Author Archives: Craig Johnson

About Craig Johnson

Dr Craig Johnson is Senior Lecturer in Operations and Information Management and Director of Studies, MBA (Full-time, part-time and accelerated) at the University of Bradford School of Management

Why an MBA can help make sense of Brexit

This week marks the tenth anniversary of a stable economy in the UK. The withdrawal of BNP Paribas from subprime mortgages triggered the end of an economic bubble. Economics during times of prosperity is considered a dusty and boring subject. Overnight economics was suddenly catapulted to the contemporary subject as we all tried to make sense of what had happened and, more importantly, our future in this new reality.

But the best was yet to come; the double whammy twelve months ago in the form of the vote to leave the European Union. Politics aside business likes stability in the economy. With stability managers can plan investments and limit their risk. Twelve months after the vote we still have no real idea what Brexit means, never mind how it is going to affect us.

During times of profound business change good analysis is the start of any response. On the opposite side of threat is opportunity and a weak pound is good news for exporters. Interest rates, meanwhile, are at the lowest they have ever been. This has created what a recent Harvard Business School article referred to as a “super abundance of credit”. As a result we have had to change the assessment of a project’s return on investment as this famously high barrier has effectively been lowered. Meanwhile a reduction of the mobility of labour is going to affect workforce planning at every level. Disruption or at least uncertainty is going to affect industries as varied as farming, construction and hospitality as well as the health and education sectors.

Thus an understanding of how to respond to the after effects of the Financial Crisis more recently the challenges of Brexit will be the key to business prosperity. However knowledge is not something that you have it is something that you do. Western views of knowledge are founded on Cartesian thought that separated mind from body. It is so widely encultured that we don’t even notice it. Thus people talk about knowledge as if it has some sort of half-life.

This may be true of how to operate a beta max video or the nuances of driving an Austin Allegro, but critical thinking, sound analysis and genuine dialogue with stakeholders have never been out of fashion. A graduate of an MBA course is a global leader capable of strategic change.  The critical thinking an MBA engenders allows managers to respond to turbulent environments. This is not the adoption of an airport-read that allows promises a ten-step guide, but rather the adaptation of rigorous, evidence-based management.

To become comfortable with the uncomfortable is part of being a leader. In a world of uncertainty there will be one constant. Brexit, whatever that means and whatever that implies is going to form the dominant part of the business agenda for the next ten years and beyond.

Brexit and the implications for Britain after voting to leave the EU

Brexit and the loss of meaning

Last Thursday’s referendum saw a seismic change in the business environment. In the United Kingdom we have become accustomed to stability. At the most basic level an analysis of any business environment starts with PESTLE; political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors. We have become accustomed to technology as a driver for change in the environment, but it is extremely rare for the trigger to come from a political innovation such as Brexit.

Both major political parties are currently engaged in leadership contests: unprecedented in modern times. Whilst Leave voters point to the validity of a democratic process, the Remain voters of Scotland and Northern Ireland beg to differ. This threatens the future of the Union. Meanwhile the markets have plummeted globally by $2 trillion and sterling has dropped to levels not seen since 1985. Financial markets do not like uncertainty, and there is plenty of that about at the moment as the referendum has repercussions throughout the world. Not least in the campaign for the next President of the United States.

Meanwhile the social ramifications are still being felt. Incidents of racism have increased alarmingly by 57% compared to the same period last month as an emboldened right wing use the referendum as validation. Meanwhile local MP and undoubted talent Jo Cox was brutally taken from us whilst another Labour MP received death threats during the campaign.

The framework by Pina e Cunha et al. explains the shock of Brexit. The European Union has been a creeping development since the United Kingdom joined in 1973. Escalating commitment to a centralised authority and a popular media that ridiculed the bureaucracy alienated an electorate who have shown concern of the freedom of movement. This concern has been ignored by the political elite who are now in turmoil.

Expected process Unexpected  process
Expected issue Routines

Distinctive characteristics: organizational routines in moderately dynamic markets

Examples: linear routines, standard operating procedures, preventive action

Managerial implications: management as controlling

Creeping developments

Distinctive characteristics: emergent, complex and interactive processes lead to expected situations.

Examples: normal accidents, escalating commitment, cultural change

Managerial implications: managing as empowering

Unexpected  issue Sudden events

Distinctive characteristics: new themes emerge from existing processes

Examples: exploration, evolutionary dynamics

Managerial implications: management as facilitating learning

Losses of meaning

Distinctive characteristics: novel, incomprehensible situations

Examples: wild cards, crises of sensemaking, 9/11

Managerial implications: managing as sensemaking


For those in the Remain camp the outcome of the referendum has proved to be a loss of meaning. For the younger voters the European Union had been all they had ever known, whilst the older voters favour self-determination.  Indeed many older people complain the first referendum of 1975 could not have possibly anticipated the modern behemoth of a European Union of 28 member states.

