Tuesday 9 July 2019

The New Enlightenment ?

For PhD students it is easy to be fixated on individual scholars with high citation counts. Last week I had the privelege of being in the room with a group around 80 scholars of economics, management, strategy and organisation with a collective citation count in excess of 1 million! Here are some notes on their conversation which was about the need to reshape capitalism.

Credited as the father of modern economics, Adam Smith was a man of broad ranging interests. The Scot was born in Kirkcaldy and grew up in proximity to a port where goods were imported and exported thus shaping a lifelong fascination with trade. Following an education that took in the universities of Glasgow, Oxford and Edinburgh, he toured Europe as a tutor before returning to life in Scotland. This international perspective led influenced his writing and he moved to Edinburgh in 1778 where he took up residence at Panmure House, his last and only remaining home. Edinburgh at that time boasted a range of sparkling intellects that helped shape his thinking and writing about individual entrepreneurs and their collective behaviour in national economies.

Having restored Panmure House, the Edinburgh Business School (at Heriot-Watt University) in conjunction with the Haas School of Business (at UC Berkley) hosted a conference of contemporary scholars to discuss the challenges facing entrepreneurs and economies today. Gathered at what Professor David Teece called “hallowed ground”, a collection of academics whose writings have been cited over a million times discussed the challenge of reshaping capitalism?

Three interlinked themes arose over two days of discussion. The first relates to the importance of economic growth. The impact of inequality, be it in health, education or income, is something that concerns many democracies. The disparity between the haves and have nots has grown in many countries. In addressing inequality, the Group Chairman and CEO of private equity firm PAG Group,  Weijan Shan, spoke powerfully of his formative experience during large scale attempts to achieve equality. Growing up in China, Shan lived through the abolition of education for a decade and spent his formative years working 16 hours a day in the Gobi desert, harvesting reeds for a local paper mill. His book Out of the Gobi tells his remarkable journey via San Francisco, and a PhD under the guidance of David Teece at UC Berkley, to managing a large private equity fund from his current base in Hong Kong. He is perhaps uniquely well positioned to suggest that the end game of the new enlightenment should be growth not equality. In his own words, tens of millions died of starvation whilst hundreds of millions lived in abject poverty. Equality of itself is therefore not necessarily a positive aspiration. As Shan argues, he would probably have no concerns if Warren Buffett or Jeff Bezos were earning a few extra trillion dollars, if his own income was going up. Unrest and indignation are the products of a stagnating economy whilst growth is the most compelling route to inclusion.

A second theme was introduced by the historian and Stanford Professor Niall Ferguson who pointed to the enabling importance of the rule of law, especially in relation to trade. Ferguson noted that the fundamental ideals of socialism and capitalism, which have shaped political discourse for more than a century, are poorly understood by today’s electorate with the result that traditional labels of left and right are increasingly being usurped by a new politics. With adherence to the rule of law in place, the key decision facing entrepreneurs and the economies in which they sit is one’s attitude to redistribution. A generation of entrepreneurs, regulators and voters, who have grown up with the pervasive presence of information and communication, are beginning to make their way into the workforce. The high school and university curricula offered to the so-called i-Generation have not routinely offered a thorough grounding in our traditional political and economic labels. Worse, this same generation appear to have lost faith and interest in our political process and institutions. Rather than pledging allegiance to particular political parties, they are more likely to connect to issues and individuals. Greta Thunberg is not aligned to traditional political groupings of left or right, rather she is an example of challenge or issue based campaigning that are replicated in the #metoo phenomenon and many others. Modern entrepreneurs and economies face concerns of sustainability and responsibility that not in the forefront of Smith’s mind and a new focus on redistribution is required.

Finally, this all led to a third theme from the Panmure House conference, namely that of community. Having started with moral sentiments, Smith’s later work focused on The Wealth of Nations. Yet today, some of our global corporations are sometimes bigger than the nation states he would have had in the foreground of his attention. These new corporate actors are in part responsible for an unprecedented boom in global, social connectivity. Thus it makes sense to shift from a focus exclusively on the Wealth of Nations to one which encompasses the wealth of communities. Those communities may by constructed of surprising strata that don’t fit our conventional units of analysis such as young and old or left and right but they are the very communities that will mobilise and reshape capitalism.

