MBA Research

Action Briefs

We learn a lot from the business community and want to share that with you in our Action Briefs that highlight business trends and their impact on the workplace and curriculum.

As we learn from the business community, we want to share that information with our community of educators and business professionals. One trend our recent business focus panels highlighted is the growth of green jobs and the rising demand for green skills to fill those jobs. The following Action Brief is a synthesis of panel participants’ insights and findings from additional research.
It’s no surprise that climate change and environmental concern is top of mind for scientists, governments, and businesses alike. Building a sustainable, viable future depends on our actions and decisions today. Increasingly, that looks like living, and working, in a green way.
Green is a term that refers to sustainability, conservation, and environmental friendliness. From small scale recycling efforts to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adopting company-wide renewable energy programs, green initiatives are impacted by individual action and corporate enterprise.
Green is good not only for the environment—it’s often an integral part of a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR), or a business’s duty to contribute to the wellbeing of society. According to Pacific Oaks College’s article “Breaking Down the 4 Types of Corporate Social Responsibility,” CSR is often divided into four pillars:

  • Economic responsibility, or making financial decisions that aim to do good (and not just make money)
  • Ethical responsibility, which means engaging in fair business practices with customers, employees, and stakeholders
  • Philanthropic responsibility, or giving back to the community in which a company exists
  • Environmental responsibility, which involves embracing environmentally friendly processes and leadership holding the company accountable for its environmental impact
Customers today don’t simply purchase a product—they’re interested in the company’s culture, philanthropic efforts, carbon footprint, and more. A company’s sourcing practices, facilities efficiency, and environmental impact matters to many consumers.
In fact, Carolyn Fortuna of CleanTechnica argues that “sustainability is no longer a nice-to-have but, rather, a strategic necessity and business imperative. Pressure is mounting for all organizations to be more socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable.”
It’s not just businesses, either. Green skills, which are the knowledge and abilities needed to support sustainable outcomes, are in high demand. According to LinkedIn’s Global Green Skills Report 2022, hiring for these skills grew globally by almost 40% from 2015 to 2021.
Green skills include the following:
  • Agricultural sustainability research
  • Energy engineering
  • Health and safety environmental policy skills
  • Product lifecycle management
  • Sustainable investing

However, Karin Kimbrough, Chief Economist at LinkedIn, notes that green skills extend beyond conventional green jobs. She explains that LinkedIn, in its review of studies and skills, included “not only skills that people in traditional ‘green’ jobs have, but also skills that people in ‘non-green’ jobs use to do their jobs in a greener way (think sustainable fashion or sustainable investment).”
Many green skills are specialized and fall under typical green occupations, like ecologists and solar panel installers. However, LinkedIn’s reporting reveals some of the fastest-growing green jobs are found in a variety of industries, such as construction managers and technical sales representatives. Green skills are both found and required in a wide range of professions.
While demand for green skills grew at 8% annually over the past five years, LinkedIn’s reporting reveals that green talent has grown at about 6% annually. Kimbrough notes that “this is a significant missed opportunity for the planet and for workers.” Companies and industries want green talent, but there aren’t enough people to go around. This is the green talent gap.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), “skills gaps and shortages are already recognized as a major bottleneck in a number of sectors, such as renewable energy, energy and resource efficiency, renovation of buildings, construction, environmental services, and manufacturing.” These shortages are exacerbated by delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ILO continues: “The availability of workers and enterprises with the right skills for green jobs plays not only a critical role in initiating the transition to a green economy, but also in enabling a just transition that ensures social inclusion and decent work.” It’s vital that “employers investing in new technologies need to be able to find workers with the right skills.”
To address the green talent gap and future-fit their workforce, businesses are focusing on upskilling and reskilling. In “Upskilling, Reskilling and Preparing for the Future,” Nicole Schreiber-Shearer explains that upskilling focuses on “helping employees become more knowledgeable and develop new competencies that relate to their current position, while reskilling is about equipping workers to switch lanes and move into new roles within your organization.” Upskilling deepens an employee’s job-related skills, while reskilling prepares employees for a different job or industry.
Technology is key to bridge the gap between green supply and demand. In Axios’s article “The Green Talent Gap Is Widening,” Kimbrough notes how green jobs “tend to go hand in hand with technology… Those two are the twin transformers of the jobs market. Things are getting greener and more digital.” To stay relevant, workers should adapt and build their digital skillsets. Employers should focus on providing up-to-date training to foster highly skilled workers. The transition to a green economy is already underway—will today’s employers, employees, and culture grow to meet the demand?

