Giving SMEs the tools they need to grow greener

Written by: Richard Blundel, Professor of Enterprise and Organisation in the Department for Public Leadership and Social Enterprise at The Open University Business School.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have a vital role in our efforts to tackle the Climate Emergency. Their combined environmental impact is more significant than the big corporations, but they are much more varied, less well-resourced and often harder to reach. So how can governments, and other agencies, ensure that such a large and diverse population of organisations can become more sustainable? Professor Richard Blundel and his colleagues have drawn on cross-disciplinary research insights to create new tools and techniques that will enable SMEs to ‘grow greener’.

SMEs form a large part of the UK’s economic landscape. There are more than 5.9 million across our four nations. Together they employ around 16.8 million people, generate an estimated £2.3 trillion in turnover each year, and account for more than 40% of the energy used in non-domestic buildings. Their individual environmental footprints may appear relatively insignificant, but we cannot ignore their aggregate impact.

Governments across the UK recognise that these firms have a significant role to play in meeting the ‘Net Zero’ target to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels. The UK Government recently launched the UK Business Climate Hub and is seeking a commitment from SME owners and managers to take on the Net Zero target as part of a global campaign. SMEs are also vital to achieving a range of sustainability goals, from increasing recycling and cutting waste to reducing water consumption.

Yet, these businesses often find it the most difficult to change. Relatively less well-resourced than their larger corporate counterparts, SMEs don’t always have the financial capacity or personnel to prioritise sustainability over other pressing business needs. Many small business owners also find it difficult to see the long-term benefits of investing in sustainable practices when they spend most of their time focusing on the ‘bottom line’ and dealing with more immediate ‘here and now’ concerns.

As SMEs continue to feel the devastating economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the challenge of prioritising sustainability has, arguably, never been greater. However, there is also evidence that the pandemic has changed many business owners and managers’ attitudes. In recent interviews with business advisors working on environmental projects, their experience of seeing client firms re-thinking their approach was striking. One interviewee described it as “hitting a re-set button”, while another made a direct comparison with the way businesses responded to the financial crash of 2008-10 when many dropped their sustainability initiatives altogether:

[But now], the whole world is changing, and businesses are part of that. They’re responding to the public, and government leaders. It’s been pretty encouraging.

Short term ‘win-win’ incentives won’t lead to fundamental change

Financial incentives, such as grants to improve energy efficiency, can help create a short-term ‘win-win’ for businesses and sustainability goals. But our research, and that of colleagues such as Dr Sam Hampton at The Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, demonstrates that these incentives often lead to superficial changes. Moreover, the new practices often cease along with the funding because the incentive is insufficient to embed sustainability within the organisation’s culture and drive real, meaningful change. So how can we move beyond the conventional, one-size-fits-all, ‘win-win’ approach?

We propose an alternative intervention for intermediaries, such as professional associations, business advisors and economic development organisations. Instead of relying on financial incentives alone, it enables them to align sustainable practices to their SME clients’ personal, professional and organisational values. By scaling this approach, we can encourage many more SME owners and managers to integrate sustainability into their everyday operations and see it as a real strategic priority.

A values-based approach is crucial to encourage SMEs to grow greener

Developed in partnership with The University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and the climate change communications consultancy, Climate Outreach, our values-based approach brings together insights from several fields. It builds on pioneering work on SME owner and manager values conducted by former OU doctoral researcher, Dr Sarah Williams (now at the University of Cumbria), in conjunction with Dr Anja Schaefer and myself, my previous research on SMEs and enterprise development, and studies conducted by Dr Aqueel Wahga on SMEs and support organisations in Pakistan. Our work has demonstrated that – with the right tools and techniques – these intermediaries can play a catalytic role in helping SME owners and managers see the long-term value of sustainability.

We conducted two phases of extensive consultation with SME owners and managers and five groups of intermediaries, including a series of collaborative workshops across the UK. We then worked with OU colleagues to produce Promoting sustainability in business: a values-based toolkit, a free open-access online course on the Open University’s ‘OpenLearn Create’ platform. This interactive course and supporting resources give intermediaries a thorough introduction to our values-based approach and practical guidance on communicating the value of sustainability to business audiences. The five-hour programme teaches participants how to encourage SMEs to engage with sustainability more deeply to deliver cost-effective and positive lasting change for their business and the environment.

To date, close to 1,000 people have engaged with the course, and feedback suggests it has helped individuals and organisations to engage their SME clients on environmental issues, such as climate change mitigation.

This [course and toolkit] has accelerated our understanding of the problem space of SME engagement with sustainability and helped us form opinions about viable next steps in our project.

