Friday, April 30, 2010

Risky Business!

At the end of a week full of news on the Oil Spill, Volcano Ash and Greek debt fallout in Europe, York University organized a symposium on Risky Business. Talk about timing. The unique format brought together academics and industry experts.

Howard Adelman, drawing on his experience of early warning systems for genocide and war, argued for building similar systems in the financial industry, though few actual details of such a system emerged during the presentation or discussion. A key question was whether socio-economic systems are now so complex that early warning systems are too difficult to create. Adelman’s overall position, drawing on a historical and philosophical perspective, was that innovation (even in financial systems) is a good thing, and the real issue is translating the complexity – there are time gaps in this, e.g. mortgages would have been deemed too complex a century ago.

On a lighter note, he pointed to the paradox that “
everybody knows that the dice are loaded…,” yet nobody sees it.

Jay McMahan, Enterprise Risk, Deloitte, in a talk provocatively titled “ The Dark Knight: Looking for organized uncertainty”, started with
Frank Knight’s classical distinction between risk and uncertainty. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Conservative Idealism in Business Programs

By Andrew Luxmore.

In my fourth year as a business student, I took courses on Strategic Management. I had considerable experience with post-secondary education, having spent several unsuccessful years in a math program at Waterloo. Later, I earned a three year diploma at Durham College, taking advantage of the bridge program to fast track my university degree at UOIT.

Strategic Management was a course designed around classroom discussion. This was typical for an arts course, but as far as I could tell was completely unique for a business course. What surprised me about the whole university experience, but this class in particular, was the tendency for my peers to be on the right hand side of the political spectrum. With few exceptions, the class discussion seemed to be dominated by conservative idealism. Making money and a good economy were stronger motivators than more liberal ideals like environmental responsibility and corporate ethics.

The class had a term project in which we presented the strategic decisions of a company that was listed on the TSX (Toronto Stock Exchange). One group worked on an oil company that was taking advantage of the oil sands in Alberta. The discussion on the oil sands was surprising. It is a topic that is in the news for the devastating effects it has on the environment, but I was the only person who was aware or cared about this point. The prevailing opinion was that oil energy was so fundamental to the preservation of human society that it did not matter about the resulting environmental damage. It seems suspiciously convenient to me that the oil companies in charge of the oil sands are making huge profits in their quest to preserve human society. 

Another issue came about during a discussion on Abercrombie & Fitch hiring practices. It seems that Abercrombie & Fitch screens potential applicants to make sure they look sufficiently trendy to work at the store. Most of the class agreed that it was acceptable for Abercrombie & Fitch to discriminate in its hiring practices because it was part of a sound business plan that allowed them to make money. People did not seem to notice the significant ethical barrier that was in the way. This practice encourages and justifies discrimination. 

It was surprising to me because I expect to see these attitudes from retirees who have developed conservative goals over the years. Young people traditionally support liberal viewpoints. Is there something about the business program that attracts conservative students? Or has there been a backlash against liberalism that has created a generation of students that make conservatism trendy? Discovering this was the most discouraging moment of my university career.
*Andrew Luxmore is a recent graduate from the business program at UOIT in Oshawa, Ontario. He has worked, and hopes to continue working, in the computer software field, drawing upon his experience as a college grad in the same field. He tells anyone who will listen to go to college instead of university, if possible.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My introduction to Prahalad’s “Bottom of the Pyramid” idea: A student perspective

By Michelle Deidun.

A “bigger picture” way of thinking surfaced in my mind when we were discussing the “Serving the World’s Poor, Profitably” article by Prahalad and Hammond in a recent Strategic Management class as part of my final term coursework. In particular, the image of the economic pyramid and the discussion that followed really got me thinking. Seeing that the top section of the pyramid (those who make more than $20,000 per year) was so small, and the bottom section of the triangle (those who make less than $2,000 per year) was so enormous in comparison, really put the economic situation into perspective. Obviously, I was aware that there are a large number of people around the world who are poor, and many poor areas which are overpopulated, but seeing it visually on the pyramid, that 65% of the world’s population makes less than $2,000 each year really stuck with me. I then thought back to the previous class in which we discussed that although vast differences exist across borders, there are also many similarities, and I wondered, why then, I had heard of so few businesses that would utilize these similarities to make their business or ideas adaptable for the poorer populations.