Resources for Further Learning:

Discussion Questions:
  • Unpack the term corporate social responsibility. Should businesses be obligated to contribute to society’s well-being? What do we gain from this duty? What, if anything, do we stand to lose?
  • Given the increased demand from consumers for “green” businesses, is there a likelihood that corporations will overstate (or “greenwash”) their commitment to sustainable business practices? Why or why not?
  • Discuss the impact of upskilling and reskilling on the growing green talent gap. Will either of these practices significantly help bridge the talent gap? Will one do so more than the other? Should there be additional ways that we aim to “future-fit” our workforce?

Part One: Personas and the Hyper-Personalization Evolution

During a series of focus groups MBA Research and Curriculum Center conducted in Fall of 2021, leaders in digital marketing discussed the rising importance of technology-powered hyper-personalization and its impact on personas, privacy, and the future of business. The following Action Brief is a synthesis of their insights and findings from additional research. It is part one of a three-part series on digital marketing called The Growing Significance of AI-Powered Hyper-Personalization in Digital Marketing.

This week, we’ll discuss marketing personas and the hyper-personalization evolution. What are personas, anyway? In the early 1980s, software developer Alan Cooper described composite customer archetypes as “personas,” a term characterizing the identity and purchasing habits of a typical consumer within a target market. A persona profile seeks to describe an ‘imagined’ person and typically consists of a fictitious name, demographic information, and details about the person’s behavior, needs, wants, and goals. Check out this example from Patrick Faller’s article, “Putting Personas to Work in UX Design: What They Are and Why They’re Important”:

Essentially, personas translate the data into a story. 

Why are personas used?

Businesses use personas to understand how customers search for, purchase, and use products and/or services, which then enables companies to improve the buying experience. 

Personas are particularly useful for marketers, user experience (UX) designers, and anyone in the organization who handles customer data. The information about a persona’s current behaviors, goals, and expectations aids in product design and development. Personas help businesses relate to and empathize with their customers, then better satisfy their needs.

How are personas developed?

For a persona to be useful and reliable, it must be based in reality. Even though a persona is a semi-fictional character, it is created from real users and real experiences—not stereotypes—and gathered from a variety of sources, including focus groups, surveys, market research, and statistical analysis.

Organizations use data from publicly available sources, such as national statistical and demographic data, as well as the company’s customer data to develop distinct personas. Useful, nuanced personas are based on both customer interviews and hard data. The combination of both qualitative and quantitative data is vital for gleaning insightful behavioral patterns from the data. 

Doing so enables companies to increase customer retention and conversion. After developing these personas, researchers validate them and ensure relevancy by comparing with real customers on a regular basis.

The best personas are highly detailed, robust profiles that are built from a wealth of data. Businesses ultimately create personas to deliver unique, personalized customer experiences. As technology advances, organizations have access to more data than ever before.

Personalization vs. hyper-personalization

Personalization is the act of customizing an experience or communication to a specific individual or group based on the personal and transactional information gathered about that consumer. Think companies using your name in the subject line of an email. Hyper-personalization refers to the use of AI and behavioral data to customize user experiences in real time. Hyper-personalization goes beyond traditional personalization in its scope and power. 

According to the article “Hyper-Personalization: The Next Wave of Customer Engagement,” displaying only certain sections of a website depending on users or sending push notifications when customers are most active are examples of hyper-personalization in action. 

It’s important to mention that hyper-personalization isn’t industry specific. Consider the following examples of personalization from Kathleen Walch’s article “8 Examples of AI Personalization Across Industries”:

  • Content (e.g., personalized message boards at drive-throughs, personalized style recommendations on clothing sites)
  • Messaging (e.g., tailored email content, targeted messages)
  • Ad targeting (e.g., AI placing better ads based on real time factors like demographics, behaviors, and buying history)
  • Recommendations (e.g., machine learning algorithms develop more related and relevant recommendations in real time)
  • Websites (e.g., using big data to automatically customize content displayed on website by visitor based on site behavior, purchase data, repeat vs. first-time user, etc.)
  • AI-powered chatbots (e.g., gather comprehensive data and deeper insights from users)
  • Better customer sentiment analysis (e.g., help marketers identify true sentiment by observing and analyzing instead of generalizing and guessing)

The transition from personalization to hyper-personalization is largely powered by AI and Big Data.

Resources for Further Learning:

Reflection Questions:

  • Are there any ethical concerns with making assumptions about groups of people?
  • How can marketers and businesses engage in ethical persona development and tracking?
  • What guidelines should researchers follow to create user personas that are both fair and accurate?
  • How should companies balance fairness and trust from a consumer standpoint?


