Worlds apart? Imagining the co-existence of the academic and the business life.

“That’s just academic!” snapped Brian when he and Jim from the nearby university were discussing the rights and wrongs of a particular manufacturing process deep in the heart of a failing car plant outside Birmingham.

“You’re just over complicating matters and imagining scenarios which are irrelevant for this particular application. You sit there with your arms folded, a look that says ‘so what?’ and a haircut that was fashionable back in 1982 when you were leading a critical theory module on post-partum physics.

You’ve over thought the whole project in this one business plan and it’s full of words with more than 3 syllables: how dare you use the word performativity when I don’t have a clue what you mean.

That’s the trouble with you academics, your language is obtuse and impenetrable and it fills me with suspicion. And actually I’m not interested in ‘on the other hand’ and ‘it depends’ because in my world, there is no ‘other hand’ and the only thing that anything depends on is whether it generates enough cash in the system. End of.”

Brian’s outburst that wet Monday morning in his Birmingham car plant is nothing unusal. Academia, academics and the academy are terms of abuse in many quarters (sometimes even in schools) especially by those who claim to inhabit the ‘real world’ and who would argue their position as one borne of pragmatism, realpolitik and rationalism. In that world, anything ‘academic’ is at best irrelevant, at worst self obsessed.

The pond which separates the academic from the entrepreneur is sometimes wide, sometimes murky but never without its interest and intrigues. C.P. Snow used to refer to the Two Cultures of the Humanities and the Sciences in the intellectual life of the West as being a major hindrance to solving the world’s problems: but with businesses increasingly spinning out of universities and with businesses frequently reconsidering how they can best transfer the knowledge from the conservatoire to the messiness of their production lines, there’s never been a better time for better cross cultural understanding to enable the academic to speak to the entrepreneur and vica versa.

Brian and Jim eventually patched up their differences over a game of darts in the nearby pub; but whether Brian can apply Jim’s knowledge, and whether Jim is even interested in trying to solve a production problem in an industry which is on its last legs is yet to be established.

What is a SuperBusiness? 9 questions which will help shape the answer.

Spark Up in Liverpool makes much of creating 500 SuperBusinesses in 5 years across the Liverpool City Region. In a region whose business support services have generated many types of business and entrepreneurial activity, what is it that will make a SuperBusiness?

On one very straight forward level it has to mean starting up businesses which generate super levels of employment, turnover and profitability; businesses which can make a major contribution to the regional business economy. But being a SuperBusiness is much, much more than the bottom line metrics and measurable outputs.

SuperBusinesses will not merely operate in the Liverpool City region: they will have an acutely developed moral compass which which help shape it for the better: This means for the social and cultural ‘better’ as well as the economic ‘better’.

SuperBusinesses could shape either the region from hell – much like Tokyo in Bladerunners – or they could shape an en-nobled, ennobling, civilised and civilising space in which people’s entrepreneurial behaviour is directed towards the greater good. A region with 500 SuperBusinesses could either be filled with wide boys, hoods and spivs – or it could be like Venice. Or both. The choice is ours.

So what will tell us whether we’re seeing a SuperBusiness emerge in the next 5 years? And what might be the defining characteristics of those ventures? There will be several indicators which tell us whether we’re dealing with a SuperBusiness or just a bunch of charlatans out to make a fast buck and they’ll be seen in their responses to the following questions:

How are you engaging with the poor, excluded and disillusioned?
How are you giving air time and political influence to individual spirits?
How are you connecting nano-, micro- and mini- SMEs with the larger corporate players?
How are you recognising and responding to local culture – not just traditional, mainstream arts and museums but the myriad of ways in which people go about things and create value, difference and impact?
How are you valuing diversity and difference?
How are you not only tolerating dissent but appreciating it?
How are regulating yourselves and your public behaviours?
How are you valuing risk, challenge and uncertainty?
How are you engaging with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” (Wikipedia)

This is not just a job for the entrepreneurs and eager business men and women. If we want our SuperBusinesses to shape our city region we’re probably best starting at home. Our own businesses, whether super or not, could also begin to address those questions. If we want those SuperBusinesses to emerge from the gloom of the recent recession and spark up our region, we will all need to become at least a little bit ‘super’ in our own businesses for once in a while too.

