Ambition in a Time of Crisis

Dr Zoe Lawson is a social entrepreneur, MBA alumna and member of the OU Business School’s Alumni Council

What is Ambition and is it Good or Bad?

Most of us if pressed for a definition would say that ambition involves some sort of striving for achievement. Whether we define it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is somewhat more complex and is often influenced by our cultural frame of reference. Western societies generally view ambition as a precursor for success, while in Eastern traditions it is sometimes seen as an evil that reinforces the ego and distracts from spiritual growth.

Aristotle talked of degrees of ambition, with ‘proper ambition’ being the ideal. He defined ambition itself as a ‘vicious excess’ and lack of ambition as a ‘vicious deficiency’. Today, we talk of healthy ambition as the sweet spot – the striving for achievement that is individually enabling and socially constructive. Conversely, unhealthy ambition is more akin to greed; it is inhibiting and destructive.

Whatever your view on the virtues (or otherwise) of ambition, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the conditions of our lives and external environment at any given time have the power to boost or crush it. And we are currently living through perhaps the greatest global crisis in living memory. So how can we prevent our ambitions, plans and goals from being obliterated in this pandemic tsunami? Consider the following paragraphs.

Hope and Ambition are Bedfellows

Ambition is often talked about together with hope. We can have all the ambition in the world, but without some hope of the right circumstances arising for it to flourish, it is largely a theoretical exercise. Hope is a desire for things to change for the better, an anticipation of a positive outcome. It’s a critical element in resilience. What it is not, is a passive wishing exercise, some kind of wishy-washy concept based in woo-thinking. Hope is an active approach to life.

Research shows that hope helps us cope with adversity and pushes us to keep going. Even if the things you seek seem very far away right now, the possibility of a better future is a powerful motivator. Holding onto hope is therefore a key factor in managing your ambitions during a time of crisis. This does not mean surrendering to blind faith because hope is not a state of delusion or denial. It does not disregard the real challenges that evolve during times of exceptional hardship – lost jobs, positive diagnoses, dwindling finances. Hoping is not pretending, it is acknowledging the truth of a situation and working out the best way to get through it. Sometimes your next few moves will be Hobson’s choice but hope shows us that further along, the possibility of real alternatives will start to emerge. Hope requires a certain degree of optimism. But what if you’re simply not wired that way, or circumstances have got too much and you’ve lost sight of it? Here are three small but powerful ways that you can use to find it:

Reframe your setbacks. That ice cream sabotaged your healthy lifestyle goals anyway.

(Image by Heather Barnes at Unsplash).

  1. Acknowledge setbacks, then reframe them. This pandemic has thrown up all manner of significant and sometimes life-altering setbacks. Take some time to acknowledge them and then pay attention to what they offer you – a growth opportunity, a chance to learn something new, to hone your problem-solving skills. This reframing of the situation from a threat to an opportunity can be helpful. Note; it’s not always easy but then lots of worthwhile things aren’t.
  2. Clarify your goals. It’s hard to aim for something when the target isn’t clear. What are you living your life for? What are your deeper values? Knowing what you want can help you prevail despite the obstacles that life throws in your path.
  3. Seek out awe. This sounds quite obscure at first but bear with me. Awe is a sense of inspiration and wonder. Scientific research has shown that awe experiences contribute to feelings of hope. How do you find awe? Look for things bigger than us, for vastness. The ocean, the clouds, the night sky.

No Ambition without Adaptation in Times of Extreme Change

Bear in mind that times of change require flexibility. Uncertainty goes hand-in-hand with change and that is never more true than currently. The status of the Covid-19 virus and its social, political and economic impacts change, seemingly by the hour. Today, we might be healthy, tomorrow, infected and next week, in hospital. When the bedrock of our lives is threatened, our mental and physical health, our loved ones, our safety and security, then keeping hold of our ambitions can seem impossible and even futile.

As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, if we can’t change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. We need to recognise our spheres of influence and control. Adaptation is the key here, if we don’t want to abandon our ambitions for the future. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.