An example that was brought up in the article involves Grameen Telecom’s village phones in Bangladesh. Although each individual may not have the financial means to own a telephone, people still need to communicate and are avid consumers of products that make connecting to others easier. The village phones are owned by one entrepreneur and used by the entire community, on a pay-per-use basis, better fitting into the means and habits of the surrounding population. This really emphasized to me that technology, although growing at different rates around the world, can be adapted in various forms to serve even the world’s poor population.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What's the SEC really watching...Pornography?

By Dr. Hari Bapuji

The news item headlined “SEC staffers watched porn as economy crashed” on CNN caught my attention this morning. I have been taking some interest in the recent financial crisis, largely due to the work (.pdf) of Suhaib. Yes, it has been the biggest crisis the world has seen in decades, but research attention to it is only gaining momentum now.

The story on CNN began with “As the country was sinking into its worst financial crisis in more than 70 years, Security and Exchange Commission employees and contractors cruised porn sites and viewed sexually explicit pictures using government computers.” I felt sick reading that the regulators supposed to be doing their job were not doing it, but the relief came in the next paragraph.

Apparently, 33 SEC employees and/or contractors watched porn and the cases took place over the past five years. The majority of employees involved (meaning 17 or more) made between $99,000 and $223,000 per year. Specific examples of misuse included an accountant who visited pornographic websites nearly 1,800 times in a two-week period and another (an attorney) who downloaded pornography up to eight hours a day.

The SEC employed 3,642 FTEs in 2009 (according to the Performance and Accountability Report of SEC). On the face of it, the 33 employees who watched porn account for less than one percent (0.91 percent to be precise). But, these 33 employees were caught over a five year period. That would make the percentage of people involved five times smaller than the one percent. Anyway, the idea here is not to find out the extent of pornography watching by SEC staff. But, I was relieved to read that more than 99 percent of the staff were not involved. The best part of the story actually came next.

The pornography watching by high-ranking SEC officials was used to “question the wisdom of moving forward with plans to give regulators like the SEC even more widespread authority” (see more here). While I have no idea of the politics behind it nor any interest in it, such assertions are examples of how institutions are created, maintained, changed and destroyed on an ongoing basis. Such actions are known as “institutional work” (see for example Lawrence, Suddaby and Leca's recent book) and underscore the power individuals have over institutions. The power individuals have over institutions is less understood and less researched, at least within the context of business institutions.

Our recent research (me, Suhaib Riaz and Sean Buchanan: contact for a preview) on the discourse on financial crisis revealed that academics lead the charge for change in regulative institutions, banks and other industry actors focused on changes in normative institutions, while the U.S. Federal Reserve was the leading proponent of status quo on regulative institutions. Our research used articles published in The Economist in the initial two years of the crisis and noted that the institutional work was subtle. However, as time passes, the actions and words of different people might become more assertive and more obvious. Or, they might become more muted as consensus emerges – only research can tell.
* Dr. Hari Bapuji is an Assistant Professor at the Asper School of Business, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dr. Bapuji’s recent research on Toy Recalls received worldwide media attention and has been published in several prominent outlets.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Beyond Labels: Learning to be a "Whole Human Being" from CK Prahalad

By Dr. Srini Sridharan.

Prof. C.K. Prahalad has passed into the ages, and by this time, a few days afterward, thousands of remembrances have poured in all over the world in all forms of media. A casual glance at many of these tributes reveals the key areas of impact that people seem to want to attribute to him. He has changed their thinking, emboldened them to think big, take risks, be contrarian and challenge the dominant logic, ask the most foolish questions to come up with the most impactful answers, and so on. Some have said he changed their whole lives, taught them to explore the meaning of life rather than merely existing. It is almost on a plane that you would imagine would be reserved for spiritual leaders.

And herein lies the heart of the matter, I think. We have become attuned to providing ‘labels’ for everything and everyone, and hence can only identify things and people by their labels – historian, spiritual teacher, analyst, academic, practitioner, politician......The reality however is that all of us are everything, at least in a small way. And that is perhaps what Dr. CK realized very early, while many of us don’t almost to the very end. He perhaps realized that being an academic at a University did not mean that he couldn’t talk to businesses; that teaching management subjects did not mean that he couldn’t worry about the human condition of poverty; that his authority on how companies can best create value in $ did not constrain him from developing an authority on how ‘societal value’ can be ‘co-created’ by companies with society. And I am sure this realization extended to virtually all aspects of his life – I am sure he developed deep friendships with many of his students, I am sure his advice to companies went far beyond consulting fees, and I am sure his extremely busy and public life did not prevent him from being the most loving family man.