For more information about Spark Up, please visit the website here.

Hanging out at the International Festival of Business: how is a business a school?

Contrary to what many employers might hanker after, potential employees do not arrive on their doorsteps for their first day of work as fully formed potential employees of the year. Employers might bemoan the lack of literacy, numeracy, ICT-cosy-ability, the ability to walk and talk at the same time and other human being related skills, but the proto-employee will have learnt loads of other things since they were in school, college, university or at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Whether they were taught those things is another matter: but they will have certainly learnt loads of things albeit not necessarily of the employer-user-friendly-type.

That’s because as human beings our natural state of being is to learn, to be inquisitive, to be curious and to construct meaning. It’s what separates us from the dolphins, the chimps and the allegedly intelligent fungus that lives on leaf mould in Patagonia. None of these things construct meaning like human beings and if you’re not sure about that, just go to your nearest pub on a Friday after work and tell me what you see constructing meaning. Not a dolphin in sight and certainly no chimpanzee holding forth on why Manchester United are in such steep decline. No: it’s the human being in the room who is making meaning from their every day learnt experiences, many of which are forged in the workplace.

So, businesses might help themselves if they recognised that they have a stealth-like educational function to their raison d’être. This isn’t about passing exams or following curriculum or heaven forbid just learning a list of mechanical skills to evidence in their portfolio of competences: it’s much more important than that as it’s about making social sense of our existence, economic sense for our families and cultural sense for our communities.

Businesses may not think they’re schools but they so have a powerful educational mission and could do everyone a favour if they stepped up to the plate a lot more frequently.

More to follow on education and business at our June conference: http://www.allourfutures.co.uk

Hanging out at the International Festival of Business: how is a school a business?

Some time after the Tony Blair’s testosterone fuelled ‘education education education’ mantra started being chanted around UK school playgrounds, I found myself working with a number of schools around Liverpool who were preparing for the tsunami of funding that was heading their way.

Whether this was for kids from rich families or for kids from poor families who were starting with a deficit of life chances before they even stepped through the school gates or the kids in the middle who were neither GandT (Gifted and Talented, aka troubled, awkward and difficult to manage) nor HTR (Hard-to-Teach aka troubled, awkward and difficult to manage) but were still able to attract funding due to their perceived invisibility, the fact was that many schools found themselves awash with cash. Sometimes more than they knew what to do with and sometimes more than was good for them.

This led to many schools to take their fiduciary duties even more seriously and to believe that that they now had to start acting as if they were businesses.

This might involve the appointment of a ‘business manager‘ (sometimes a redeployed bursar who would have struggled in any commercial organisation, never mind one that was pretending to be one); the consideration of students as ‘customers‘ and the teeth grinding proposition that the curriculum was something that students could pick and choose from much like a visit to their favourite sweet shop on a Saturday afternoon.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m enthusiastic about personalising curriculum where it makes sense and responds to students’ interests in a meaningful and authentic manner: but all too often the personalisation agenda became subsumed within a Disneyfied agenda which threw any critical faculties off the fourth floor of the head teachers executive lounge suite and sold sold sold a morally bankrupted curriculum which valued the individual at all costs: visible in one school I visited which encouraged students to think of themselves as the Me PLC of their generation.

From now on, schools were businesses, students were customers and teaching subjects was something you only did in the privacy of your own home. ‘Subject knowledge’ became a dirty word used between consenting adults and certainly not something you would wax lyrical about in public.

There was of course a lot of resistance to this tendency of talking about schools as business centres; but more often than not, the rhetoric was seductive and many schools accepted their new identity as business start ups with the minimum of squealing.

What the consequences are of that turn of affairs will be explored in future posts – and of course at our next conference, All Our Futures which will be held in Liverpool in June 2014. Further details are here.

All Our Futures: The Business of Education or the Education of Business?