As the gathering of great economic, commercial, organisational and political minds drew to a close, 80 scholars signed the Panmure House Declaration. It urges “international leaders to base their policies and decision-making on a set of common principles, as espoused and formulated by Adam Smith, which cherish the required values of an ethically-based liberal democratic system, a moral commitment to the well-being of our communities and affirm responsibility to protect economic, political and social freedoms, use resources wisely, avoid unintentional consequences, follow the rule of law, favour markets and prices as guides to resource allocation and take a long term view of private and public investments, to support inclusive economic growth and prosperity for all.

Will this declaration help reshape capitalism ? Only time will tell.

Robert MacIntosh,   9 July 2019

Thursday 11 April 2019

Under New Management

The university sector is often accused of creeping managerialism. Some hypothesise that this is in response to ever fiercer competition for students, research funds and talent.  Others suggest that the contemporary obsession with leadership is part of the problem not the solution. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, there has been a noticeable increase in the number and type of senior management positions in our universities; some populated by academics and others by colleagues in professional services roles. Academic leadership roles are typically tied to a three or five year tenure, meaning that new bosses come around on a fairly regular basis. Add in the fact that individual academic staff are often accountable to different individuals for their teaching, their research and their administrative duties and it might feel that you’re under new management more frequently than a modern day Premier League footballer. How should you handle a new boss ?

A version of this article appeared in Times Higher Education and can be found here. Many of the themes it raises are equally applicable to the circumstances when you get a new member of a PhD supervisory team. I hope it it of interest and use.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss ?

New incumbents of leadership roles are usually keen to make their mark. After all, few careers are enhanced by a CV narrative that reads “2017-present: minded the shop and kept things ticking along.” Rather, your new boss is likely to want to be able demonstrate that they improved, streamlined or transformed the activities for which they are responsible. Such career narratives are reason why your new boss is unlikely to be the same as your old boss. Recognising this will help you cope with the inevitable trauma that comes when tried and trusted systems and processes are changed under the new regime.

Do your homework

Academia is a relatively closed community. Somewhere in your network will be colleagues who knew your new boss when she was a PhD student or who worked under him at his previous university. Ask around and ask what makes them tick. At the more experienced end of the leadership spectrum, your new boss may have fulfilled the same role in more than one institution. If so, it might be possible to spot a pattern in their tendency to centralise or decentralise or to adopt particular structures. In the corporate world such characters develop brand names such as Dangerous Dave and Fred the Shred. Of course, the more refined world of academia is above such nonsense. Isn’t it ?

Control, Alt, Delete

A new boss can offer those of longer standing in your current university the opportunity to press reset and get things back to “normal.”  Finally, they’ll cry, we can abandon the folly of X and get back to Y. In a shifting political landscape, you might want to get in early and make sure that your new boss is fully briefed on what they should prioritise. Stand a little further back from the detail however and you might see a pattern. Radical and ambitious entrepreneurs tend to be followed by consolidaters; dictators tend to be succeeded by advocates of participative democracy and so forth. A brief examination of the outgoing boss and the recruitment process might give valuable clues as to the priorities that your new boss was recruited to deliver. You can then judge how well these match with your own and to assess the potential for career-limiting consequences when ridiculing the old regime. It would be a shame to discover after the fact that your new boss and your old boss were in fact, former colleagues and remain close friends.

Actions speak louder than words

In the early days of their appointment, your new boss will be suffering from information overload. So many new faces, names to remember and issues to address. You face a choice between shouting first and loudest or being patient. Your long-term credibility might best be served by simply getting on and delivering. If the new regime wants more interdisciplinary research, focus your attention on how you can help. Academic freedom is so deeply embedded in our culture that doing what we are asked doesn’t always come naturally but maybe, just maybe, there might be merit in some of the new initiatives. Giving it your best shot might be invigorating and it will certainly give you something to talk to your new boss about.

Just ask

All of this is good advice if your new boss has been clear and directive in the early days of their appointment. If, however, they have been somewhat more enigmatic about their new priorities, what should you do? Deceptively simple though it may seem, you could just ask. Bear in mind that the tone of your enquiry will matter. Consider the subtle shift in object and emphasis in the following. Boss, do you have any idea what you’re doing? Boss, what should I be prioritising? The latter is the less entertaining but probably more sensible approach. My favourite variant of such questioning however, arose in the context of a leadership programme and was “how do you get the best out me?” Working through that simple question in both directions will provide a good foundation for your new working relationship. Incidentally, part of my answer to that question was never, under any circumstances, call me Bob!