Part Two: Hyper-Personalization, Brought to You by Artificial Intelligence

During a series of focus groups MBA Research and Curriculum Center conducted in Fall of 2021, leaders in digital marketing discussed the rising importance of technology-powered hyper-personalization and its impact on personas, privacy, and the future of business. The following Action Brief is a synthesis of their insights and findings from additional research. It is part two of a three-part series on digital marketing called The Growing Significance of AI-Powered Hyper-Personalization in Digital Marketing.

Last week, we discussed marketing personas and the hyper-personalization evolution. Now, we’ll discuss the relationship between hyper-personalization and artificial intelligence.

To summarize:

  • Personalization is the act of customizing an experience or communication to a specific individual or group based on the personal and transactional information gathered about that consumer.
    • Think companies using your name in the subject line of an email.
  • Hyper-personalization refers to the use of AI and behavioral data to customize user experiences in real time.
    • Hyper-personalization goes beyond traditional personalization in its scope and power.
  • Examples of personalization include messaging, ad targeting, recommendations, AI-powered chatbots, and more.
  • The transition from personalization to hyper-personalization is largely powered by AI and Big Data.

What is AI?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of machines to simulate human thinking capabilities and execute tasks with limited human intervention. AI gives organizations the ability to analyze enormous amounts of data from a plethora of sources and draw conclusions in the blink of an eye.

Machine learning, a branch of AI, is the way in which a computer system builds its intelligence. Powerful computers analyze huge quantities of data, then create rules based on patterns. The computer tests those rules as algorithms on new data sets and improves its predictions as it learns. The machine learning system self-trains through experience.

How do companies use AI for hyper-personalization?

The field of AI enables organizations to create increasingly tailored, deeply personalized, unique user content to meet customers’ expectations for highly personalized experiences. AI and machine-learning applications model existing customer behaviors and preferences, then test different messaging content and styles, serving as a proxy for human focus groups, which means less money, time, and effort spent compared to using real people.

In addition, AI helps tailor personalization to real people and personal characteristics, not just models. Machine-learning systems gather the transactional and behavioral data from consumers, then decide which messaging and delivery methods work best for the specific persona. Businesses create baseline materials, then use AI to tailor to the specific customer. Tailored content and user experiences drive engagement, build customer loyalty, increase sales, and help companies better understand their customers, meaning they can craft better products and user experiences.

Using the speed and depth of information available from AI technology, businesses can create personalized content that matches customer preferences using profile data, location tracking, browsing history, and purchasing decisions.

Part of the challenge of omnichannel marketing, which focuses on delivering a consistent experience across all channels, devices, and platforms, is integrating consistent messaging across all points of contact (e.g., website, mobile apps, payment portals, etc.). It can be difficult to maintain consistency as devices and touch points change over time. AI addresses this issue by constantly updating personas with real-time information from customers gathered across channels.

What are the benefits for customers?

From the customer’s perspective, hyper-personalization simply makes life easier. Time is valuable, and the less time customers spend sifting through irrelevant content or repeating their concerns, the more likely they are to take action (e.g., make a purchase, contact the business, download a file, etc.). When it’s simple to solve a problem or find an answer, you’re much more likely to develop brand loyalty.

Think of your video or audio streaming services’ personalized “For You” recommendations, which are seamlessly integrated in the platform and at times seem to read your mind. According to Gibson Biddle’s extensive article, “A Brief History of Netflix Personalization,” the streaming service takes into account time of day, recent activity, platform, personalized visuals (movie artwork), percentage match, relevant filters, and more, all based on each individual customer’s preferences. Every time you open the app, try a new show, or switch back to an old favorite, Netflix is gathering data to further personalize your experience and keep you coming back.

As you can see, AI and machine learning applications are powerful technologies in any industry. They extend the reach of personalization, but we would be remiss not to mention the risks associated with the responsibility.

Resources for Further Learning:

Reflection Questions:

  • What factors should businesses consider when creating responsible AI practices?
  • How would you describe AI-enabled hyper-personalization to a friend?
  • What are some examples of personalization (and hyper-personalization) in your life (e.g., at school, at work, in extracurriculars, at home, etc.)? Have you ever experienced personalization that was too personal? Describe your experience.
  • Weigh pros and cons associated with machine learning.


Part Three: Ethical Implications

During a series of focus groups MBA Research and Curriculum Center conducted in Fall of 2021, leaders in digital marketing discussed the rising importance of technology-powered hyper-personalization and its impact on personas, privacy, and the future of business. The following Action Brief is a synthesis of their insights and findings from additional research. It is the final installment of a three-part series on digital marketing called The Growing Significance of AI-Powered Hyper-Personalization in Digital Marketing.