Senior Manager from a design consultancy

Empowering SMEs to drive sustainable development in Pakistan

Pakistan’s second most successful export sector, the leather industry, accounts for 5% of the country’s GDP and employs more than half a million people. Its larger firms are generally more regulated. However, the small tanneries that make up the bulk of the sector still have very limited resources. This poses a continuing risk that chemicals used to convert raw animal hide into finished leathers will end up in rivers, polluting drinking water and destroying natural habitats.

To address this challenge, in late 2019, we piloted a modified version of our values-based course, combining the online programme and face-to-face workshops with local business advisors from the environmental charity WWF Pakistan. The blended programme, which also built on Dr Aqueel Wahga’s related work on the role of intermediaries in supporting SMEs in Pakistan’s leather industry, also welcomed graduate students – primarily experienced professionals and entrepreneurs – from the prestigious Government College University (GCU), Lahore. Many participants have since told us they are implementing new approaches to environmental stewardship. One local business advisor, in particular, said that they were starting to match entrepreneurs with “more active environmental values” with others who showed less interest in environmental improvement and added that they thought this collaborative approach was effective.

Training the next generation of sustainability leaders

We’ve incorporated material from this strand of research into two OU undergraduate modules to enable students on B205 Exploring Innovation and Entrepreneurship and B327 Creating Futures: Sustainable Enterprise and Innovation to gain case-based insights on improving SMEs environmental performance. Our work has also influenced the curriculum at GCU Lahore. Since 2018, the university has included our research in material for its graduate entrepreneurship and small business management students, many of whom are business owners or professionals. In 2020, it also launched a new postgraduate course on environmental entrepreneurship incorporating critical aspects of our work.

Our experience during the past few years demonstrates that a values-based approach can make an essential contribution to the crucially important task of helping several million businesses to make a rapid and successful transition towards a low carbon economy. We’ve made a start, but there is still a great deal to be done to refine and scale this work over the coming years.

Domestic homicides remain stable during lockdown but still an enduring problem says new report commissioned by police

Domestic homicides remain an ‘entrenched and enduring problem’ despite figures remaining relatively stable during lockdown, a new report drawing on research by an OU academic and commissioned by police has found.

‘Domestic Homicides and Suspected Victim Suicides During the Covid-19 Pandemic 2020-2021’ is the first report of the Domestic Homicide Project, established by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the College of Policing working with National Policing Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP). The project was created in May 2020 through Home Office funding.

The research carried out by the Project is the first police-led work of its kind in England and Wales and aimed to establish the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides with a known history of domestic abuse(1), to learn lessons from every tragic incident and seek to prevent future deaths.

Domestic homicide and suspected victim suicide figures

Evidence from the project showed that domestic homicides didn’t appear to increase dramatically during the pandemic, with 163 recorded in the 12 months to 31 March 2021. This was very similar to the previous year’s figure of 152 and is in line with the 15-year average (2).  Although there has not been a significant change in the numbers during the pandemic, all organisations in this sector agree that more needs to be done to reduce further incidents; a continuing situation where between two and three women are murdered every week by their partners or ex-partners is unacceptable.

The Project also found 38 suspected victim suicides with a known history of domestic abuse, although this figure couldn’t be compared with previous years as this was the first time that the data had been captured in this way.

Occasional signage used during the pandemic

While domestic homicides haven’t appeared to increase dramatically, these numbers do confirm that it remains an enduring issue. The Project found that Covid-19 acted as an ‘escalator and intensifier of existing abuse’ in some instances, with victims less able to seek help due to Covid restrictions. It also concluded that Covid had not ‘caused’ domestic homicide, but it had been ‘weaponised’ by some abusers as both a new tool of control over victims, and – in some cases – as an excuse or defence for abuse or homicide of the victim.

Evidence from the report also supports existing research that coercive and controlling behaviour is associated with higher risk of homicide.

Victims and suspects

In terms of typologies and characteristics of victims and suspects, the evidence shows that victims were mostly female (73%) (3), aged between 25 and 54 years old, with the vast majority of deaths occurring in urban areas (90%) and the most common cause of death being by a sharp instrument (29%).

Over three quarters of victims with a known ethnicity were white (76%) though, since Covid, the proportion of victims from non-white ethnicities (24%) appears to be slightly, though not significantly, higher than in previous years and in the general population (4).

In contrast to victims, most suspects were male (80%), and this was across all homicide types, except for child deaths where more than half the suspects were female (59%). Similar to victims, the majority of suspects with a known ethnicity were white (76%) and the proportion of suspects from other ethnicities (24%) also appears to be slightly higher than in previous years and the general population (5).

Suspects aged between 25 and 44 years old were more likely to be involved in intimate partner homicides (44%) and suspected victim suicides (51%), while suspects in adult family homicides tended to be younger, with 60% aged between 16 and 34 years old.