What might adaptation look like for you? On a personal level, this shift may take many forms. The first thing may simply be realising that your ambitions have to take a backseat for a while, as you deal with other more pressing issues of health and survival. Maybe the industry you’re in has taken a hit and you need to reskill or update your network. Perhaps you can use your skills for alternative purposes right now – joining a hackathon to generate solutions for global issues or participating in a community action group. Maybe adaptation is more radical and involves downsizing your house, moving to a cheaper place or committing to buying less stuff in order to keep you buoyant through difficult times. Maybe it means leaning on others and admitting vulnerability.

Above all else, we need to include compassion in this process of change – for ourselves and for others and acknowledge that the situation is hard. These are exceptional times we’re living in now – history in the making. It’s natural and normal to feel fearful. It’s ok to worry about negative possibilities and the idea of unfulfilled ambitions. But don’t go down a rabbit hole here. Keep in mind the power of hope and how to cultivate it. Be ready to adapt, even radically if necessary. Look for the silver lining. Maybe it’s not actually silver but dirty grey. Look for it anyway because with a bit (or maybe a lot) of polishing, it will reveal itself eventually. Courage!

Behind the Digital Curtain: a cross-cultural study of academic identities, liminalities and labour market adaptations for the ‘Uber-isation’ of HE

Dr Hilary Collins

In this post blog, Dr Hilary Collins, Senior Lecturer with Executive Education, discusses ‘Behind the Digital Curtain’, a paper co-authored with OU colleague Dr Hayley Glover and former colleague Fran Myers, now at the University of Manchester. This was recently published in the ‘Teaching in Higher Education’ academic journal. A further study is now underway exploring the impact of Covid-19 on the increasingly digitised teaching role.

Opportunities and challenges presented by digital teaching have been rising for a generation now. Lecturers have applied themselves to new platforms and practices since initial interest from individual academics started to gather traction for an online complement to study, to today’s ubiquity of digital equivalence in a higher education student experience. These online teaching and learning practices have brought many benefits for students, including greater reach and greater resources for today’s mobile learners and a reduction of barriers to accessibility. Benefits to those teaching online have also been seen in the ability to engage with and challenge students in different ways as lecturers have invested in their own skills and practices.

As universities adopted the positive outcomes of such practices, investment was made in teaching staff competence in new ways of working required. Benefits of time saving and focus on teaching rather than manual administration were sold (rather than expected cost saving for universities), with lecturers reflecting on both new ways of one-to-many communication and engagement and personal skills required. This reorientation provided the first of our studies undertaken for Teaching in Higher Education, ‘The Automation Game: technological retention activities and perceptions on changes to tutors’ roles and identity’ (Myers, Collins, Glover and Watson, 2019).

Much of this work was focused on the practicalities of adapting to a digital working life, both from institution and lecturers, as they considered new skills necessary, and unlearning required from former routines and practices. However, other pockets of meanings kept popping up during the dialogues in the focus groups, and a sense of identity development through new forms of work appeared underway from participants. These developments were highly fragmented, indicating teachers testing out and tentatively experimenting with new ideas and alternate perceptions of selfhood. Both a sense of purpose behind new skills and routines and the group environment saw discussions drifting back to the practicalities of digital teaching.

Having undertaken the initial study, as researchers we were struck by ideas on how new identities were developing but wanted to give them space and time to unfold in exploration. It seemed a relevant place for study but how to get people to focus on, and surface such fragmented stories of self was a challenge. Our study used photographic techniques for the explicit purpose of drawing out these plastic and mutable oral stories into more linear formats.

We found that along the way between our first study and second that many developments for digital teachers were snowballing around other issues for today’s workforce, including the rise of precarious and piecemeal work practices and the normalisation of different forms of employment. We had undertaken a study in two universities expecting to find differences in approaches, rather than a commonality of digital identity work we uncovered. While contributions such as the 2017 Taylor report acknowledged both the drivers and the necessity for effective management of digital working practices, it was those rising discourses around the emotional labour of becoming such a worker that interested us. Seeing applicability from other studies that divided the digital, liminal and precarious from their embodied counterparts provided the basis of our investigation, and an insight into life behind a largely unseen ‘digital curtain’ in higher education.