We’re producing our next All Our Futures international education conference in June this year and, as it’s part of the International Festival of Business (IFB) which is being promoted across the Liverpool City Region, we thought it only right and proper to align the focus of the conference with the energy of IFB itself.

Which is all very well until you start thinking about the thorny relationship between those two apparently innocent concepts: ‘business’ and ‘education’.

Surely (and here I’m reminded of Prof. Derek Colquhoun, my Ph.D supervisor’s comment that any sentence that starts with ‘surely’ should ring lots of alarm bells immediately) the links between education and business are obvious and trouble free?

Educating children is about preparing them to get work, create work and become valuable net contributing members of our economy isn’t it? Surely education must attend to the needs of business in order to make sure that our net contributing members of the economy (aka children) can take their fit and rightful place at the big dining table of the Big Society? Surely schools should remember that fundamentally they are businesses in their own right and grow up and behave as such?

Well, surely these ‘surelys’ are going to get a right good going over on this blog in the months to come and throughout All Our Futures too. I hope you can join us – either online or in person – because we surely are going to put the world to rights during that week!

For more information please visit http://www.allourfutures.co.uk

Tips for Business Start Ups: 7 ways to engage Generation Y-ers in business

Time Magazine printed an article in 1967 to worried parents across the USA that Baby Boomers “seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics.” Time was following in a well worn tradition of media frenzy. The Dallas Morning News in the 1920s described its young people “as not caring about people and not having any sense of shame , honor or duty.”

So, we need to be careful about any predictive process when it comes to basing economic or social policy on the stereotypes of young people (or indeed anyone else). Bearing that in mind, what might the stereotypes of the Millenial – the Generation Y-er – suggest about how they may or may not get involved in the messy business of business start ups?

Well, the stereotypes fly thick and fast when it comes to trying to assess what constitutes the typical Generation Y-er. According to Psychology Today, they include:

being the toughest generation to manage;
growing up in a culturally diverse school and play environment;
being tech-savvy, enthusiastic, self-centred, confident, well networked and achievement-oriented;
one of the best educated generations in history;
confident with a constant need for variety, challenge and instant gratification;
Represented by the “Prizes for All ” generation.

At work, Generation Y-ers are said to:

expect their opinions to be heard and considered and are not usually shy;
want to know that what they are doing is valuable to the company and/or environment, as well as valuable to them and their career;
have a strong desire for rewarding opportunities – for them and their company.
are driven less by money and more by accomplishment;
Want to express their creativity and be able to complete tasks on their own – using their own methods;
want to know they have access to an open door to ask questions;
want to engage in work relevant to them and important to them and the company.

So if we expect Generation Y-ers to blindly follow career or vocational paths that have been laid for them, and which have been paved with rewards that may have been acceptable to Gen X-ers or Baby Boomers, we’re going to have a few surprises.

We may need to think less of how do Generation Y-ers fit into business, and more about how the business world can be shaped by a Generation Y culture.  Perhaps we might even see some of the Baby Boomer and Generation  X orthodoxies of business being challenged.

So, here’s a guide on how to engage sterotypical Generation Y-ers in business: by changing business practice around them, rather than trying to fit them into your business.

1. Be aware of the boot camp and other military metaphors

Enthusiastic entrepreneurs all over the UK are currently being inundated with all types of business support programmes from every conceivable source: their local council, their friendly bank and the taxi driver who’s trying to take them to their next networking opportunity but who has of course lost his way to name but three.

These support programmes are being promoted through a variety of metaphors which express the spirit of growth and enthusiasm which drives the people behind the programmes: everything from growing an allotment through to levitation systems (getting your idea ‘off the ground’) hothouses, hatcheries, nests and even the occasional business meeting womb.

The most insidious of these however is the military metaphor which describes the process of starting up in the starkest of terms: entrepreneurs are encouraged to attend boot camps: they are persuaded to ‘put their bodies on the line’; they have to ‘go over the top’, ‘batten down the hatches’ and ‘take one for the team’. Whilst this may be of use to some entrepreneurs who are thinking about setting up a private army which will compete of course with the publicly funded armed forces when larging it around the world’s hotspots, the military metaphor is a pretty hopeless way of describing activity whose moral compass is guided more by the desire to create jobs, improve the economy and do good in the world.