Predictive and risk factors

Looking further at risk factors, there were differences between case types. However, several key risks were present across all domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides. Below are some examples:

  • Domestic homicide was gendered – women (and some men) were at risk from men (with some exceptions).
  • Just under half (48%) of all suspects had previously been reported to police for domestic abuse.
  • Victims and suspects from minority ethnic groups were less likely to be previously known to police than those from white ethnicities.
  • Existing mental health conditions, alcohol and drug use by suspects were exacerbating factors.

Between each case type, there were certain risk factors which were most present and below are some examples:

  • Adult family homicides: victims were older than in other case types. This reflects a pattern of younger adults (mainly men) killing parents and grandparents (often mothers or grandmothers). These cases were more likely to involve suspects with acute mental disorders and involvement with mental health services.
  • Child deaths: more likely than other types to involve male victims and more likely than other types to involved female suspects.
  • Intimate partner homicides: suspects were likely to have a previous domestic abuse police record (or to be a perpetrator of undisclosed domestic abuse).
  • Victim suicides following domestic abuse: the abuse profile largely mirrored intimate partner homicide group, though (female) suicide victims were even more likely to be previously known as victims of high-risk domestic abuse involving coercive control.

Prior contact with police and other agencies

Just under half (48%) of all suspects were previously reported to police as suspects for domestic abuse – this was most pronounced in intimate partner and victim suicide cases. A further 10% were known to police for non-domestic abuse offending, and a further 10% were previously known to police as a victim of domestic abuse or vulnerable person. A quarter (27%) were not previously known to police in any capacity – this was most common in child death and so-called ‘familicide’ cases.

Taken together, this means that over half of suspects (58%) were previously known to police as a suspect for some form of offending. This does suggest that potential domestic homicide suspects are more ‘visible’ to police than previous studies have shown.

However, multi-agency partnership working remains crucial to identifying risk and preventing domestic homicides and suicides and this is highlighted in the report. In 57% of all cases, either the victim or suspect, or both, were previously known to another agency other than police. Additionally, in 44% of cases not known to police at all, either the victim or suspect or both was previously known to another agency, most commonly children’s social services, adult social services, or mental health services.

Recommendations and exiting lockdown

The report contains 20 conclusions and recommendations for police and other agencies, covering a variety of areas such as: the impact of Covid, defining domestic homicide, implications for risks assessment, partnership working and further research.

In addition to the recommendations, the report sets out a number of lessons for police and other agencies in responding to domestic abuse and preventing domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides as the country emerges from Covid restrictions. These include:

A street scene in the UK during the pandemic.
  • Be prepared for an increased risk of domestic homicides and potentially domestic suicides, particularly intimate partner homicide and victim suicides as some abusers’ control is taken away by eased restrictions, and other abusers re-gain access to victims
  • Ongoing situational pressures arising from Covid-19, such as unemployment, mental health issues and delays to court cases are likely to continue to impact domestic abuse, domestic homicide and victim suicide
  • Remain alert to ‘Covid-blaming’ as an excuse or defence by suspects

However, the report also highlights that emerging from lockdown may have some benefits and could help reduce the risk of homicide and suicide in some cases by re-establishing support networks and making cases more visible.

I’m very proud of what’s been achieved through the Domestic Homicide Project since it was established. I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed so far and helped produce the Project’s first pioneering piece of research, ranging from policing, partner agencies and also the friends and family of victims and the domestic abuse sector who have generously offered their insights to shape this project.

Domestic homicide and suspected victim suicides are not something that only the police can try to prevent and we’re grateful for all the collaboration happening across the entire sector. However, as the report highlights, there are still areas where we can improve, both separately and by working together, and this is especially important now that lockdown is over.

As the report rightly states, each one of these deaths is a tragedy for a family and friends, and each is one death too many, and we’re hopeful that the recommendations, conclusions and insights from this research will help prevent future deaths.

The Project is ongoing, and work is already underway to analyse specific patterns within domestic homicides and suspected victim suicides, with the aim of publishing more research next year to further assist policing and partner agencies in this area.

Assistant Commissioner Louisa Rolfe, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Domestic AbuseI’

This report builds on the tireless work done over many years by friends and family of victims and the domestic abuse sector to raise awareness of domestic homicide. We are grateful to them for sharing some of those insights through our Stakeholder Group. We would like to thank the police for demonstrating real commitment to learn lessons from domestic homicides. Police leaders have championed this project at the highest levels, and every force has supported this research by sharing data, taking part in interviews and engaging with emerging learning.

