Author Archives: Zahir Irani

About Zahir Irani

Professor Zahir Irani joined the University of Bradford as Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law in December 2016. Professor Irani has held several senior management positions at Brunel University London, the most recent of which being the Dean of College (Business, Arts and Social Sciences - CBASS) which he set up following an organisational restructuring from eight schools into three colleges. Prior to this role, he was seconded full-time to Whitehall, where he was a Senior Policy Advisor at the Cabinet Office during part of the coalition Government. He is however most proud of being Head of the Brunel Business School, which in 2013 was awarded the Times Higher Education Business School of the Year under his leadership. He completed a BEng (Hons) at Salford University before then accepting a research position in industry where he finished his Master’s degree by research. He has a PhD in the area of investment evaluation and undertook his leadership development at the Harvard Business School. He has an extensive list of 3 and 4 star publications in the area of information systems, Project Management and eGovernment, and significant grant income from national and international funding councils.

Risks and Rewards of Cloud Computing in the UK Public Sector

Government organisations have been shifting to cloud-based services in order to reduce their total investments in IT infrastructures and resources (e.g. data centers), as well as capitalise on cloud computing’s numerous rewards. However, just like any other technology investments there are also concerns over the potential risks of implementing cloud-based technologies. Such concerns and the paucity of scholarly literature focusing on cloud computing from a governmental context confirm the need for exploratory research and to draw lessons for government authorities and others in order to ensure a reduction in costly mistakes.

This paper investigates the implementation of cloud computing in both a practical setting and from an organisational user perspective via three UK local government authorities. Through the qualitative case study enquiries, the authors are able to extrapolate perceived rewards and risks factors which are mapped against the literature so that emergent factors can be identified. All three cloud deployments resulted in varying outcomes which included key rewards such as improved information management, flexibility of work practices and also posed risks such as loss of control and lack of data ownership to the organisations. These findings derived from the aggregated organisational user perspectives will be of benefit to both academics and practitioners engaged in cloud computing research and its strategic implementation in the public sector.

Cloud computing is considered to be the latest evolution of the internet (Sabi et al. 2017; European Commission 2014). It is an emerging paradigm of computing that allows for delivering information technology (IT) resources and services through a network, usually the Internet (Krishnaswamy and Sundarraj 2015; Bhattacherjee and Park 2014). Primarily, the cloud consists of the provision of information systems (IS) and the whole range of IT infrastructure, such as servers, file storage, email, telephones, personal computers and laptops, over the internet, instead of being hosted locally and on site by an organisation. Cloud computing elements have been around for some time, with companies such as Google offering certain aspects of cloud, such as email. However, in recent years the cloud solution has developed and matured to offer the full range of IT services (Panda et al. 2017). According to a report by Forrester Research, the global public cloud market is expected to reach $191 billion by 2020, growing significantly from 2013’s market size of $58 billion (Columbus 2014). Furthermore, the European Commission (EC) considers that the public services and administration are being transformed increasingly by the evolution of technologies such as cloud computing that encompass distinguishing technical and commercial features (ENISA 2015; Pillay 2014; Fishenden and Thompson 2013). Thus, signifying the importance that governments worldwide are recognising cloud computing as an enabler of digital government services, from platforms that manage citizen requests and transactions to those that handle massive data sets. This highlights the sheer importance that many organisations and IT executives place on these technologies and helps underpin research in this area.

Public sector organisations have traditionally delivered and hosted IT systems locally. The United Kingdom (UK) government similar to other countries such as the United States (US), Australia and other European countries have called for public sector organisations to strategically embrace cloud computing to reap its benefits (Mendoza 2014; Kundra 2011; Cabinet Office 2011a). The UK national government has made particular reference to the Government Cloud (G-Cloud) where the architects of this UK government strategy have predicted that significant savings of approximately £3.2bn can be made by switching to this initiative (Kepes 2015; Cabinet Office 2011a). The reason for this is that G-Cloud is seen as a shared service, with resultant shared costs, which would lead to reduced individual costs for each organisation and create a level playing field for suppliers who wanted access to Government contracts (Donnelly 2015). There is also increasing recognition that efficiencies and shared risks and rewards will come from common information technology systems and business processes in the public sector (Khanagha et al. 2013; Simpson 2011). It has also been asserted that the G-Cloud will improve IT resilience, deliver more agile IT responses to changing business requirements and enable organisations to become more innovative (Cabinet Office 2011a). However, there are also concerns over the potential risks of cloud computing and the main obstacles considered impeding its adoption are standards, certification, data protection, interoperability, lock-in, and legal certainty (Burton 2015; ENISA 2015). Such issues emphasise the need to explore this area and to pass on useful observations to others.