2. Engage more sorcerers than apprentices.

A new business start up is not a mature business and not necessarily a reasonable place to work. It is fragile, uncertain of its place in the world and whether it is likely to survive out in the wilds of the market place beyond the first year is open to a lot of doubt. There’s a forest load of wild animals, poison ivy and bear traps to face if you’re setting up a new business and the last thing you want is a co-pioneer complaining about their employment contract.

A new start doesn’t need solutions imported to it from mature businesses with notions such as ‘employing staff’ driving its thinking. It needs new solutions which confront the needs of its newness. The new start up doesn’t need staff at all – people who will honour contracts and deliver a job to the best of their ability in return for a negotiated remuneration – but generators: people who can not only deliver the business core activity but who can also generate more activity, more income and emulate the entrepreneur who has brought them to the party.

New businesses need people who have the ability to generate something from nothing, to make value from where there was none before, to act as alchemists rather than as commi-chefs who can follow recipes to the letter but who don’t have the inspirational touch which invents, creates and conjures further opportunities from thin air. They need to engage a lot more sorcerers – not more apprentices- in the kitchen that is the new business.

3. Work in, on and under the business

Perhaps what’s more important than working in and on a business, is an understanding of what was going on under the business: the stuff which tells you why a business is important to other people and why it matters. Working in the business is important; working on the business is essential; but working under the business will provide Generation Y-ers with the energy and motivation to sustain their businesses through the long dark nights of recession and economic challenge.

4. Cash may be king but even royalty needs a moral compass

Business is frequently portrayed as a moral free zone with no rights or wrongs other than can it sell? Can it make a profit? What are the loop holes? and is exemplified in Milo Minderbinder’s moral code of ‘there will always be trade‘ as he cleaned up after organising the bombing of his own squadron at Pianosa by the Luftwaffe in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

5. If in doubt, use the C word

Dropping the ‘c’ word into any business venture is bound to galvanise the Generation Y-er and the wider workforce, impress investors and stoke up the heat of admiration upon you. It doesn’t matter what the ‘something something something’ is (you could have equally said blahdy blahdy blah): the fact that you’ve introduced the ‘c’ word to your proposal is what’s fired up the meeting.

In the olden days we would have used the words ‘magic’ and the effect would have been the same. These days, ‘creativity’ has replaced the word for ‘magic’ (and ‘alchemy’ and ‘smoke and mirrors’ and ‘snake oil’ for that matter) and the world and it’s business offices have become far happier places as a result.

So, if in future you’re stuck in a turgid negotiation, CRM update or monitoring moment, just drop the word ‘creative’ into proceedings and see your Generation Y-er grow wings and fly to the heavens. He or she may not last long up there as they get too close to the sun, but your colleagues and customers will thank you for liberating them from their non-magical daily grinds.

6. Join a movement – Slow, Guerilla or Digital

If your Generation Y-er has got bored with your business then you could do a lot worse to align it to one of the many movements out there which in their own way are crying out for new forms of activist engagement. Just add ‘slow’, ‘guerrilla’ or ‘digital’ and your business will discover new legs and give you added oomph when you wake up in the morning. Failing that, you can always make your own movement: try ‘Independent’ ‘messy’ or ‘chaotic’ when it comes to rejuvenating your business and watch those customers come flocking.

7. Write your own business language

Like many people who want to set up a business, the following language fills the Generation Y-er with dread, suspicion and horror:

* Connect with your customers confidentially
* Identify your USP intelligently
* Optimise your Search Engines efficiently
* Motivate your employees easily
* Maximise your value added effortlessly
* Shake your booty heartlessly
* Strut your stuff engagingly
* Wedge your bling tellingly
* Fluff your tail provocatively

Don’t worry: lots of potential entrepreneurs and business start ups look aghast at the terminology they are expected to use as they hunker on down in the depths of business speak land. Many of them throw away perfectly respectable business ideas just because of the language they are expected to subscribe to.