The research shows that domestic homicides do not all follow the same path. Whilst there are strong common themes – such as the gendered dynamics of abuse – the prior offending patterns and personal characteristics of those who commit intimate partner murder often differ from those who kill family members or children.

For too long, a relationship between domestic abuse and victim suicide has been suspected but not systematically documented. This report shows for the first time that there are at least three apparent suicides every month with a history of domestic abuse, and these are only the cases where the history was known to police.

Crucially, whilst this report shows that domestic homicides did not see the huge rise under Covid which was feared early in lockdown, they remain far too high, with on average 14 adults or children dying at the hands of a partner or family member each month.

Dr Lis Bates, Report Lead Author and Senior Research Fellow at The Open University (6)

Tackling domestic abuse is a key priority for the Government and we have made huge progress in supporting victims and ensuring perpetrators face justice.

Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act transforms our response to tackling domestic abuse by providing greater protection to victims and survivors from all forms of abuse.

I am grateful to the work of the NPCC, VKPP and the College of Policing on this vital project, and to the contributions from the domestic abuse and homicide stakeholders, the academics, and police forces. I am so pleased that the project will continue for another year so that we can continue to monitor domestic homicides and drive change to prevent these horrific crimes.

Victoria Atkins, Minister for Safeguarding

This ground breaking research greatly adds to our knowledge and understanding of domestic homicides and will prove vital in helping improve our responses to risk to keep victims, particularly women, safer.

Everyone deserves to feel secure in their homes and relationships and we must ensure policing takes every opportunity to further reduce the number of domestic homicides and suicides.

Although figures have remained stable during the pandemic it is totally unacceptable that between two and three women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week.

The College has developed a range of products to support forces, including working with domestic abuse charities to produce specialist training for officers and staff, which is being delivered in nearly 30 forces. We have also developed an updated domestic abuse risk assessment tool with academics, practitioners and survivors. This focuses on assisting police responders to identify coercive and controlling behaviour. This behaviour has very significant adverse effects on the quality of life of its victims, but is also an indicator of risk of serious physical harm.

This  report is the first publication from the Domestic Homicide Project, and every organisation in this sector is determined to use the information gathered to develop more effective responses to domestic abuse and prevent these tragic deaths from occurring.

Bernie O’Reilly, interim CEO of the College of Policing
  1. The report didn’t investigate a causal link.
  2. 15-year average calculated from Home Office police-recorded homicide data.
  3. Important to note that this varied by case type. While intimate partner homicide victims and suspected victim suicides were overwhelmingly female (85% and 90% respectively), half the victims of adult family homicide (50%) and just under half of child death victims (48%) were male.
  4. 15-year domestic homicides average, the 2019/20 domestic homicides data, and the general population as measured by Census 2011.
  5. The general population as measured by Census 2011 and the 10-year domestic homicides average.
  6. Since this report was authored, Dr Lis Bates is now Reader in Interpersonal Violence Prevention at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

Domestic Homicide Project

The Project adopted a wide definition of domestic homicides including murder from a (current or ex) partner, family member or co-habitee, child deaths in a domestic setting, and unexplained deaths or suspected victim suicides with a known history of domestic abuse. These latter two categories are not homicides, but were included in the project definition to capture as wide a range of deaths following domestic abuse as possible.

The Project team established a bespoke Stakeholder Group to advise the Project which has met twice during this twelve-month period. The Stakeholder Group comprises representatives from the domestic abuse sector including the Victims’ and Domestic Abuse Commissioners’ Offices, national domestic abuse services, such as Women’s Aid, Safelives, Refuge, Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse, and Respect; as well as specialist providers and advocates, like Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse, Nia, the Counting Dead Women project, Imkaan, Southall Black Sisters, Karma Nirvana, Muslim Women’s Network UK, Gallop, and the ManKind Initiative. We would like to acknowledge and thank all stakeholders and panel members for their contributions and insight throughout this first year of the project.

The project team also convened a panel of national and international academics working in the field of domestic homicides and domestic abuse during the Covid-19 pandemic, to identify relevant research evidence. We would like to acknowledge and thank the input of these esteemed colleagues.

Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP)

Demand related to vulnerability has significantly increased in recent years and it represents one of the highest threat, harm and risk areas. In beginning to address this, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) established the Vulnerability Knowledge and Practice Programme (VKPP) in 2018 to develop and co-ordinate holistic, evidence-based approaches to improve learning, practice and outcomes.

Assistant Commissioner (AC) Rolfe is the NPCC lead on Domestic Abuse and the Violence and Public Protection portfolio. The VKPP sits within this portfolio and its work is directed by AC Rolfe, alongside VKPP Director Gareth Edwards and Head of VKPP Rhiannon Sawyer. The programme works across all police forces in England and Wales and is a multi-disciplinary team of dedicated professionals including police officers, researchers and academics.