Last week, we discussed the relationship between hyper-personalization and artificial intelligence. Now, we’ll discuss the ethical implications of AI-powered hyper-personalization.

To summarize:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) gives organizations the ability to analyze enormous amounts of data from a plethora of sources and draw conclusions in the blink of an eye.
  • Machine learning, a branch of AI, is the way in which a computer system builds its intelligence.
    • The machine learning system self-trains through experience.
  • The field of AI enables businesses to create increasingly tailored, deeply personalized, unique user content to meet customers’ expectations for highly personalized experiences.
    • In addition, AI helps tailor personalization to real people and personal characteristics, not just models.
  • From the customer’s perspective, hyper-personalization simply makes life easier.

What are the risks and ethical considerations?

The benefits associated with AI technology and machine learning applications are clear. However, these tools carry their own set of unique challenges, risks, and ethical considerations. Keep in mind that AI is a relatively new technology, still in its infancy—its evolution and development is ongoing.

A major risk surrounding AI technology concerns regulatory compliance and data privacy. Data protection legislation like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU, California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and other laws regulate online privacy rights. Other concerns include ethical data use and sharing and working with sensitive data safely. For example, researchers must use anonymized behavioral data from website browsing. Consumers need to be able to trust that companies aren’t misusing their private information. It’s crucial to balance data security and privacy with digital personalization.

Persona tracking involves gathering the information necessary to create accurate, detailed user personas without veering into privacy violations and the ‘uncanny valley.’ The uncanny valley is the relationship between an object’s degree of resemblance to a human and the emotional response it evokes. Humanlike robots are fine up to a certain point, then they make us feel uneasy. The same experience occurs with data: there’s a fine line between useful digital personalization and the uneasiness of a computer knowing too much information.

Other limitations of AI for hyper-personalization include its high cost, program complexity, requirement of large amounts of data and power, and enormous investment in the data, tools, and technology. AI also has drawback when it comes to nuance and discernment. AI programs can’t always read subtle signs and make the subjective or qualitative judgments that people can understand through personal contact.

Another concern is the lack of control. There is little human control involved in machine learning algorithms. Some machine learning and AI algorithms use black box models, which are created directly from data and in a way in which humans often cannot understand how it works. These systems are opaque, meaning their methods are not transparent or straightforward. This opens the door for serious ethical concerns. Just like humans, AI can make mistakes. It’s important to be aware of the potential for bias and prejudice (both taught and programmed) in artificial intelligence.

AI is created by humans with their own biases—it is not an impartial technology. To be used in an ethical manner, the technology needs to be fair and transparent. According to “Rethinking Personas for Fairness: Algorithmic Transparency and Accountability in Data-Driven Personas,” organizations should clearly identify how their data was collected, as well as the limitations of their data collection methods. It’s important that companies use both qualitative and quantitative information—relying purely on quantifiable information can create a skewed picture. Researchers should consider outliers and marginalized groups when using data-driven personas and emphasize diversity within the personas.

Living in harmony

It’s clear the relationship between AI and humans is a complementary one: Our capacity for strategic thinking, creativity, and empathy balances the data-processing, hyper-personalization capabilities of AI. Hyper-personalization technology is woven into the future of business—the challenge is to what extent. With great power comes great responsibility. The key to successful, ethical data-driven personalization is a balance between technology and human touch, between privacy and personalization. We’re looking forward to tracking this trend and seeing how the relationship develops over time and technological progress.     

Resources for Further Learning:

Reflection Questions:

  • Discuss the “uncanny valley” and its effect on AI personalization.
  • Explore the conflict between the customer desire for increasingly personalized experiences versus the limitations and legality of consumer privacy.
  • Consider ethics from a rule of law lens: Is there a difference between what is legal and what is ethical? Where do we draw that line? Who draws it?
  • Think about algorithmic bias: Is technology ever truly impartial and unbiased? If not, how should we address bias and prejudice in technology?
  • Consider the impact of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the context of AI and technology.
  • How can businesses create an ethical partnership of humans and artificial intelligence?
  • What sort of transparency should exist within the black box of machine learning? How can businesses and technology companies enhance open, honest communication about their research methods and study limitations?


It’s not a secret that the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on chief financial officers (CFOs) this past year, elevating their role in organizations across industries. In this Action Brief, we take a look at what factors have caused this shift and what this important role is focusing on in 2021 and in the years to come.

Earlier this spring, we attended a webinar where we learned firsthand from CFOs in major businesses about how they were called upon to be more vocal during the early weeks and months of the pandemic. As the year continued, so did the challenges that necessitated visionary responses across all aspects of their businesses.