But fear not: if your idea stands a chance of surviving the challenges of that language, it will survive anything: and it may turn you into a guru in your own right which will allow you to coin your own aphorisms, cliches and incontestable business jargon.

A great way to start is to generate four columns: in the first, write a list of verbs which might be used in any military, medical or porn movie context. In the second, write a list of personal connectives: my, your, our – that sort of thing. In the third, write a list of any part of your body and in the fourth, write any adjective that might describe a boxing match.

Before you know it, your business lexicon will blow away your competitors and you’ll be calling the shots, imperiously.

One thing that is guaranteed is that the Generation Y-er will engage with your business with all their usual, stereotypical intelligence, panache and style – and may well help you innovate and radically reshape your tired business propositions and orthodoxies.

Maybe, just maybe: the role of the artist entrepreneur.

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could answer the question of how the fuck are we going to manage when public sector funding has dried up? When audiences are becoming more conservative? When the corporates are opting for the safe and secure? When the cliches are running rings around new thinking opportunities?

Maybe, just maybe the artistic entrepreneur can see opportunities for new productions and new services…

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur can carve out new marketplaces rather than be beholden to preconceived ideas of what constitutes the marketplace…

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could ignore boundaries of professional, amateur and community and facilitate engagement processes which work with the power of the artistic vision rather than the pragmatism of the cultural realpolitik.

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could reimagine a future which is based on vision, critical engagement and personal and social transformation.

Maybe, just maybe the artist entrepreneur could galvanise the artist to wake up to what their power and possibilities are, and to quell their worries and anxieties.

Tips for Business Start Ups: the first signs of Spring

“I quit my job this week.”

Joey has been struggling with the transition from regular paid employment into devoting himself to his rickshaw business for some months now. He’s faced the common but still scary challenge of stepping out of the so called comfort zone of his regular pay check, the status in his friends eyes and the increasingly apprehensive look in his children’s eyes when he’s stepped out of the door every morning and left for ‘work’: their look gives away their concern that every time he comes back later that night, his nerves are a little more frazzled, his temper a tiny bit more frayed and his breath laden with a touch more whiskey than it was the night before.

The safe space of the regular job has become increasingly hostile recently: it’s now an uncertain and distrustful environment with colleagues looking over their shoulders and minding their backs in an attempt to avoid the next round of cuts and restructuring. Joey has never seen so many people sidle around the company corridors like crabs with their backs to the walls, attempting vainly to stop someone else knifing them between their shoulders as they go about their increasingly futile daily grind.

Today contained an epiphanic moment for Joey. A phone call from an eco-friendly transport company in Glasgow placed an order for 50 rickshaws which had to be delivered by Christmas. The task is immense: but it’s given him the security to step out of the unsafe safe space of full time work into the safe insecurity of finally being able to dedicate himself to truly looking after himself and his children. He has no idea what will happen after Christmas – but the first signs of Spring have come six months early for Joey.

“I quit my job this week…” has never sounded so optimistic and his six children can breathe easier knowing their dad will finally be sobering up before he bids them goodnight when he gets home from his real work: running his own business.

Tips for Business Start Ups: step up to the plate and don’t let us down.

It’s a funny old thing, hearing about the emergence of a new business. You don’t necessarily see any change on the landscape, there’s clearly no sound of new born babies squealing, and to all intents and purposes the world before the business existed is very much like the world after it started to trade.

Except it’s not. The presence of a new business – symbolically seen in the fact that it now has a ‘proper’ name with the letters ‘Ltd.’ after that name – demonstrates that rather than nothing at all happening, the start-of-trade moment is a declaration of optimism, hope and ambition.

The declaration sends out signals that good things will happen: people will be employed and paid for their work, other people will buy goods or services which should make their own lives just a little bit easier to cope with and the world at large might benefit – however microscopically – from the new kid on the block. The start up trading moment offers glimpses to a better future for everyone.

So to all you new start ups out there: well done, it’s fantastic that you made it this far. Now, go forth and multiply and don’t let us down. We’re investing our hope for a better future in your endeavours and will live your triumphs and defeats with you.