The Domestic Homicide Project is one of nine wider workstreams being delivered by the VKPP that contribute to the overall evidence base for vulnerability and violent crime. Many of these projects focus on direct engagement with forces and a range of key partners to gain an understanding of current practice and to explore opportunities for developing knowledge sharing learning and improving outcomes for those who are vulnerable.

Business School’s triple accreditation status confirmed for another three years

The Business School has retained its coveted ‘triple crown’ status until 2024 following an unprecedented period of activity and a bumper year of virtual reaccreditation visits.

Fewer than 1% of business schools worldwide hold these prestigious awards from the world’s three leading international management education associations: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the EFMD Quality Improvement System (EQUIS), and the Association of MBAs (AMBA).

Following the good news of AACSB’s five-year reaccreditation in February this year, the Business School has now successfully achieved AMBA renewal for five years and EQUIS for a further three years after the most robust independent quality review in its history.

The Covid-19 pandemic meant this was the Business School’s first experience of ‘virtual accreditation’ with all three online visits in a seven-month period from November 2020 – May 2021. Many OU staff, students, alumni and corporate partners were involved in these virtual visits from peer review teams which comprised international academics.

Retaining our triple accreditation remains an exceptional achievement and showcases the Business School’s quality and standing. Studying with a triple accredited business school ensures not only the highest quality teaching but gives our students’ qualification international recognition. This recognises the dedication of our staff, excellence of our research and our unrivalled supported open learning teaching model, that supports students without ever compromising on quality. A massive thank you to the more than 100 staff, students, alumni and other stakeholders who took part in this vigorous and demanding assessment process.

Executive Dean, FBL (Faculty of Business and Law), Professor Devendra Kodwani

The Business School has been commended for our commitment to our mission, dedication to our students and student-driven learning experience, our societal impact including our long-standing relationship with the BBC and much, much more.

The hard work will continue so that the School remains at the forefront of teaching, research and innovation. This exciting new chapter will be led by Professor Siv Vangen who became the School’s new head in February 2021. She took over from Professor Kodwani while successfully overseeing the Faculty’s submission to the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021).

Sustainable Leadership: How to put people at the heart of the green economy

How do you build a business that is positive for people, the planet, society and the economy? Maria Chenoweth, OU MBA alumna and Chief Executive of second-hand clothing charity TRAID, offers her top tips in a video created in partnership with The People Space.

TRAID is a UK charity working to tackle the negative socio-environmental impacts of production, consumption and waste in the fashion industry. TRAID keeps clothes in use for longer by providing the public with a network of clothes reuse services and charity shops. It champions the powerful benefits of wearing second-hand clothes and funds global projects supporting the people and places making our clothes.

Chenoweth has worked in the charity sector for three decades. After completing an MBA with The Open University, she became a Fellow within the Faculty of Business and Law. She explains: “Every professional and personal decision we make has social and environmental impacts locally and globally. Each industry must be responsible for reversing its current trajectory of profit before people and planet.”

Chenoweth is a visiting fellow with the Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures (REEF) academic centre of excellence at The Open University  where she is developing innovative module content on transition to a green economy. You can find out more about her inspiring personal journey from academic underachiever to CEO and MBA alumnua here.


This video is part of The Great Work Reset series, created in partnership with The People Space.

Click here to read the original article.

Resetting capitalism: How organisations can work for progress, people and planet

Capitalism as we have known it is in crisis. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns are taking centre stage in business as never before, with employees, customers and shareholders expecting so much more from corporations than the pursuit of profit. Analysis by Bloomberg Intelligence shows that ESG assets may account for a third of all assets under management globally by 2025, with a combined value exceeding $53 trillion.

The rise of Black Lives Matter and heightened prominence of the environmental movement led by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion has accelerated the need to rethink our system to tackle the enormous sustainability challenges we face. Alongside this, unease with traditional capitalism has swelled over the last couple of years, thanks in part to the pandemic shining an uncomfortable spotlight on global inequality.

While many young, low paid and unskilled workers have struggled, a boom in asset values has made the rich richer. According to the Financial Times, in 2020 the collective worth of the world’s five wealthiest individuals increased by over $250bn. There’s a glaring disparity between the privileged lives of powerful, ultra-high-net-worth business titans and the vast majority of people on the planet.

Deeply embedded corporate culture, specifically ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking, are big barriers to resetting capitalism that can flummox chief executives and chief people officers looking to deliver audacious transformation plans.

The disappearance of many ‘old jobs’ as they are automated out of existence through the rise of artificial intelligence and robotic process automation risks further polarisation as those in certain roles without the right skills become surplus to requirements, victims rather than beneficiaries of disruptive new technologies. Against such a background, it’s no surprise that most people around the world feel indifferent at best about the work they do and the organisation they do it for. Disengagement is the norm.

