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.

The rise of psychometric testing is harming workplace diversity

Psychometrics have become an essential weapon in the graduate recruiter’s arsenal, helping large private and public sector employers whittle down applications from the tens of thousands to the elite few who will be invited to an interview or assessment centre. Nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of graduate recruiters use psychometric testing, according to a 2016 paper by the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

But while there are undeniable benefits of using such testing methods – speed and efficacy chief among them – have you considered the impact of your choice on applicants, and the fact that your method could be harming your organisation’s ability to achieve its diversity goals?

Think about it: when would a student have been asked to complete verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests before applying for an entry-level job or graduate scheme? Probably only when sitting an exam similar to an 11+ to determine entry to a grammar or private school. That means students with certain backgrounds – likely to be those who were state-schooled, or from poorer communities – are less likely to have been exposed to the learning associated with psychometric testing before applying for their first post-university roles.

That thousands of students are entering – and leaving – university without this exposure to psychometric testing, and are developing a fear of failing such tests, is growing in importance as the number of non-privately educated students at UK universities rises. In 2014-15, 20.8 per cent of students entering Russell Group universities had poorer backgrounds. That proportion rises to more than a third (37.5 per cent) at non-Russell Group institutions.

People often ask me: does it matter if these students are put off from applying for jobs that require psychometric testing? Can’t they just apply for the roles that don’t have this requirement? That’s a compelling argument, but my response is simple – it’s about creating equality of opportunity. These students are too scared of failure to try, and this means employers are losing out on vast swathes of talented individuals.

I want every student to be able to apply for any role they want to; at the moment, they can’t. And that won’t change without a concerted effort from universities and employers alike. At Bradford’s School of Management, I’ve embedded into every undergraduate programme under my purview a requirement that every student is exposed to psychometric testing and develops their verbal and non-verbal reasoning skills. Their scores aren’t important, but they gain an understanding of what the tests require, and their importance in the graduate job application process, so they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to apply for roles that are recruited in this way.

I accept that employers are unlikely to do away with psychometric testing entirely, but there is still work they can do to reach a broader audience. Talk to a wider range of universities, and connect with students on courses that you wouldn’t usually target. Arrange to do a guest lecture. Meet students and build relationships with them. Offer short-term placements or internships that might serve as extended job interviews for permanent roles in the future.

It’s time employers looked beyond the same people from the same institutions and courses, and started to rethink the ‘tried and tested’ recruitment methods, to bring about the true diversity of thinking that every successful modern company requires.

Professor Zahir Irani is Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Bradford

The Future of Food Security

The blockade of imports into Qatar by its Gulf neighbours has ramped up political tensions in the region, and again exposed the fragility of food supply chains.

The tensions with neighbouring members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and consequent blockades of ports and airspace, has led to urgent new deals with Iran and Turkey and the potential for imminent shortages, food inflation and popular unrest. Qatar is now being forced to invest heavily into its New Port Project (NPP), with a Steering Committee and AlJaber Engineering (JEC) signing a contract for food security facilities and warehouses at a cost of QAR1.6 billion (£342million).

So the wealthiest nation on the planet (with a per capita income of £101,000 compared with around £32,400 in the UK) is having to face up to an experience of what poverty might feel like, at least until the vast infrastructural changes come into effect, because Qatar has a glaring weakness in its reliance on imported food supplies (around 90 per cent or more).

Qatar is an important example to the West of a nation grown complacent on the basis of its wealth, appearing to not give enough attention to securing resilience within its food supply chains, alongside a major food waste problem and a culture of luxury and extravagance. The blockades have exposed a lack of domestic capability, a legacy of local industry not able to compete with cheaper imports, high production costs associated with the local climate and ecology, immature supply chains, a lack of knowledge and expertise – and a general preference for higher quality imports in a status conscious market.

It’s not a temporary and localised blip, but the kind of wake-up call needed by the developed world. The lessons of Qatar in the coming years could well provide models for the West and other wealthy nations. Our own sophisticated nation with its cool climate and deep-rooted agricultural traditions is far from being beyond these kinds of worries. More than 50 per cent of our food and animal feed is imported. The National Farmers’ Union claimed in 2015 that the UK would only be capable of feeding 53 per cent of its population by the mid-2040s [PDF, 387KB]. Most of our imports also rely on EU ports, which in a Brexit future would be reliant on re-negotiated deals and arrangements that are still far from clear.