In recent years, I have been deeply influenced by his “work” and expanded my own ambit of work to include pondering on the question of poverty. I felt that Dr. CK had successfully taken strategy to poverty and made poverty more tolerable and more escapable. So I began attempting to take marketing theories to poverty. Until now, this made me feel that I have begun to do something meaningful with my professional life. Now after feeling no less shackled than earlier, I have come to realize where Dr. CK was different – he did not take strategy to poverty as I had originally thought, he took poverty to strategy. In other words, long before we read his Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, he had first become a student of poverty.

As a result, as I continue to search for ‘meaningful’ ways to execute my career, I am beginning to realize that real meaning will only emerge when I learn to view “myself” as multidimensional, a whole human being, unconstrained by the rules of academia or business or economy or polity, but constantly striving to discover the rules of the one great game – human flourishing. If you look at it carefully enough, this is what the great scholars of ancient civilizations did for a living. And for this, I have to thank modern sages like Dr. CK.
*Dr. Srinivas Sridharan (Srini) is an Assistant Professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, London, Ontario. His research interests include Marketing, Consumption and Entrepreneurship in Subsistence Economies with a special focus on developing/emerging markets and sustainability. His work has appeared in several journals and in the Economist, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal.

Monday, April 19, 2010

CK Prahalad’s insights on research process and relevance

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz

As a naïve PhD student, I asked CK Prahalad a simple question at the Booz Allen Hamilton Strategy+Business Eminent Scholar Award ceremony held in his honor a few years ago: “As a young researcher, I’m very curious about how you arrive at your research questions - could you please describe the process for us?”

As many academics told me after the event, this was the question on everyone’s mind for years – where did core competence, bottom of the pyramid, co-creation, and so many other ground-breaking ideas come from? Prahalad smiled at the question, and enjoyed describing his process to us (his response, paraphrased in brief here, went something like this): The key is that I don’t confine myself to my own academic discipline – I read and stay aware of much more beyond the management field. I am equally curious about science, technology, history, the big bang theory and the immediate problems of millions of people, and I think and wonder about such things all the time. This curiosity leads me to ask questions that I would otherwise miss...

He elaborated on this during a chat after the event and offered me the following advice in his kind and casual style: We are a privileged lot as academics and have little to lose in terms of making a living – why not take a few risks? Why not work on Plan A that has a stronger chance of providing something of relevance, instead of focusing on Plan B that has little chance of that but seems to provide more comfort in terms of academic stability.

Perhaps the biggest problem for researchers in fields such as Strategic Management is which audiences to focus upon. In response to my query on this issue and how best to bridge the divide between academia and practice, he provided an interesting insight: Remember that if your research work is relevant and draws the attention of practicing managers and others in the real world, sooner or later the academics will start giving you attention as well and will start listening to you!

And he certainly lived his life by what he said. It was perhaps necessary to mention this brief encounter at Strategy & You, as the inspiration for this idea came from Prahalad’s words, and we hope to stay true to his vision as best as we can.

We're looking to post more remembrances on CK Prahalad - send us recollections of your encounters with Prahalad, based on in-person experiences or simply through his work.

Suhaib Riaz @SaY

Saturday, April 17, 2010

RIP CK Prahalad

By Dr. Hari Bapuji. 

I woke up this morning to the news of CK Prahalad’s death. With it, an era in strategy research has passed away. Prahalad was one of the few scholars who commanded respect from both academics and practitioners. His writings appeared mostly as books and practitioner articles; an unusual portfolio for someone at a top-tier American university. Influential academic researchers often say that junior scholars should write for top-tier journals before writing for practitioner outlets. They point that Prahalad wrote for both research and practitioner audience. I always wanted to check how true that statement was, but never really checked. His sudden and unfortunate death prompted me to check ISI Web of Knowledge; the most authoritative source for citations and scholarly work.