But what is the antidote to all this? Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, has championed stakeholder capitalism, calling for a global economy that works for progress, people and planet. “We can’t continue with an economic system driven by selfish values, such as short-term profit maximisation, the avoidance of tax and regulation, or the externalising of environmental harm,” he writes. “Instead, we need a society, economy and international community that is designed to care for all people and the entire planet.”

It’s a view that chimes with the outlook of a handful of prominent industrialists. Anand Mahindra, chair of the Mahindra Group, has adopted a business philosophy he calls Rise, sparked by the realisation that his business cannot rely on a relatively narrow customer base of prosperous Indians to grow sustainably. As he sees it, success lies in creating collective value for Mahindra’s entire spectrum of stakeholders – colleagues, business associates, shareholders, potential consumers across the economy, local and global communities and the planet.

Mahindra elaborated on his approach in a Telegraph article on post-COVID capitalism. “Our core purpose is to enable others to rise by driving positive change in their lives. It does not explicitly mention profits, because we believe that if we enable others to rise we will rise with them and profits will inevitably follow.”

Such thinking would have appalled Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, who labelled corporate social responsibility a “fundamentally subversive doctrine”. In a free society, Friedman wrote in his book Capitalism and Freedom “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”

Some still concur with this opinion but it has become a minority view. Nevertheless, fear of eroding profits remains a brake on transformation. “Often what you find when you talk to senior managers in big organisations is that there can be cost penalties for those that go out on a limb doing it when others in the industry aren’t,” says Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at The Open University Business School.

One way around this, Fenton-O’Creevy observes, could be for leaders in large organisations to gently lobby for legislation that creates a fair playing field. In this age of intense pressure to meet sustainability targets, governments around the world may be more receptive to such overtures than was previously the case.

Yet deeply embedded corporate culture, specifically ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking, are also big barriers to resetting capitalism that can flummox chief executives and chief people officers looking to deliver audacious transformation plans.

An employee-centric model

The pandemic has certainly been an accelerant but, even before it hit, interesting new models were emerging. One mould-breaker is tech company 10Pines, founded in Argentina in 2010, which now has around 85 employees. In this highly transparent business, salaries are agreed through open discussion with colleagues and every year 50% of profits are shared among staff.

There are some challenges with this employee-centric model, concedes 10Pines co-founder Emilio Gutter. One is cultural mismatch with certain clients – it is hard for its people to work with clients who show little trust in their employees. Plus, egalitarianism has a downside when it comes to weighing up risk.

“Our decision-making process requires a lot of alignment,” says Gutter. “Allowing everyone to express their opinions also opens the door for expressing fears. Some decisions are uncertain by nature and require taking some risks, so it’s a challenge to avoid creating a very risk-averse environment when everyone can point out all the reasons an idea might fail, which are plenty when diving into the unknown of something new.”

However, Gutter says the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. He is a firm believer that more organisations should stop talking about people as resources and become more employee-centric by giving more autonomy to their employees and showing greater trust in them. This can begin with small things, like letting people decide whether they want to go to the office or work from home and plan their schedule…but extends to bigger things, such as involving employees in major decisions that will affect the future of the company.

“CEOs and top executives should spend more time listening to their employees, not just the senior-level executives but everyone in their companies,” says Gutter. “It’s really hard to be an employee-centric organisation without knowing how employees really feel or what they think.”

10Pines’ model applies some principles of sociocracy, an employee-focused approach which aims to hold in balance being productive and being equals by ‘packaging’ authority into domains and distributing that authority into teams, often called ‘circles’.

In this way, explains Ted Rau, operational leader, Sociocracy for All (SoFA), no member’s voice can be ignored, and people start taking each other more seriously because they know that by the end of the discussion everyone has to find consent. This includes decisions on leadership: to stay in the role, a leader needs the consent of the team they lead.

“This system rewards different behaviour from hierarchical systems because now the trusted and knowledgeable people get selected into leadership and not the loudest,” says Rau. Plainly, this is not a system that will appeal to noisy and ineffective leaders.

Evolving to community capitalism

Another model that has gained some traction in recent years is community capitalism which, as the name suggests, prioritises the wellbeing and sustainability of the community – whether that be geographically local or a community of shared interests. An interesting example is Buurtzorg, which in a little over a decade has revolutionised healthcare in the Netherlands through 1,000-plus small, self-organising teams that deliver home nursing care all over the country. They use Buurtzorg’s ‘onion model’ to leverage a variety of available resources to provide clients with the best possible care.