Read the full paper.

Why civil service leaders need to take workplace stress seriously

Departmental chiefs must work to create an environment that’s good for body and mind.

Prime minister Theresa May’s recent announcement on mental health – a “hidden injustice” in UK society – is another signal of changing attitudes, and has highlighted the important role of employers. Reviews of practices in workplaces have been promised, with employers given training to better help them support people who need time off to recover or refresh.

There’s a wider issue here of the nature of modern work, and the impact of stress on health over time. At low levels it’s a typical, and – it could be argued – a useful part of modern working life. But employees suffering from anxiety and depression are often an indication of where the management, culture or day-to-day operations of an organisation aren’t what they should be.

And the effects aren’t only psychological. For many years, there’s been a suspected link between ongoing high levels of stress and heart-related conditions and deaths. Recent research published in The Lancet has provided tangible evidence. The study by Harvard Medical School suggests higher levels of activity in the amygdala part of the brain, processing emotions associated with stress, encourages the production of more white blood cells and inflammation of the arteries – leading to heart attacks, angina and strokes. Researchers concluded that long-term stress should be seen as being as significant a risk factor in diagnosing heart problems as smoking and high blood pressure.

Combinations of pressures from global competition, more uncertainty, heightened career expectations and digital working practices, have led to working lives running at new and unhealthy levels of intensity. To give an example from a more extreme end of the scale, figures suggest that one-fifth of employees in Japan are at risk of death from what’s known as “karoshi” – a sudden heart attack or stroke caused by overwork – and in 2015 claims for compensation rose to their highest-ever level of 1,456 in a single year. South Korea has a similar problem, which they call “gwarosa”, and it’s reported to be affecting China, India and Taiwan too.

Dealing with a culture of stress and challenges to mental health is a question of leadership. Because the reality is that work is good for us: providing a positive routine, a daily sense of purpose and achievement and social environment. So there’s a healthy form of hardworking and an unhealthy one. Senior management in the civil service need to be thinking about how they can ensure staff are well protected and that working cultures are appropriate.

Tactics for encouraging a positive mental health culture should be based around awareness of the range of causes of stress in a department. Recent research into the state of wellbeing among UK police professionals has shown that the day-to-day threat of violence is of far less concern than problems of administration and IT.

Senior managers should be aware of the changing character of work roles. Processes should be in place to review workloads and work variety. Most importantly, employees need to feel a sense of control when it comes to their daily routines, and that support is available when this isn’t the case.

They should also be in touch personally with what’s happening in the working environment, getting a first-hand sense of the state of relationships, any potential bullying, and ensure management processes encourage participation, empowerment and the opportunity to give constructive feedback.

Managers need to work with their HR departments to actively promote mental wellbeing within the organisation. Establishing awareness and understanding is important, as is training for managers and staff on reducing stigma and discrimination. Steps should also be taken to make it easier for employees to admit to issues as early as possible.

Managers should provide opportunities for flexible working because small adjustments to work routines can be a release valve for growing pressures and a sense of a lack for control.

It’s important to be conscious of those individuals most at risk of mental health problems: Conditions like anxiety and depression are more likely among those employees with existing long-term health problems such as diabetes or health issues involving pain; people who are experiencing relationship problems or who have been through a recent bereavement; and anyone dependent on drugs or alcohol.

Fortunately, there are also some positive methods for creating a working environment that’s good for mental health, linked to good physical health. Researchers suspect that at the heart of the karoshi phenomenon is a more basic problem of spending too much time sitting at a desk, and not eating and sleeping properly. Teams would benefit from the introduction of standing desks, standing meetings, or even walking meetings.