Prahalad wrote 13 papers in what I could recognize as peer reviewed journals. He published 5 papers during the 1980’s, 7 during the 1990’s and only one invited commentary in 2000’s. Of these 13, he published 7 in Strategic Management Journal (SMJ). Prahalad published a total of 56 papers. So, he published 43 papers in non-academic outlets. A total of 23 papers appeared in Harvard Business Review (HBR) and 7 in Sloan Management Review (SMR). His recent works have mostly appeared in practitioner outlets, particularly in HBR, Fortune and SMR. His most cited paper was on core competence, published in HBR. Three out of six of his papers that received over 100 citations appeared in HBR, two in SMJ and one in Organization Science. Two of his most cited works (as per Google Scholar) are books, not scholarly articles.

In short, Prahalad proved that you do not necessarily have to publish in top-tier peer-reviewed academic journals to influence theory and practice. One may or may not agree with Prahalad’s ideas, but he made us take note of them. More importantly, he influenced our thinking. Prahalad is one of the few figures who influenced this forum (SaY). Prahalad may not physically be among us anymore. But, his spirit lives on in this forum and elsewhere.

Thank you Prahalad for your fine thoughts...!

May your soul rest in peace...!!

May your ideas continue to transform strategy theory and practice...!!!
Dr. Hari Bapuji is an Assistant Professor at the Asper School of Business, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Dr. Bapuji’s recent research on Toy Recalls received worldwide media attention and has been published in several prominent outlets. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Inside the Consulting Profession at BCG

Keith Yost provides a unique and unappetizing insider account of what happens when consulting goes wrong, through his experience at BCG in Dubai.

His critique of the back-and-forth process of creating deliberately vague proposals as marketing tools is hilarious, yet on the mark:

"In the consulting business, it is standard practice for clients to write requests for proposals, describing the question they would like answered. The consulting firm in turn writes a case proposal: We will answer A by having Consultant B do X, Y, and Z. A well written case proposal promises much, but is deliberately vague about what concrete things the consultants will produce."

The classic problem of clients not knowing what they want, and consultants not aware or not willing to offer concrete proposals is notorious in the profession, and seems to have caused him much anguish:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft: Implications for Strategic Management (Book Review)

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz.

What happens when a craftsperson gets a Ph.D. in philosophy, and returns to work as a motorbike mechanic? The resulting reflections are Matthew Crawford's "Shop class as Soulcraft", with an intriguing subtitle, "An inquiry into the value of work." While Crawford's views on several issues have been critiqued elsewhere, the implications of his unconventional and original work for disciplines such as strategic management are worth exploring.

Witness his insights on the relationship between knowledge creation and practice: 

"And in fact, in areas of well-developed craft, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end." 

How many examples can we think of, where developments in practice preceded academic ideas - where similarly academics were tied to theoretical dead ends for paradigmatic reasons? He goes further by questioning the very breakdown of effort between academia and practice, which has unfortunately become routine in strategic management: 

Friday, April 9, 2010

Specialization vs. Holistic understanding in History

While on specialization, Niall Ferguson makes a strong argument against specialized patchwork learning in his field, History (, subscription). While lamenting the state of History education in British schools and their focus on a few specialized topics, he suggests that: "The crucial thing is to have an over-arching story – a meta-narrative, as academics pretentiously call it...Knowing the names of Henry VIII’s six wives or the date of the Reichstag fire is no substitute for having a real historical education."

This takes on more significance for approaches to understanding business than might be immediately obvious. Particularly if we recall Ferguson's recent work is on understanding the financial history of the world and deploying holistic understanding of a phenomenon towards understanding specific issues, such as the current financial crisis.

Could a similar argument be made for the importance of Strategy's holistic approach, considering its emphasis on big picture understanding of the external and internal, and also on organizational history (path dependence and what have you).

Strategy against specialization

Walter Kiechel, in a recent HBR blog post, makes a few very interesting points about the gradual dilution of the unique Strategy agenda, and its takeover by increasing specialization that misses the big picture. Moreover, he links the problem to the diverging paths of research and practice, a core concern at Strategy and You:

"Specialization is in the air, as it has been for twenty years. You see it in the academy. When Michael Porter expresses the worry that rising faculty members at Harvard Business School have become more focused on their research than on practice, he's talking — in part — about specialization."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Strategy Blogs in the Noop Listing

A new listing of "management and leadership blogs" is out, compiled by noop using an algorithm that plugs in the blogs' "Google Page RankBing hit countAlexa RankingTechnorati AuthorityTwitter GraderPostRank and FeedBurner count." 