Intrigued, we did a little more digging and discovered a trove of articles confirming what we had heard in the webinar. So, what drove the changes? One word—survival. As businesses closed up physical office spaces almost overnight and sent their employees home to work, a lot of things needed to happen quickly to maintain financial business operations and to keep people employed. As a result, many CFOs grappled with the following:

  • Transitioning from the role of monitoring overall financial operations and investments to thinking strategically about how to stay afloat on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis; keeping people safe and employed became priority number one.
  • Shifting to new communication methods and collaboration tools meant training staff on these virtual tools while simultaneously establishing safety and data privacy policies and norms for employees to follow
  • Safeguarding data in remote work environments included managing risk related to cloud computing and assessing additional threats of cyber hacking
  • For businesses still staffing frontline workers, investments in cleaning and protecting their employees’ health (e.g., providing employees with PPE) quickly became a priority.

Long-Term Investments and Projections for Growth on Hold

Due to sales and supply chain disruptions, CFOs were called upon to strategically navigate cash flow on a daily and weekly basis rather than monthly or quarterly. Cash has been and still is king during the pandemic; CFOs spoke about holding back at the beginning of the pandemic in order to accelerate business investment as they start to come out of the pandemic—to return to pre-pandemic levels or to respond to pent-up demand. For now, planning for an entire year or any long-term investments for growth are most likely on hold as businesses continue to watch the macroeconomics of the vaccine rollout locally, nationally, and globally.

New Budget Line Items and Shifting Resource Allocations

  • Many CFOs believe that companies will need to budget for the health and well-being of their employees going forward; this is a new expense that is probably here to stay.
  • Data security policies need to be enhanced to recognize the additional dangers/challenges of remote work.
  • Education and training for employees on these policies needs to continue and be enhanced to keep data secure.
  • Investment in learning about the threats of hacking (prevention) and the development of cyber recovery plans (response)

New Technology Investments

  • Investment in communication and collaboration tools—as well as education for employees on using these tools
  • HR interface for onboarding/offboarding, orientation, training: the need for keeping employee information secure when everything is online
  • ARP systems needing to be secure, and connected, with dashboards for easier viewing on a daily/weekly basis to make decisions about cash flow and investments
  • Cloud computing—understanding how it can help with growth and reduce overheads; some basic knowledge is needed to strategically work with CTOs and developers; must understand the risks involved when making decisions on which way to go
  • The changing landscape of the payments industry—knowing the different payment gateways, choosing the best one for your business, and implementing it with few disruptions to customers and transactions

Overall Economic Changes Impacting the CFO Role

The boom-and-bust cycle has been shortening since the U.S. housing market crash in 2008, so CFOs need to be more strategically involved rather than simply monitoring cash flow and investments. Weathering a long bust (such as that brought on by COVID-19) after a short burst of growth takes strategic diversification. With the pandemic, this has meant preparing for possible future lockdowns or new disruptions to trade, manufacturing, and distribution. Knowing one’s industry and how to prepare for the inevitable next big challenge can mean the difference between company survival and failure.

2021 and Beyond

It’s going to be a while before we see a return to normal; 2021 will be a transitionary year because businesses are still looking at meeting needs rather than big-picture planning and forecasting. Some projections are saying that the pandemic will be affecting businesses for the next 2+ years.

In terms of future investments and fulfilling stakeholder demands, businesses have additional stakeholders to consider now. In addition to being available to and watched by their investors, business metrics are more widely available and being watched by employees, customers, and regulators. More qualitative KPIs such as safety regulations, workforce impact, and alignment to corporate strategy need to be considered to address these new stakeholder interests going forward.

Classroom Implications

Imagine that you were the chief financial officer of a medium-sized business with about 80 on-site employees this past year. What skills did you need to employ to make many quick decisions and changes in your business? As the CFO, why do you think these decisions and responsibilities fell on your shoulders rather than another position in the company?

What does it mean when we say that companies quickly shifted to day-to-day cash management and “cash is king,” versus projecting and investing for longer-term growth? Describe some examples of supply chain disruption that caused companies to be hyper-focused on cash reserves.

What sorts of challenges does new technology create? And then, what efficiencies does new technology create?

What is a boom-and-bust cycle? How do you think companies operate differently in each cycle when it comes to their financial management?

