A couple of correspondents have noticed (and commented!) that my dispatches from the ANZAM conference, held in Hobart 4-6 Dec, appeared to be incomplete because the last dispatch posted covered the keynote at the beginning of the second day. Indeed, this is correct. Most of the leadership and governance papers that I was interested in were presented on the first day. I spent much of the second day in one-on-one discussions with other researchers, exploring ideas that had been presented earlier in the conference, and testing a few ideas of my own. This proved to be a very valuable albeit more private time for me, because I was able to correct a few assumptions and misunderstandings, and get some additional clarity on some concepts that I didn't grasp well when they were first presented.
One session that proved to be very interesting was the interactive session on management education and the rise of MOOCs (massively open online courses). This new concept, of an entire course of material delivered online has caught the attention of many. The concept sounds great on paper, particularly to extend reach. However, the delivery model is not without its challenges (no opportunity to interact with others to thrash out ideas on a whiteboard, for example), and the financial model needs work (currently, access is free). Notwithstanding these points, the concept has merit as a delivery model alongside others. MOOCs should not be regarded as a panacea to replace the traditional (though high-cost) classroom learning model, as some have suggested.
Overall, the conference met my expectations. It was well-organised, with plenty of opportunity to interact with other delegates. However, the quality of the papers was lower than I expected. Some described some simply outstanding pieces of research, but, many others were straightforward reports of statistical analyses of readily available data. Papers in this category lacked any insightful commentary to assist future research, or help managers improve their performance in the field. In my opinion, some of these papers should have been rejected at the review stage. A smaller collection of higher quality papers makes for a better conference. If this shortcoming can be addressed, then the appeal, relevance and usefulness of ANZAM—to researchers and managers alike—will be enhanced I'm sure.
It's been said that better boards usually lead to better business performance. Such claims have been widely reported—in the press; in classrooms; amongst consultants; and, during informal chatter amongst business executives—however they are potentially misleading.
I am amongst those who would like to think that better leads to better performance. However, I'm not sure what "better" means, nor that any direct link exists between governance and performance. Does "better" mean more active, more experienced, more diverse, more engaged, or more something-else? We need to find out, so we know what we are talking about. To the second point, we don't know how boards influence performance. Several researchers have postulated a relationship between governance and performance but, as yet, conclusive explanations have remained elusive. Thus, my doctoral research.
If you have grappled with these questions, I'd love to hear from you, with a view to sharing some ideas and testing a few theories that are starting to form in my mind.
Local councils have had a rough time of it lately. Earlier in the year, the Christchurch City Council lost the ability to issue building consents in its own territory. More recently, the Office of the Auditor-General issued a report highlighting governance failures at Kaipara District Council as one contributing factor in the Mangawhai sewerage project debacle.
Sadly, these failures of governance are not isolated cases. While some local councils govern well, the quality of governance in local councils in New Zealand appears to be quite variable. In an effort to address this, Lawrence Yule, President of Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), recently announced that LGNZ has partnered with the Institute of Directors (IoD) to develop and deliver a new governance training programme—the goal being to improve governance standards amongst elected councillors.
LGNZ should be congratulated on this initiative. A high-quality professional development programme should enhance the quality of governance at local councils, provided councillors embrace the programme and the learning therein. However, the challenge—and it's a big one—is to gain traction quickly. Councillors live with a three-year horizon (the triennial election cycle), so they may find themselves surplus to requirements if voters are not happy with progress when they return to the ballot box. Hopefully, the opportunity to make a difference will provide sufficient motivation for mayors and councillors to act expeditiously. Time will tell.
The keynote to open the second day of the ANZAM conference was delivered by Prof Jonathan West, of University of Tasmania. His talk, Are innovation theory and practice oxymoronic? Tasmania as Exemplar, provided a breath of fresh air and a reality check for those involved in innovation research and entrepreneurial activities.
West noted that, despite the best intentions of researchers, very little innovation research has any meaningful impact on practice. He suggested that this is because most research and practice is based on the myths that innovation is necessarily based on high-technology, and that "we (Tasmanians) punch above our weight". He then proceeded to dispel the myths and offer an alternative approach. Millions of dollars are spent every year, on strategies and innovations efforts that have no real chance of providing a material return. Rather than ignore existing successful industries (in Tasmania's case: wine, horticulture, aquaculture, others) and try to create whole new replacement industries (high-tech, biotech, nanotech), West asserted that stronger innovation outcomes (and the follow on economic and societal benefits) would be far more likely if innovation efforts were focussed on improving existing strong industries and sectors.