Our paper raises important questions about the onus of responsibility and future policy making for contingent workers. There is a need in the digital age to both confront and respond to perceptions of what these flexible arrangements may mean in practice for workforce’s. However, while resonant with practical recommendations for the importance of fairness and dignity in future workplaces, as heralded by a fourth industrial revolution, emotional aspects of such labour remain largely unstudied. Competitive advantage from these new business models may yet regulated by government legislation to facilitate this in a positive way.

At the individual level, reductions in tenured roles coupled with eroding contractual rights and trends towards hourly-paid teaching have resulted in precarious work and associated practices. Uncertainty of the digital workspace, in parallel with supervisory increases has resulted in teaching, appearing in some cases as reduced to mechanistic, process-driven approaches riven with emotional labour. We appear to be losing academia as a critique of society while the efforts by teachers are diverted towards being compliant with frantic attempts to ‘belong’ to a profession despite an othered status.

However, we also noted a secondary picture as some teachers spoke of successful coping mechanisms emerging in some cases, where teachers were starting to instigate spontaneous, online groups which replicate the physical events of ‘water cooler’ moments through supportive virtual networks. These online meetings, acting as a form of compensation to the physical are being undertaken on a personal, or social level, largely unseen by their employers.

Universities are starting to recognise symptoms and actions from a precarious and increasingly digitised academic workforce. Within the changing landscape of today’s digital age and the associated macro-environmental drivers for change, educators are impelled to explore these new horizons and perspectives in education. This needs to be balanced with ongoing evaluation of the impact of such teaching strategies and developing ways and means of supporting teachers as individuals and members of an academic community. This has never been more relevant than now when due to the Covid-19 pandemic more and more universities are asking academics to change their pedagogy to distance learning.

Learning at Work Week – It’s more important than you know

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”


Liz Moody is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Executive Education at The Open University Business School. Here she talks about the relevance and importance of Learning at Work Week, and lifelong learning.

One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us all is that the world can change almost overnight and with it our way of life.  Whatever the “new normal” turns out to be post-Covid19, the ability to prepare for and adapt to change with resilience are important survival skills for the 21st Century and learning is integral to that.  The good news is that ALL learning is worthwhile and the benefits can accumulate over time for you and your employer.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. Uncertainty and Volatility: As Covid-19 has shown us, things can change quickly. We can’t always predict it or how it will impact on us.  The demand for jobs and the skills required to fulfil them can quickly switch as the circumstances change around us.  Think of who in society are currently referred to as “key workers”.  We are all having to learn how to care for our own health as well as others and some are having to learn how to teach or adapt to working with new technologies. Think too about the businesses surviving lockdown and the adaptation that has been required.
  2. Employability: The uncertain and likely precarious future of work and careers means we will all need to keep learning to remain employable.  It is extremely unlikely that people starting their careers now will remain in the same role, with the same employer doing the same things in the same way for the rest of their working lives.  We will have to learn new things to remain employable.  Some changes will be imposed by trends in technology, legislation and attitudes amongst society and customers, and others will be enforced by economic conditions and decisions by employers about how they will respond to challenges.
  3. Leveraging knowledge and experience:   You may well wonder how much of what you learned in school and other early education or training still applies. Will what you know now prepare you for 10 years’ time for a future we can’t even imagine?  The good news is that when we keep learning whether for work, for interest, out of curiosity or to develop a talent or ability, it benefits our brains. By learning, we encourage neuroplasticity which is the brain’s way of organising and re-organising the neurons (nerve cells) to make new connections. The brain responds to new stimuli to our senses and situations by strengthening connections we use to remodel itself and powering down those we don’t need.  The old adage, use it or lose it applies up to a point.  The good news is that none of this learning accumulate is wasted. It is only “stood down” until we need it.1

What does this have to do with Learning At Work Week (LAWW)?

Being curious, it seems, makes the brain more receptive to learning and can even make learning more rewarding for the learner as well as more memorable.2   In a study by Gruber et al (2014) brain activity was enhanced during states of intrigue and curiosity suggesting a link between curiosity and the neurotransmitter dopamine in the same areas of the brain that provide a “feel-good” factor in other contexts.  