Links for further learning:

Finance Derivative: “The Evolving Role of the Chief Financial Officer in 2020”
Financial Management: “The Pandemic’s Effect on CFO Tenure”
CFO Dive: “CFO Role Has Grown During Pandemic: Accenture”, “4 CFO Lessons From the pandemic”
CFO: “CFOs Respond Rapidly to Pandemic”
Accounting Today: “Pandemic Forces CFOs To Manage Financial Liquidity Better”
Wealth Monaco: “CFO’s Capital Allocation Strategy Shift After Covid”

Nearly a year ago, many office employees might have thought their work-from-home situations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic would last two or three months. Fast-forward to January 2021. COVID-19 case numbers are still significantly high. Unfortunately, many businesses have closed permanently. Many remaining (and thriving) businesses are fully remote and have decided to remain so indefinitely. But still others are taking a wait-and-see approach on their return to the office as the pandemic continues to unfold.

Luckily, vaccinations are underway, but the question remains for businesses that have had limited office access since last March: How and when is it safe to return?

Vaccinations Requirements?

Vaccinations might play a large part in how a business decides it is time for employees to return to the office.

In an interview with NPR, Johnny Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said businesses would be within their rights to require employees to be vaccinated before coming back to the office. Taylor cited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) laws, which mandate that employers provide a safe environment for their workers, as the reason. He also said there could be exceptions for “sincerely held religious belief” under Title VII or disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the need for a safe workplace means most workers should be vaccinated.

Office Life

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourage employers to create their own health and safety plans. It also encourages open and clear communication with workers about changes in their work procedures or environment. Some widely suggested safety measures employers can take are as follows:

  • Consider extended workdays with staggered work hours, or blended remote/in-office schedules for employees.
  • Besides requiring masks to be worn in the office, make sure air filtering systems and ventilation meet CDC and OSHA guidelines.
  • Evaluate the potential redesign of workspaces and communal areas to provide recommended distances, and clean these areas frequently.
    • Consider providing outdoor work or meeting spaces if possible.
    • Think of open spaces as possibilities for meetings rather than enclosed conference rooms.
  • Require employees who feel sick to stay home. If COVID-19 is suspected, have them get tested and follow CDC isolating/quarantining guidelines.
  • Encourage employees to help each other follow recommended guidelines and report safety violations to management if they can’t be resolved on the spot. This may sound harsh initially, but this is not the time for “Don’t ask, don’t tell” behavior.
  • Develop business travel-related policies for employees conducting out-of-town work.

Lastly, fears and misinformation can easily lead to biased behavior in the workplace. Be sure that diversity and inclusion strategies are considered as you implement COVID-related policies. 

Just as beginning to work from home was an adjustment, the same is true for resuming office work. In a piece for LinkedIn, Susy Jackson wrote that employers should “give employees a reason to return to the office.” And once they are there, employers should provide continued flexibility and a period for acclimation and adjustment.

Classroom Implications

  • Think back to a previous or current work or volunteer experience (if applicable) since the coronavirus pandemic began. Did you feel safe in your environment? If not, what measures could have been taken to improve safety?
  • Imagine that you are a business owner. What factors would you use to evaluate whether or not it would be safe for employees to work on-site in your company currently?
  • Ask a parent or mentor how the pandemic has affected their work and what safety measures they are taking or would like to take.
  • Would you feel comfortable “calling out” a work colleague or classmate for not following safety procedures? Why or why not?


Further Reading:

NPR: “When Everybody’s Working at Home and the Magic Is Gone”
Investment News: “Advisory Firms Split on When To Reopen Offices”
Vault Rankings: “How Safe Will Offices Really Be When They Reopen?”
Employee Benefit Advisor: “4 Questions Before Reopening Your Office”
Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM): “Employers Consider COVID-19 Testing as Vaccine Rolls Out”
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge: "COVID Killed the Traditional Workplace. What Should Companies Do Now?"

Small businesses today have a singular advantage to businesses from even 10 years ago. That advantage is big data and data analysis. Data is more accessible than ever and can help small-business owners make more informed decisions on business strategy.

What is data analytics?

First, big data is the use of large amounts of information that is automatically collected from electronic data. And, data analytics is the study and the use of that data to make decisions. Big data is no longer something reserved for the largest companies in the world. As technology has advanced and become more accessible, it has become easier for small-business owners to use big data for their own needs.

Data analytics in action

One powerful example of businesses learning customer behavior is the use of point-of-sale systems in restaurants. Companies like Bareburger, Jeni’s Ice Cream, and Harpoon Brewing use a system called Toast. Employees use a POS system to take customers’ orders, which are then logged in a computer system. This tracking of orders can be used a few ways:

  • Restaurant owners can look at any item that was ordered at any time and organize information.
  • Owners could look at a POS system like Toast to learn how frequently a menu item is ordered and make decisions to keep menus up to date.
  • Managers could track how many food orders come in at certain points of time during the day and schedule more workers during the busiest times of the day.