Founder Jos de Blok believes capitalism has brought a lot of damage to healthcare professionals and patients. He created Buurtzorg so that nurses could work based on their professional ethics with the autonomy to do what’s needed. It’s a model he argues could work across many sectors, even in banking. “As a bank, your purpose is to sell many financial products to earn a lot of money. But a bank could say, ‘now we have a higher purpose as a bank. We want to reduce the financial problems of people and find good solutions for that. Then we will have a connection with clients based on trust and sustainable value for the future’.”

In de Blok’s opinion, moving to a community-centric model requires the right “worldview” – one with less focus on earning money. Making it happen may need businesses to become more selective about their shareholders, although the rise of ethical and ESG-driven investment should make finding investors who are keen on the model less of a problem than was once the case.

“If you want to not only talk the talk, then you have to be transparent about what you are doing – clear on the way you are doing it and on how you will share your profits,” advises de Blok. “You can’t hide behind a marketing way of doing things. If it’s not real, people will see that in the end.”

“I am very fond of saying that most large organisations are finely tuned to meet the challenges they faced 20 years ago,” says Fenton-O’Creevy. “Mindset does need to change. There are a lot of things that people take for granted in their industry and these have become so entrenched that you don’t think about them anymore, they are part of the invisible background. Rethinking those kinds of things is quite difficult, although the pandemic has loosened up a great deal of that. People have managed to do in organisations things they didn’t believe possible.”

So will we, as organisational leaders, help to reset capitalism? Or will the new post-pandemic world of work reset us?

The Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures group (REEF) is proud to be partnering with The People Space. This article was originally published on The People Space website; click to read the original article.

Nicola asks if companies ‘spend more to spill more’?

PhD graduate Nicola Croxton has discussed her research looking at how firms use their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate political activity as a means to improve their overall performance. You can watch Nicola talk about her research and why she chose OUBS here.

She successfully passed her PhD viva in October 2020 with her thesis, ‘The internationalisation of corporate social responsibility: Nonmarket strategy in a global context’. The chair was Professor Jean Hartley, the external examiner was Professor Nicholas O’Regan (Aston Business School) and the internal examiner was Dr Richard Godfrey. Her supervisors were Professor Liz Daniel, Professor Devendra Kodwani and former OU academics Professor Thomas Lawton and Dr Raquel Garcia-Garcia.

Innovation adopted during COVID-19 is now “business as usual” according to OU research

The Leading school learning through COVID-19 and beyond project, led by Dr Jacqueline Baxter, together with Dr Katharine Jewitt and University of Reading colleague Professor Alan Floyd, are investigating online learning and strategic planning through, and post, lockdown in English secondary schools.

Early findings indications

New and innovative practices adopted during COVID-19 born out of necessity are reported as now being ‘business as usual’. An example of this is a wider curriculum offering by schools collaborating to run some subjects online. Another example is parent evenings, once held face-to-face and often poorly attended, particularly in schools in challenging areas, have been much more successful online. Several school leaders state their intention to continue this practice, along with governor meetings and staff meetings.  

There is considerable evidence of pedagogical innovation and creativity. Leaders report evidence of new ideas being tried and tested by teachers, free from the normal constraints. Schools are working more collaboratively, sharing resources, running online book clubs for Continuous Professional Development and co-facilitating staff development online events. They also report new roles being created as a result of an enhanced focus on digital learning.  

In terms of quality assurance, some schools have introduced strategies for peer observation of teaching, virtual learning walks, and other innovations in order to promote and sustain good practice. Some respondents reported using online engagement statistics in order to measure learner engagement. 

I can see a tremendous opportunity for schools to develop their creativity in more diverse ways through online collaboration than perhaps they have been able to explore individually. My hunch is that the digital environment may make people think in ways they have not been able to think just by the nature of its virtual-ness, to play, to explore, the unregulated-ness of it, compared to a lot of educational spaces which are constrained by politics and culture.

Dr Katharine Jewitt, Postdoctoral Research Associate

This article first appeared on the website. Click here to read the original article.

Related content

OUBS leads ground-breaking £300k project on online learning and strategic planning through, and post, lockdown in English secondary schools.

The Bourne Legacy – there’s more to come from MBA alumnus Des

On the 20th anniversary of Des Bourne being celebrated as The Open University Business School’s 10,000th MBA graduate in July 2001, he outlines in his own words how his studies have helped him in the intervening two decades.

After graduating as the OU’s ‘10,000th MBA’ in 2001, the qualification broadened my horizons and changed the course of my career. An MBA transformed how employers viewed my potential and put me on an equal footing in a business world that was dominated by executives and managers who had formal academic qualifications.