In Qatar the crisis is ensuring new attitudes and change. All nations need a strong core of domestic food production capable of competing with cheap, sometimes loss leader imports. Qatar needs to develop a generation of ‘agro-preneurs’, and that means backing them with subsidies, business-friendly processes for start-ups and the necessary capital for facilities. Fledgling enterprises will need an ecosystem of knowledge and expertise in agriculture to demonstrate how they can become established in local markets and their wares be more attractive than imported goods – not protectionism but local resilience. While the soil or sand is far from ideal, there are innovative, technological solutions such as hydroponics that challenge the acceptance that you can’t grow food in certain regions. The question is more about finding suitable financial models to make it meaningful to investors (whether from governments or business).

Most importantly, the Qatar government is funding activity to change famously profligate consumer attitudes towards food and waste through the Qatar National Research Fund. The Safeguarding Food and Environment in Qatar research project (SAFE-Q) has focused on consumer behaviour and ways in which the population can be alerted to the bigger picture of the food life cycle and range of types of waste. While individual products may look low-cost on the shelves, all foods involve high costs in terms of the resources involved in growing, rearing, transporting, and processing raw materials.

Qatar is now acutely aware that smart marketing and more widespread education is needed to change the ‘normal behaviours’ of its consumers: the rejection of ‘non-perfect’ foods, excess food just seen as rubbish, the preference for luxury global brands as a definition of status. In particular, Qataris will need to become accepting of the – at least initially – lower standards of locally-produced foods.

And here’s the crux of the lessons for the rest of the world: consumers can’t keep on living in what is essentially only a dream of low prices and unlimited supplies of perfect products. Food needs to be understood in terms of whole life cycles of resources (increasingly called a circular economy) and their long, and increasingly fragile, chains of participants. We need to take every opportunity to highlight and learn from this fragility wherever it is exposed and then to challenge conventional thinking – our lives might well depend on it.

By Professor Zahir Irani and Professor Amir Sharif

Opening more doors for students

While more organisations talk about the need for new blood and new ideas, the head of the CBI, Carolyn Fairburn has warned that employers are going backwards when it comes to the diversity of recruits.

The Government review by Baroness McGregor-Smith has also recently pointed to discrimination against British Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates in terms of both recruitment and promotion, calling for more transparency among employers on their BAME workforce and setting diversity targets.

Business schools have an essential role to play in helping employers get to a stage where diversity is no longer such a thorny problem, tainted by suggestions of bias and discrimination. The barriers to entry to the biggest employers can be more about the formal processes involved than prejudice about being the ‘right stuff’.

We need to better prepare all of our students, from all backgrounds, to navigate their way through the recruitment maze, and not assume that it’s a level playing-field.

Psychometrics, for example, a tactic used by around three-quarters of graduate recruiters last year (according to the AGR). For the average student who’s been through the grammar or private school route, this kind of exercise in an interview or at an assessment centre will be par for the course. For others it’s alien, unsettling and a reason to fear the whole situation.

Psychometric testing is quick and efficient – but also sifts out graduates with ability who aren’t fitting into corporate-shaped holes. The number of graduates leaving their university without any experience of this kind of approach and the tactics and skills involved is growing. Particularly given the surge in numbers of students taking the BTEC route into degree study (rising over 300% between 2010 and 2013).

We can help ensure there’s a basic equality of opportunity by ridding students of what is a common fear of failure, and allowing them to apply for any role they want. At Bradford’s Management School, we’ve worked to embed a requirement that every student will be exposed to psychometric testing, developing their verbal and nonverbal reasoning skills, into every undergraduate programme. We’re not so much interested in their actual scores and progress, just in giving them the knowledge of what’s involved so they can make their own choices about career options. It’s also important, in the wider context of the diversity agenda, that business schools encourage students to be exposed to a diversity of perspectives and characters in the protected space of a university in preparation for the wider world.

Psychometrics testing is an integral part of the recruitment process when it comes to graduate level employment but shouldn’t be used in isolation to meetings, interviews, challenge sessions when seen within a selection process.

Recruiters have been critical for many years of the ‘conveyor belt’ of standardised graduates coming out of universities, the potential of difference and challenge from new perspectives and life experiences. Corporate recruitment methods in themselves aren’t the problem necessarily, but there does need to be more recognition of the issues on both sides; more collaboration to get employers in to meet non-traditional students, the students on courses they wouldn’t normally target, and break open the channels of recruits which continue to be narrow.

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.