Another common tool is the use of web tracking systems like Google Analytics to track product marketing or website use throughout the day. Web analytics tools are useful when owners of small businesses want to know the following:

  • How often people are visiting their business’s website, and how long they are staying there.
  • What exactly people are using to reach their website: through search engines, through social media, or by typing in the Web address in a browser.
  • The location of the IP addresses that people are using to access the websites—useful information for target marketing.

Data analytics techniques can be used in other ways, too. Through predictive analytics—the use of analytics to plan for future events with statistical projections—rations and supply chain management can be influenced by data.

For example, a manager at an independent grocery store could be notified through an alert that a type of produce needs to be ordered based on a week’s sales information. Or, a manufacturing company could plan to have maintenance scheduled on equipment if there is anticipated downtime based on work orders, past sales, and sales forecasts. And, according to Purdue University, big data is making its way into agriculture. Farmers are beginning to use analytics to make decisions on what fertilizer is used on what plant, seed distance, and harvest estimates.

Classroom implications

How do you think data analytics will grow in the next five years?

What do you think could change? Think about examples of data analysis you may experience in a normal school day. If it isn’t present, can you think of ways data analysis could be implemented in your school?

Links for further learning

Executives from across the country have talked with MBA Research staff about the importance of an agile workforce. Many businesses have started to think about flexibility and the ability to embrace change as qualities of primary importance as they hire new staff. Some businesses put qualities of this nature over actual technical skills as they look to build workforces that can withstand—and even thrive—in rapidly changing business environments.

When COVID-19 struck, many companies were thrown into turmoil as they struggled to adjust to a “new normal.” Companies that were already in an agile mindset have had an easier time adjusting to many of the changes they endured, and other companies quickly became more agile to embrace new ways of doing business.

Agile workforces in the business world
What exactly is an agile workforce? Agile workforces are typically made up of small work-teams within an organization. These teams are made up of motivated employees who are focused on sharing data, have diverse skillsets, and tend to be strong communicators and high achievers. The small, focused teams help foster innovation and the ability to change on demand in response to key business drivers.

One of the most recognizable companies in the world that thrives on an agile workforce is Amazon. According to The Guardian, Amazon CEO and Founder Jeff Bezos famously has a rule for the company: if more than two pizzas were needed to feed a team, the team was too big. The idea was to make it easier for team members to discuss ideas and communicate more readily and to focus on company values as they planned and completed their work.

Amazon’s success at developing their analytics service, AWS, is talked about as a success of agile principles. The creation of the powerful data service came out of Amazon’s desire to have teams work independently from each other, meaning Prime Video is separate from Amazon Books. AWS was created so all the data from Amazon could be accessible to any part of the company that would need it.

Another example of agile businesses can be linked directly to COVID-19. Think about how much the restaurant business has changed since March 2020. Sit-in restaurants, bars, and breweries all the sudden lost the ability to serve customers in-house. Many establishments were able to quickly pivot to a carryout model. Others were unable to flex in this way. To adjust, restaurants and bars had to quickly reconfigure. They changed their menus, their business plans, and started to deliver or became carryout only businesses.

Make agile work for you
The Amazon concept of having highly focused, independent teams is a trademark of agile workforces. Agile workforces are much more horizontal than the typical vertical waterfall management structures, according to McKinsey & Company.

Our research found that the following is helpful in building an agile workforce:

  • Teamwork and collaboration. Agile teams share data and other information openly and transparently with each other. Brainstorming and providing feedback to team members is a significant part of agile teamwork. According to Management Study Guide, teams that self-manage working on tasks with “a timeline and tangible objectives” can be an effective way to produce results.
  • A desire to learn. Employees working in an agile organization need to have a thirst for knowledge, and they need to be comfortable learning new things. This is what agile work practices are built on. We found that workers need to be able to try new tasks and feel empowered by their manager and coworkers to complete them.
  • A willingness to try new things. Employees and managers alike should feel comfortable innovating and trying new ways to complete their work. Agile workforces experiment to make their work better. Businesses should also recognize that if a new process is not working, it’s OK to recognize that and try something else.
  • Shared common principles and values. McKinsey referenced this principle as “strategy.” The more buy-in there is for employees to a company’s vision, the more likely those employees are to be motivated workers. The culture, core values, and mission need to be well defined and part of the everyday frame of reference within a company
  • Communication. Employers need to encourage feedback from their employees. Communication and transparency go both ways. If employees feel they are not able to address their concerns with management, they are not working in an agile environment.

Going agile isn’t an overnight transition, but developing agile tendencies within an organization can lead to increased productivity along with greater employee and customer satisfaction.