Sensemaking is the process of learning through unprecedented experience. At its strongest it redefines our identity of how events shape our personal identity. The sensemaking of post-Brexit England is in stark contrast. For the Leave voters evidence from social media shows an unbridled optimism for the future. For the Remain voters it is a period of mourning for a cherished unity. Similar to the Kübler-Ross model of bereavement the Remain voters are progressing and regressing through stages of anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As Rosabeth Kanter once wrote, change can either be friend or foe, disturbing when it is done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us.

The demography of voters contains a time bomb. Perhaps in another 30 years we will be holding a third referendum with older voters (by then) telling tales of life under the European Union. Communism, after all, was not universally denounced with the older generation in communist Europe nostalgic for the stability it brought.

In the short term at least Brexit is a trade-off between sovereignty and economic stability. Only time will tell if the optimism of the Leave campaign will result in greater prosperity. Perhaps their unbridled enthusiasm will diminish if prices rise at the petrol pump and the cost of the weekly shop increases. For sure the Leave campaign had no exit strategy from the European Union. The most charitable assessment of Brexit is that it is a leap of faith; the most generous short-term economic evaluation is that it was not as bad as the 2008 financial crises. Perhaps by 2020 the Leave voters will be saying to the pessimistic Remain voters, “I told you so”. I strongly suspect the truth will be somewhere in the middle as even the most basic economic facts continue to be contested and misrepresented.

Whichever side of the political divide you fall it seems the only aspect both sides can agree upon is that we are living through an historic and unprecedented period of the UK’s history. Article 50, yet to be invoked, has a two year time limit. The uncertainty will continue for at least another two years, so we will only really be able to evaluate the impact of this momentous decision after 3 to 5 years.  For the next two years at least, therefore, expect a bumpy and an unpredictable future full of sensemaking.



Pina e Cunha, Miguel, Clegg, Stewart R. and Kamoche, Ken (2006). “Surprises in Management and Organization: Concept, Sources and A Typology.” British Journal of Management 17(4): 317-330.

Will Apple's innovation survive without Steve Jobs

Steve-JobsWith the passing of Steve Jobs this month, the computing industry lost one of its founding fathers. The first computer I used on a professional basis was the Apple IIe and I had recently been weaned back to Apple products via iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and, of course last year, the iPad.

Steve Jobs’s real genius was being able to anticipate customer expectations. In strategy we call this Blue Oceans Strategy from Kim and Mauborgne’s book of the same name. This is as opposed to Red Oceans strategy which is concerned with a strategy of  ‘fast follower’.

However, as Steve Wozniak has pointed out Jobs never wrote a line of code, nor did he ever design an electronic circuit. What he seemed to be able to do was be the consumer’s champion, in demanding good design, good interface and usability that made the competition look clunky. He didn’t invent the mouse interface; he copied it from PARC at Xerox.  What he did was commercialise until it has now become the de facto standard on all machines. He didn’t invent the MP3 player.  There were several already on the market. What he did do was come up with a cool design where the white buds (unintentionally) became an iconic manifestation of the brand. iTunes was not unique in offering music over the internet, but what he did here was invent a standard where all the stakeholders saw benefit. Who would have thought 30 years ago that Apple (the computing brand) would fight a copyright battle with Apple (the record label). When the two were launched it was never even considered they would converge. Now computing, hand-held devices and the internet are part of the digital product fulfilment infrastructure.

The iPhone was a victory of convergence. Bringing the various different technologies together that provided a single platform. I still don’t miss trundling my mobile phone and my iPod around with me, though the phone does leave a lot to be desired (it’s like holding a chopping board to your ear). Then finally the iPad. It is now the norm to turn up to a meeting with an iPad under your arm. In a recent DBA (doctoral) symposium I attended in Amsterdam recently four out of the ten were using iPad and a figure of 40% amongst executives seems usual. That Apple dominated the tablet space was simply because, well because they were Apple. They used the market dominance they had achieved. People bought the iPad because it was Apple, proving the critics wrong who had seen notebooks gain traction and then fail (when they put Windows on it, curiously enough).

The question for Apple now is, will it survive the passing of its founding father, the inspiration and the figurehead? But that is slightly the wrong question. Was Steve Jobs so central to the role that all innovation in Apple depended on him? There are examples in history where once a strong and autocratic leader left the company lost its former glory. In his resignation letter CEO Steve Jobs said the Apple had its greatest years ahead of it. The real question, then, is Steve Jobs the manager rather than Steve Jobs the marketeer? Has sufficient succession planning been conducted to ensure Apple’s success in the future, and was the cult of Steve Jobs just a facade? We have got to remember that a company is more than the sum of all its employees or even its heroic leader.

I think this will be what Steve Jobs should be remembered for. Not the iconic gadgets (much as I love them) but for building an organisation that anticipated and exceeded customer expectations. Whether this success is sustainable will be the true mark of his genius.