Finally, a proactive stance on the importance of taking breaks should be part of any manager’s style; and certainly not allowing there to be an unwritten acceptance that breaks are unnecessary. This could involve a more explicit policy on break times, the provision of specific spaces to encourage breaks, and encouraging the use of lunchtimes to eat well and spend time away from the desk.

How Super Alumni Can Transform the Future of Business Education

It sounds unnecessary to argue that business schools should be run like businesses. But as we know, unfortunately it isn’t. To prove their vitality and relevance, to deliver ready-to-go graduates, business schools need to rethink the way they operate and how processes and culture can be shifted away from higher education and toward its customers (or co-creators of knowledge, as I prefer) and markets.

Competition from the range of training firms, consultants, and online providers is looking evermore viable and creating new competitive frontiers. They can be faster, leaner, more flexible, running free from any larger context of academic responsibilities and bureaucracy, and technically 24/7. In the U.K., the situation is being brought into sharper focus by the introduction of degree apprenticeships this April. Employers get access to government cash to fund employees through work-based degrees, where the organization gets to shape degree programs to fit with specific work roles, capabilities, and challenges, and to choose who they work with to deliver the program—akin to supplier selection in the corporate world. Higher education institutions are best placed when it comes to providing the academic quality and kudos of a university degree—but employer-driven initiatives like degree apprenticeships raise questions in the minds of organizations about what other kinds of partners could work best for them.

The next five years will be a key phase in development of business schools. Will we see the same old MBA and executive offerings rooted in academic research and publications, or can there be new and more engaging ways to deliver business education? Business schools need to prove they can keep taking a lead when it comes to the development of organizations of all sizes, that they matter to markets and economies, that they’re able to be flexible and forward-thinking enough to genuinely integrate with business, and that they can address business needs with impact.

Alumni and lifelong learning should be the crux of this new world. We need to be developing “super alumni.” The alumni, of course, have been high on the agenda for decades, but maybe not in the right way. We’re fortunate in higher education to automatically have stronger relationships with customers, or co-creators of knowledge, than other types of service providers. The independence, credibility, and quality of university brands means there’s a built-in pride of association, of being part of something bigger than a commercial service or just seen as a supplier.

All business schools want to actively network with their alumni for the sake of building a community and for the selling opportunities involved. As a result, there can be too much of a club feeling about it—a group brought together for some social occasions with only woolly benefits for being part of the network, connected by events and an occasional magazine that perhaps become less and less relevant.

It’s time to recognize the long-term value of alumni and form a network that plays an active role in the school. From the school side that means providing lifetime development, perhaps for free. Once you’re part of the super-alumni group you know you’ll be able to dip in and out of executive development programs as they evolve. You are business school-powered. The benefits for individuals and their organizations are obvious, especially with the changes in organizational structures, fewer opportunities for progression, and more emphasis on keeping a senior role. Business schools can help with the development needed to hold onto an existing position, as well as better deal with more general uncertainty and need for career adaptability. Perhaps in the future organizations might even rent quality leaders and managers direct from the bank of people resources kept sharpened by business schools.

Likewise, a renewed emphasis on lifelong learning fits with the evolving attitudes of employers who are less interested in a legacy of qualifications than the ability of managers to keep learning and wanting to learn, promoting a new generation of reflexive learners.

And in return? The alumni would be expected to provide a regular feed from the frontline of management and give something back to the next generations of students: contributing to lectures, seminars, and workshops; providing real-life case studies for students to work with; offering mentorship; providing opportunities for placements; supporting professional “problem-solving” clinics; and getting involved with practitioner research. These efforts would become part of a virtuous circle in terms of the experience of students, the culture of the school, the opportunities for networking, and building those all-important open links with businesses—all of it ultimately leading to further generations of super-alumni, stronger integration, and benefits for both sides.

Operating more like businesses won’t just come from introducing different structures and processes. The main motivating force will be from big ideas—the kinds of innovations that bring results and demonstrate how much the changes matter.