The Open University Business School has supported LAWW for many years.  In keeping with its principles of being open to ideas, widening access to education and lifelong learning we are proud to support the endeavours of organisations large and small in encouraging their employees to make learning a focus for at least one week each year.  The creative and imaginative programmes have featured everything from sign language, typing competitions, to world cafes that encourage collaboration to putting sustainability and social value at the heart of the business.  The fun activities are designed to stimulate activity, create a sense of togetherness and to break down silos and hierarchies by involving people far and wide in novel and interesting ways.  People from different learning backgrounds and knowledge areas join forces to teach and learn from each other.  The benefits go beyond morale.

LAWW is an ideal opportunity to challenge yourself, gain a new perspective and in the process have fun and enhance your own productivity by networking, team-building and engaging with others who will help you to add to your knowledge and skills.

Be the Change You Want to See in the World

Mahatma Gandhi

The human race has adapted to change over thousands of years. Some of the major changes we will make in our lives overall and specifically our working lives, will come about as a result of nature, like disease and climate, where others could be the result of human endeavour. Up till now it is scientific discoveries, technological developments, artistic creations, engineering and design developments, human rights activism and industrial revolutions that have changed how we live and relate to each other, as well as how we work and experience the world. As the Heraclites quote suggests, once these changes impact on us, or we become aware of them, in some way we are changed forever. Enjoy LAWW in the knowledge that as Gandhi suggests, while life changes are inevitable, by initiating personal change, no matter if they seem small at the time, we are not only becoming more accomplished individuals, but also building our capacity to rise to challenges.

Learning at Work Week takes place in May every year. It is coordinated by the Campaign for Learning and is led by companies and organisations in their workplaces. Find our LAWW 2020 resources on our OU Business School dedicated page.


  1. Mercola “Use It or Lose It — the Principles of Brain Plasticity” referenced 14 May 2020
  2. Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D. & Ranganath, C., 2014. States of curiosity modulate hippocampusdependent learning via dopaminergic circuit. Neuron 84, October(22), pp. 486-496.

Making decisions during a pandemic

Prof. Mark Fenton-O’Creevy has been studying how high impact decisions get made in the face of uncertainty for nearly thirty years.

In this blog, he draws on this research and work with a national research network to consider decision-making during the Covid-19 crisis. He discusses the role of stories and emotions in how we think and what happens “when events no longer seem to fit the frames, categories and tools we have to understand them, as in the current pandemic”.

He argues that uncertainty is an emotional as well as a cognitive challenge and emphasises the importance of staying comfortable with ambivalence, doubt and not knowing to avoid decision traps.

Read more in Mark’s blog

Mark Fenton-O’Creevy is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at The Open University Business School. Mark’s research interests include Decision-Making, Radical Uncertainty, International Management, International HR, Financial Trading, Investment Psychology, Psychology of Financial Behaviour and Practice-Based Learning.

Social innovating for a better tomorrow

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how society can innovate at speed. And while the focus for now is on helping each other, this social innovation demonstrates how we can all make an impact. Let’s start thinking now about how we can use this to improve society going forward, says Professor George Frynas from The Open University Business School.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated – in a very short space of time – the great potential of social innovation to aid society. The European Commission guide to social innovation defines “social innovation as ‘the development and implementation of new ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations”.

We can just name a few of the recent innovations:

Companies are changing their delivery modes
Many retailers are turning to home deliveries. Health care providers and professionals are developing remote services for advising and monitoring patients at home. Arts and crafts schools are producing home kits. Gyms and fitness studios broadcast online classes. In China, Kuaishou – a social video platform valued at $28 billion – promoted online education offerings to compensate for school and university closures.

Companies are shifting production towards ventilators and other essential equipment
In North America, automotive suppliers are collaborating to produce ventilators. In many European countries, small businesses are turning to producing masks and other protective equipment. Different types of companies like US breweries including the giant Anheuser-Busch and Central-Eastern European oil companies including Poland’s Orlen are producing hand sanitisers.

Organisations are developing new technology solutions
In Italy, a 3D printing company called Isinnova quickly developed a design for producing plastic parts for hospital ventilators – much faster and cheaper to make than the industrial alternatives. The Austrian Red Cross has developed a phone app for virus contact tracing (pictured below), which alerts people about having come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus, and the app is now used by hundreds of thousands of people.