Are there any blogs devoted to the discipline of Strategy in the list? We had a hard time finding even the few following ones in the top 20, that do touch upon the subject now and then:

How to change the world (Guy Kawasaki)
Management IQ (various)
* Dispatches from the new world of work (Tom Peters)
* 800 CEO Read (various)
* Leading Blog: Building a Community of Leaders (Michael McKinney)
* Great Leadership (Dan McCarthy)

Most of the 150 blogs in the list are on personal management and productivity tools. Granted, even the last three  in the list above are really "Leadership" blogs.

The only full-time management academic in the top 30 (likely in the entire list of 150)
* Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Whither Strategy? Or is the discipline not of direct interest to practitioners anymore, with coaching, personal productivity and leadership tips taking up all the attention? Also, where are the academic experts in the field, or are we so removed from practice, that we have little to contribute on a day-to-day basis?

Correct us if we missed any in the list.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Professional Development Workshops @ Academy of Management

Registration for the Professional Development Workshops (PDWs) at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management is open. For some, these hands-on PDWs are more precious than the actual paper presentation sessions. No surprise that registration fills up quickly.

A few sessions promise to be exciting and supportive of the Strategy and You agenda. Somehow the core Strategy division (BPS: Business Policy and Strategy) isn't hosting or co-hosting anything like this so far - these sessions are hosted by divisions such as Research Methods, Human Resources, and Organization & Management Theory. Strategy and You will be there to Share the experience.

Engaging Encounters: Talent Management, Employee Engagement and the Researcher Practitioner “Bridge”
Organizer: Marielle Sonnenberg; Tilburg U. / Accenture;
 Organizer: Kerry Grigg; Monash U.;
Presenter: Paul Sparrow; Lancaster U.;
 Presenter: Graeme Martin; U. of Glasgow;
 Presenter: John W Boudreau; Center for Effective Organizations;
 Presenter: Elaine Farndale; Tilburg U. & Penn State U.
"The workshop will draw on the presenters experience in engaging with Executive Leaders at global companies to explore the link between talent management, the use of employer branding, the formation and management of the employee’s psychological contract and employee engagement. The workshop will provide coverage on both the substance and outcomes of the research and the process of actually working co-operatively with business leaders and their organisations to work towards bridging the academic-practitioner divide. We argue this is particularly relevant in the context of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) to ensure the academic community continues to learn and build expertise from the experience of practitioners and organisations in these challenging times. The workshop presenters have extensive experience in conducting significant and global talent management research projects and employing both traditional and innovative methods and forums including Executive Education, blogging, podcasting and YouTube to disseminate their research to a wider practitioner audience. Engaging with practitioners both in the development of research proposals and dissemination of findings has been an important agenda item for the Academy of Management over the past two decades and the ability to engage with practitioners throughout the research process is an important skill set for researchers to develop. 
We are hoping to generate some initial discussion on building the researcher – practitioner “bridge” in the months leading up to the PDW using an online blog. We encourage participation from both the academic and practitioner community."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A time to engage

The strategic management discipline is at an interesting crossroads. It's initial mandate of focusing on practice and practitioners seems poised for a revival.

The intervening years of contributions by academic disciplines such as economics (through its various schools, including prominently, organizational economics and austrian economics), sociology and psychology have certainly strengthened rigor in the field. Yet, questions about the relevance of the current rigorous academic research have reached a crescendo.

These voices have been around for a while, such as those of Sumantara Ghoshal and Henry Mintzberg. But in recent years, core journals have attempted to highlight the issue of relevance, and academic bodies and conferences have been dedicated to the task. More immediately and from a practical standpoint, the largest economic crisis since the Depression and the contemporaneous shift of balance in the world economy towards non-traditional markets has exposed some gaps in traditional academic focus areas. The world, as always, is changing faster than the establishment.

It is thus a time to facilitate rich interaction between the relevant (the world of practice) and the rigorous (the world of academia) in the strategic management discipline. You - all human stakeholders, including  managers, entrepreneurs, leaders, consultants, employees, policy makers, administrators, students, academics, etc.,- have a role to play in shaping this discipline.

We hope you'll take up the challenge, join in and spread the word!