West used the example of the wine industry, and suggested that if the size of the industry was doubled—through investment and genetic, product, production and distribution innovations—then the level of unemployment and a host of other negative indicators would plummet. The natural assets of the state and the demand for premium wine suggest such growth is readily achievable. However, two serious stumbling blocks exist: belief in the myths noted above are so deeply held, and innovating within an existing successful industry simply isn't "sexy". Consequently, governments and industry are reluctant to invest for the common good, and, in many cases, innovation efforts are subverted by incumbent companies for fear of increased competition emerging. The promise of the holy grail (biotech, nanotech and information technology) is simply too compelling, even though the chance of achieving a strong return is slim, at best.
West's remit was refreshing, for it tackled what is clearly a delicate topic head on. Such candour needs to be encouraged.
A new innovation that has been introduced to the ANZAM conference this year is the Interactive Session. Whereas the format in the main conference sessions emphasises the presentation (with 5 minutes for questions), the interactive session encourages conversation, with several quick-fire presentations followed by an extended discussion. Many of the papers I heard can best be described as research works-in-progress, rather than completed studies.
This session really caught my imagination. The three studies summarised above are a small sample of over 100 studies presented in thIn my view, sessions like this should be included in the programmes of all research-oriented conferences. The supportive, collegial style of engagement by other speakers and attendees provided a considerable amount of useful feedback, much of which should lead to more robust research outcomes as the various studies are finalised, I'm sure.
The replacement of a poor performing CEO is an important but challenging task of boards. Young Kim's (University of New South Wales) summarised recent research into factors which contribute to the speed with which boards make CEO dismissal decisions. Her quantitative study, using data from 348 publicly-listed US firms, explored the relationship between external signals of declining performance (analyst downgrades), the board's interpretation of any signalled decline, and the time to any subsequent dismissal of the CEO. The results revealed that three factors seem to be significant to the speed with which the board makes any CEO dismissal decision. According to Kim, boards made dismissal decisions more quickly when:
These results were encouraging. They confirmed my intuition that most boards tend to react only when large changes or variations from forecast occur, and that the response they turn to first is to dismiss the CEO. In so doing, the larger problem—of boards operating as the "ambulance at the base of the cliff"—is brought into stark relief. The continuing failure of boards to understand the operational context within which the company operates, and to monitor performance against strategy adequately, amazes me. Kim's study provides a useful launch pad for further research, perhaps using qualitative methodology, to understand the motivations of boards, and the changes needed to move boards into the role of the top of the cliff. I intend to chat with Kim about this, because I suspect there are synergies between her work and mine.
Peter McKiernan (Murdoch University, Western Australia) presented research which explored the effect of organisational leadership systems (OLS) on leader sense-giving. This paper caught my eye because it offered a different perspective—sense-giving, not sense-making. The possible effects of contextual factors in the leadership process are not well understood. McKiernan's longitudinal study sought to address this gap in the knowledge, by analysing qualitative data collected from interviews with leaders in 37 multinational firms, in order to discover whether the OLS is a trigger, enabler or barrier to leader sense-giving. The results showed that a degree of inherent complexity and ambiguity are triggers for sense-giving, and that objective (external) factors appears to have the biggest impact.
I asked the "so what?" question after the talk, and McKiernan said that this is the next step in his work. To understand implications for practice. I look forward to seeing the fruits of this work, because it is likely to be helpful to enhance leadership effectiveness in high change environments.
The 27th Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management (ANZAM) conference got underway this morning. The opening keynote was delivered by Dr Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Green Party. His talk, Why Global Democracy is on its Way – Australia's Key Role, explored the issue of effective and sustainable management of the biosphere. Brown noted that we humans—all 7.5 billion of us—are dependent upon the biosphere, but it is not dependent on us.
Brown's talk was interesting, in that it highlighted many relevant and important issues relating to sustainability. However, the rather thinly-veiled anti-business tenor of Brown's talk was somewhat naive. He appeared to ignore the societal well-being improvements achieved by high performing businesses over many generations, and necessity of interconnects between business sectors. For example, Brown opposed mining (citing environmental impact and limited employment opportunities) and promoted tourism (limited environmental impact and greater employment opportunity). These industries are actually connected, in that hydrocarbons are required to power the vehicles (planes and ships) needed to transport tourists to a given location. Brown's submissions would be considered extreme by many. Notwithstanding this, Brown set the scene and theme for the conference well.
The 27th Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management conference starts this morning, in Hobart, Australia. If the registration process and pack is any indication, the three day conference will be a well-run, high quality affair. This year, papers have been categorised into 15 subject streams:
With about 340 papers on the programme, and several plenary keynotes, the logistics exercise of paper and stream selection has not been without challenge. Today, I'll be concentrating my attention on two streams: Leadership and Governance, and Strategic Management. I will post reflections and comments as time and wi-fi access permits.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.