Looking back, I always had a burning desire and ambition to succeed and prove people wrong. A manager at the time told me that I would never get to be the boss – that was one of the driving forces for my study journey with OUBS.

Des Bourne

I was very much on a journey from supervision to junior operational management when I graduated. I had done very well to get this far but always felt I wanted a bigger stage and that there was a bigger purpose for me.

Moving into business development, I was more than willing to accept the challenges of winning work via strategic relationships and business management. My success in this area meant I went from Bid Manager to Business Development Director through to Managing Director within 10 years.

The learning, knowledge and discipline from my MBA supported this change in the direction of my career. It helped me test this drive and determination on bigger stages, shaping my success and achievements and influencing career milestones and leadership successes.

Many managers and executives get promoted in the construction industry because of a technical specialism or technical qualification, rather than an ability to lead people and organisations through change, for example. Managers and leaders had to comply with a fixed stereotypical profile. I did not fit this mould.

My background, focused drive and determination, practical hands-on experience, and formal MBA learning has continued to differentiate me from those around me.

What we see today are construction businesses desperate to harness the power of diversity and inclusion. Construction is an industry that needs to change and transform the way that it works. Many construction businesses benefit from the added value that different thinking offers and the value-added innovation created for their clients. The construction industry has evolved a lot in these last 20 years. I hope I have influenced some of these changes.

The continuing value of my MBA studies

The MBA’s focus on strategy and planning ignited a passion and enthusiasm for a long term, big picture way of thinking with me. My professional and modern management understanding gave me insight and knowledge into people, organisations and processes.

Part of my MBA studies was about creativity, innovation and change. I have thrived upon transformational change, challenging conventions and looking for ways to do things better and differently.

I also chose to study knowledge management as part of my MBA, which I often use to help with sensemaking and problem-solving. I get to the issue or the problem quickly. Many people only see the consequence; I also know the causality.

How this has led to starting my own business

I have been privileged to work with some fantastic businesses and worked with some great people in the construction sector. The only unrealised ambition left for me was to be bold and brave enough to fulfil my entrepreneurial desire to go it alone.

I created Ariaconsult Limited in October 2020, a small West Midlands-based business start-up offering strategic business development, competitive advantage and business management consultancy for construction leaders. I work as a helping hand for my clients to plan growth, create value and improve leadership skills, using focused, driven and different change agent ideas.

My business creates an outlet for me to continue my passion and enthusiasm for providing ideas, insight, tips, viewpoints and knowledge. My consultancy advice helps people deal effectively with business management and competitive advantage issues and problems.

The learning and knowledge from my OU MBA and the practical experiences gained over my exciting career all helped me reach this point in my business life – to offer simple, practical ideas to make your business plan better and your business life easier.

Please get in touch via LinkedIn or my website if you’d like to learn more about my experiences since graduating or to find out about my new business.

Jo’s on The One Show talking about the menopause

OUBS academic Professor Jo Brewis was a guest on the BBC’s primetime television programme, The One Show. The Professor of People and Organisations spoke to BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin in a feature on the menopause and working women last Thursday (1 July).

Jo was chosen as an expert on menopause at work on the basis of her co-authorship of the UK Government report, The impact of menopause transition on women’s economic participation in the UK, as well as more recent publications. These include an Advance HE briefing, co-authorship of a Business in the Community toolkit and a guest editorial on the effects of working from home on menopausal women during the pandemic.

Her other academic publications in this area include co-authored papers on: the experience of writing the report; an intersectional political economy approach to menopause at work; the results of a major survey into attitudes towards and experience of this reproductive life-stage in organisations; and the pitfalls of gender- and age-blind performance management approaches.

Jo is currently a member of the expert panel for Menopause Friendly Accreditation and is writing papers on time and menopause at work, and menopause as an important element of inequality regimes in organisations, among other activities. She is also working with People Services and others at the OU on a menopause initiative at the institution.

Watch Jo on The One Show here (she appears in the 12th minute of the menopause feature which lasts from 10-15 minutes).

OUBS PhD graduate marks Refugee Week

Marco Distinto, an Open University Business School PhD graduate, marked the beginning of Refugee Week 2021 by discussing his PhD research, which looks at the human stories behind the 2015 refugee crisis in Italy. 

As a migrant from the South of Italy, Marco wanted to challenge current ideological discourses around migration by sharing the real stories of migrants and the people who support them. 

His thesis ‘Refugee reception centres and the integration of the migrant: an exploratory study of discourses and practices of not-for-profit organizations working to support refugees in Italy’, was supervised by Dr Cinzia PriolaDr Alexandra Bristow and former OU academic Professor Peter Bloom. Marco passed his PhD viva with no corrections on 21 October 2020.

You can listen to Marco talking about his research in more detail here.