Austrian Red Cross Coronavirus app

These are desperate solutions in desperate times. What we are still missing is a future vision of how social innovations can help to avert the next pandemic and to make our world a safer place.

In the aftermath of previous epidemics such as avian flu, expert surveys suggested that the pharmaceutical sector is the key sector in terms of driving innovation related to pandemics and provides ‘the main pathway to mitigating the risk of a pandemic outbreak’ (Wallace and Ràfols, 2018). Pharmaceutical companies are, of course, at the forefront of developing vaccines and medical treatments. At the same time, the narrow profit motive of the pharmaceutical industry constrains innovation and the social impact of pharmaceutical companies.

Furthermore, in order to prevent and mitigate another pandemic, we will require government policy at the domestic and global levels, such as early warning systems, stockpiles of medical equipment, cross-border solidarity mechanisms and a reform of the World Health Organization. Government agencies can also play a key part in social innovation, for example through new types of budgetary processes and finance provision like dedicated innovation funds, hybrid financing models and financial incentives for successful innovation, and through creating public spaces for social innovation, such as the Korean idea of an Imagination Bank to draw in public ideas for improving public services and many other forms of democratic participation.

But social innovation can come from many other organisations, including charities, companies, universities, online groups and local community groups. There are many methods of social innovation, including open source soliciting of innovative ideas and ideas banks, donor platforms and other interactive platforms, social enterprises and other companies with a social mission, inter-household reciprocity and forms of local exchange, and so on. Universities could play an important role in this innovation process, through their research and experimentation, web-based platforms and alumni networks. At the Open University, for example, we have a wealth of experts in areas such as health and wellbeing, social enterprise, development studies and so on. This is the time for academics to start working together across disciplinary and other boundaries.

Today and now, we need to focus on how we can support each other in these difficult times. But we can all start to brainstorm about how we can innovate for a better world the day after tomorrow.

Jedrzej George Frynas is Professor of Strategic Management at The Open University Business School. He has published extensively on topics in strategic management, international business and corporate social responsibility (CSR) and has authored/co-authored four books and over 40 academic articles.

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.

Business Network Breakfast Briefing: Work and Meaning

Why do we work? What does work mean to you?

Have you ever wondered why some people get so much satisfaction from their job while others never seem to be very engaged or motivated? Is it something that we have inside of us or are we influenced by external factors? If it’s within us, then how do we tap into this for our own benefit? Is there anything we can do as leaders to support this? If it is externally influenced then how do we as leaders or people managers use this knowledge to improve workplace engagement and the gains that arise from that to our organisations.

Liz Moody has for many years been interested in how to release the potential in people and the organisations they work in. She has variously tried to understand performance, effective team leadership and employee engagement. In looking at many of the ways organisations and managers seek to organise work, she has concluded that perhaps we are looking in the wrong places for answers to the wrong questions.

A book written 50 years ago by Studs Terkel about working people and how they think and feel about work prompted curiosity about how we derive meaning from work. In this briefing we explored where this meaning comes from and why it might be important. Liz also considered what it is that leaders do (and sometimes don’t) that has an impact on how people think and feel about work.

Watch the recording.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool, using #breakfastbriefing.

Business Network Breakfast Briefing: Managing non-market risk to foreign investments: do nothing or manage actively?

The latest Business Network Breakfast Briefing saw Dr Anna John use examples from all over the world as she explored three approaches to managing political risks to foreign investments. The Lecturer in Strategic Management presented her research and took questions at the Milton Keynes campus on Tuesday 9 April.


Her presentation, ‘Managing non-market risk to foreign investments: do nothing or manage actively?’, explored these different approaches with examples from countries as varied as Mozambique to China, India to Russia – with the UK and its never-ending Brexit another good source – helping to bring the theory alive.

Non-market risk comprises social risks (for example, nationalist movements and environmental protests) and political risks (for example, political regime change and regulatory uncertainty). Arguably, social activity of organisations, groups and individuals is more visible so social risks are relatively easier to predict and manage. Managing political risks is more of a challenge as the lack of information about political actions and intentions of organisations and governments makes it more difficult to make sense of these risks.

I wanted to focus on how, if at all, political risk should be managed relating to foreign direct investments. What is better: to ‘do nothing’ or to manage actively?

