industry in the midlands. But I have been prompted to think about this by the performance of the England football team in the world cup - yes I know it is still a bit raw but there is a learning opportunity for us. Here's my take on the learnings (horrible word I know but one which is becoming a substitute for lessons - not sure if anyone can tell me what the difference is? But I digress)

I am no football expert but one thing which struck me was the way the England team stuck to it's single game plan. Translating this to the world of work, the world about us is changing at a breath taking rate so we need to have multiple ways of response to shifting external conditions. We need to be able to flex our organisations to exploit new conditions and ditch old ideas when they no longer work. But how do we do this and maintain some coherence to our strategy? How can we be flexible but at the same time true to what it is we stand for as an organisation? Let me give you an example. I expect you know how Nokia turned itself from a rubber and timber business into a mobile phone giant? But there are examples closer to home. Could a motor manufacturer turn itself into a multinational builder and plumbing merchants? This is what happened to Wolsley - admittedly over a period of decades but nonetheless a fundamental change of direction. This sort of change is a massive risk - take the example (again local to the West Midlands) of Marconi. A well established business and world leader in the Defence electronics area - especially Radar. In the 1990s, a new management team decided to take a risk and re-positioned the business as a consumer telecoms supplier. Sadly this move happened at the time the dot com bubble burst and had a disastrous impact for the business which has in effect ceased to exist.

So, my take on this is to be sensitive to how markets are changing - and be ready when the conditions shift. For example at Aston we have been planning for the cut in government spending on universities for over a year now. We still don't know what the real cuts are going to look like but we are as ready as we can be and have plans for a number of scenarios. I don't have sight of precisely what these scenarios are but, if they are well thought out, they will contain radical plans when appropriate but also clear ways by which we can maintain our core values and be true to our heritage. The lesson for the England football team? In short, if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you always got. Keeping the same structures, the same management team, the same ways of working is pretty inevitably going to give the same results. Why not take the opportunity to think radically - why were our players so tired? Was there a better playing formation? Should we have been prepared with a wider range of tactics? Was language an issue between management team and players?

Still, there is one crumb if comfort. At least we didn't go out on penalties again!

This post first appeared on Dr Pat Tissington's blog for the Birmingham Post on 7 July 2010

To read further blogs please visit the Birmingham Post's Business Blog

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