Dr Anna John, Lecturer in Strategic Management, OUBS

Two views – traditional, and modern – exist on what companies should do. The traditional view says political risk has negative implications for the performance of foreign direct investments and is largely defined by actions of governments (for example, protectionist policies). It should be avoided, meaning any investments into highly risky areas should be avoided too.

The modern view, which emerged in the early 1990s, suggests that political risk does not always have negative implications for the performance of organisations; instead, it may be a source of opportunities. Organisations can manage political risk and use it to their benefit.

Anna explored these two views in suggesting three approaches to political risk management of foreign direct investments: institutions approach (reactive), resources and capabilities approach (proactive) and resource dependence approach (active).

The institutions approach suggests that organisations passively react to pressures of political and regulatory institutions and ‘do nothing’. They either passively comply with the existing legislation, or avoid investing into a new and unfamiliar area; for instance, some US-listed companies are expected to comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977) and may not invest in some African and Asian countries where corruption is high.

The resources and capabilities approach suggests that organisations can proactively manage political risk and turn it their advantage by using political resources and capabilities. For instance, companies may benefit from prior experience of working in politically risky contexts (political resource) and from the ability to use this experience to make sense of new politically risky contexts (political capability). Some companies from politically risky environments like Russia, China and South Africa invest actively in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The third resource dependence approach is a midway option with its major assumption that organisations are not autonomous; instead, they are dependent on resources of others. Like the institutions approach, this focuses on the negative implications but, like the resources and capabilities approach, suggests that organisations can manage political risk by managing their resources dependence upon others.

Reducing resource dependence by gaining control over key strategic resources is a possible strategy. For example, some newcomers to the Mozambican oil and gas sector such as Qatar Petroleum gain access to its key onshore and offshore blocks by partnering with more experienced firms with established ties to key government officials to lead the bidding process. This reduces dependence upon the government officials in the petroleum sector of the country.”

Dr Anna John, Lecturer in Strategic Management, OUBS

The effectiveness of these approaches varies from one context to another:

  • The institutions approach is more effective in places such as China and Russia where institutions are well defined and homogenous, and where the central authority is rather strong.
  • The resources and capabilities approach may be more effective in volatile places such as Venezuela and Ukraine.
  • The resource dependence approach may work better in the USA and India, and somewhere like Mozambique, which have divisions due to federal structure and ethnic differences.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive or in conflict with each other; they can complement and be used in combination with each other.

The Breakfast Briefings are a series of face-to-face events, as part of The Open University Business Network. These events aim to foster collaboration and create an opportunity to explore together the latest and best of business thinking. We understand business and want to help your business flourish by sharing our insights into leadership and management at this series of collaborative events. In between briefings, why not join in on LinkedIn.

Big data, CSR and sustainability

Big data - glasses (source - Pexels photo 577585)Big data analytics seems entirely absent in research on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. Yet the potential of big data to advance environmental and social concerns is enormous.

Big data analytics is about analysing very large structured datasets (e.g. those drawn from financial records and stock exchanges) and unstructured datasets (e.g. those generated by emails, tweets and GPS signals) that often cannot be analysed using traditional statistical methods. It opens up entirely new possibilities for spotting previously unnoticed patterns and anomalies.

In our research published in the British Journal of Management last year, we found that big data capabilities of managers are linked to higher sustainability of their organization. We surveyed 175 top management representatives (chief executive officers and managing directors) in food import and export firms headquartered in the UK and New Zealand. Our results from structural equation modelling indicated that big data competencies of top managers help towards environmental practices. What we still do not know is what specific technical or relational big data competencies would be best to advance sustainable practices and how.

What is the potential of big data in sustainability?

There is exponential growth of big data volumes driven by technology advances and lower equipment costs. Let us take a few practical examples from the oil and gas sector that I am familiar with. For example, Chevron’s Tengiz oil field in Kazakhstan has about one million sensors. Combined with real-time weather data and other types of data, big data generated by such equipment can be used to provide near-real-time alerts and help prevent accidents. Similarly, big data from safety inspections, location devices and drone photography can be used to develop predictive analytics to improve safety. In the area of transportation, for example, Devon Energy in the United States apply big data analytics to monitor the speed and location of their vehicle fleet and the need to evacuate workers in areas where hydrogen sulphide is located.

Big data has also been used in human development. The UN established Global Pulse, a big data lab in New York with satellite offices in Kampala and Jakarta. For example, in Indonesia, Global Pulse applied mobile phone data to understand food price fluctuations, and in Uganda, population movements. Non-governmental organizations and initiatives – particularly in health services – are also using big data (e.g. Médecins sans Frontières, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative).

Indeed, the donation of data by companies (or ‘data philanthropy’) has become a CSR activity by itself. For example, IBM and other companies regularly host ‘Open Data’ events (‘jams’ and ‘hackathons’) in which governments, NGOs and companies are encouraged to release data that can be used for some social or environmental purposes.

In a few countries, there is also some regulatory pressure for big data adoption. In the United States, the Deepwater Horizon disaster influenced debates about better process indicators for improving health and safety in offshore oil drilling. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) requires offshore oil drillers to monitor critical safety equipment in real time and then archive the related data onshore – which generates huge volumes of data. More indirectly, government mandates for energy efficiency, climate change and other environmental restrictions have spurred some companies to use big data analytics towards environmental improvements.

So why is so little work done to apply big data?

There are open-source applications such as Apache Hadoop and IBM’s BigSheets that have made big data analytics more accessible to individuals and organizations around the world. So why is so little work being done to apply big data analytics for sustainability?

Big data - computer room photo

Part of the explanation may be that a lot of good work may remain unnoticed under the radar screen. Despite the attraction of the topic, the academic community and some popular media outlets do not seem to find this of interest, or perhaps the researchers and writers may feel out of their depth in writing about big data.

Another part of the explanation is that companies have largely focused on big data analytics to improve financial performance, for example, by mining customer data to help sell more products, applying big data analytics to effectively manage inventories or – in the example of the oil sector – using data from sensors to facilitate exploration and production operations.

CSR and sustainability seem to have been left behind. When I spoke with a number of CSR advisers in the oil and gas sector recently and tried to get their companies to support my research, I was told things like ‘I couldn’t sell this to my boss’. However, if you really want to tackle sustainability in new ways, you sometimes need to move outside of your comfort zone. This is what I have done.

Prof. J. George Frynas is Professor of Strategic Management at the Open University Business School. This blog is partly based on the article “Essential Micro-Foundations for Contemporary Business Operations: Top Management Tangible Competencies, Relationship-Based Business Networks and Environmental Sustainability”, British Journal of Management, 29(1), 43-62, 2018. Contact George.

Recording available: Business Network Breakfast Briefing: The challenge of smart contracts

Our Business Network Breakfast Briefing: The challenge of smart contracts took place on 29 November 2018.

The aim of this briefing was to explore some of the challenges that smart contracts pose to business as well as law, beginning with what is perhaps the most contentious issue of all: what should we be calling them?

Our presenter was Dr Robert Herian, Senior Lecturer in Law, from The Open University Law School and was facilitated by Professor Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, OUBS.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool, using #breakfastbriefing.

Event – Business Network Breakfast Briefing: The challenge of smart contracts

The Open University Business Network and Business Perspectives Programme are here to share insights to help your business flourish.

This Breakfast Briefing will be led by Dr Robert Herian, Senior Law Lecturer at The Open University Law School.

What’s in a name? The challenge of smart contracts
When’s a contract not a contract? When it’s a smart contract! I think we can all agree that’s not much of a punchline. But then smart contracts are not really a joke, or rather we shouldn’t treat them as such. Even if we suspend judgement on whether or not smart contracts and the wider blockchain architecture that supports them is “revolutionary” or “disruptive”, the reality is that smart contracts, at least as a concept, are affecting the global contractual landscape by forcing a reappraisal of fundamentals such as: what is a contract, what must a contract do, and who gets to decide?

The aim of this briefing is to explore some of the challenges that smart contracts pose to business as well as law, beginning with what is perhaps the most contentious issue of all: what should we be calling them?

The event will be held at The Open University’s campus in Milton Keynes with breakfast served at 08:00. The presentation will start at 08:30 – 09:30 with an opportunity for networking at the end.

Places are limited so please book early. Visit the website for more details and to book.