Classroom implications and questions for students:
How could agile work principles apply at school? What would look different?
Reflect on a current or past job. Can you identify agile or waterfall processes at play?
If you were starting a business, what steps would you take to help ensure workforce agility?

Links for further learning:

You’re walking down the street when you get a ping from your cellphone. It turns out you just got a coupon from Starbucks which, coincidentally, you just passed.

This is a form of marketing called geofencing, the virtual bracketing of a specific area with the goal of collecting data from either GPS systems or RFID (radio-frequency identification). This is all made possible through location data from location services on cellphones. Geofencing is a very attractive marketing technique for many businesses because it allows marketers to advertise to potential customers who visit specific areas. Many consumers also love the convenience of receiving advertisements or offers to businesses that are close by.

Considerations for the workplace

Geofencing is being used widely in business in a number of different ways. Based on our research, some businesses are developing best practices as they use geofencing. Here is what we found.

First, it is worth considering how long data collected from a geofencing campaign will be stored. Will it be more than a day? A month? Europe has laws that limit collection of data storage through location services, and California has a law that went into effect in January 2020 to do the same. The goal of both laws is to cut down on perceived privacy violations from the marketing practice.

The data storage time frame is just one decision to take into consideration. Another important decision businesses have to make is determining who to solicit. The general consensus on how to determine this appears to be through an opt-in system. An opt-in system means customers can tell businesses they are OK with their location data being used.

Some businesses are only using geofencing to target ads through social media like Instagram or Twitter. This eliminates notifications altogether and could be less intrusive to the customer.

Many companies are working hard to be fully transparent with consumers about their use of geofencing. The opt-in option explained above is one way to do that. Another way is to be specific when ads come to the prospective customer. Businesses can remind consumers that they are receiving notifications because of their expressed interest in these types of notifications or ads.

Ethical Dilemmas in geofencing

Not surprisingly, the practice can be very controversial and can bring up ethical dilemmas, even among marketing professionals that MBA Research has heard from in focus groups across the country. 

While receiving a discount coupon to a favorite store may be seen as a bonus to many consumers, getting an ad for a personal injury lawyer while you’re in an emergency room may feel a little too personal, and a little less comfortable. This was the topic of a story featured on NPR in 2018. The marketing agency behind the ads claimed the goal was to make it easier for patients to find services they may need. An attorney in the story noted that, as of now, the federal government does not have any laws that regulate this type of advertising in hospitals and would not violate medical privacy laws like HIPPA. Patients, however, felt as if they were being spied on.

And, the American Bar Association wrote about a court case involving Monsanto, the manufacturer of the herbicide Round-Up. The complainants alleged the use of Round-Up gave them cancer. As a jury was being selected for a trial for the case, Monsanto purchased and sent ads to people who were inside the courthouse where the lawsuit was set to begin trial. The ads claimed Round-Up was a safe product to use. The people suing Monsanto in the case complained the geofenced ads were a form of jury tampering. The judge in the case disagreed. The judge ruled that the speech in the ads was protected and no different than people wearing buttons with political messages in the courtroom.

Through our research, we found that there is very little regulation related to where geofencing is applied and where businesses send their advertisements, like in a hospital or in a courthouse. In many ways, it may be up to consumers to manage their own privacy settings on their tech devices. But the question still remains: is it ethical to track and target people in a courtroom or a hospital emergency room even if it’s not prohibited by law?

Classroom implications and questions for students 

  • Consider a time when you think geofencing was used to target you with an ad or discount offer. Was this a positive or negative experience?
  • Imagine that you own or are working for a business considering using geofencing. What types of laws would you consider to be fair for both businesses and consumers? Should laws be focused on limiting advertisements inside hospitals, like in the NPR story? Would they seek to limit the amount of information collected or not?
  • Now consider geofencing from the consumer perspective. Do you think consumers have greater rights to privacy in certain situations versus others?

Links for further learning:

MBA Research provides a LAP (Learning Activity Package) that provides insight on complying with the spirit and intent of laws. Access the LAP for free here.

A number of business executives that we have talked with over the past year have mentioned the rise of remote working as a top or notable trend. Part of our discussion on this topic sometimes touched on determining which employees are, and aren’t, suited for remote work.

Within the past couple of months due to COVID-19, many employees—ready or not—are suddenly working remotely, and managers are working quickly to figure out strategies for providing extra cushioning and coaching for those who may need it most so they can maximize productivity.

But where to start? Our research has uncovered some of the following strategies:

  • Get issues or concerns about remote working on the table. Ask employees what they need from you in order to be successful and talk about concerns on both sides.
  • Set expectations. Agree on what work needs to be accomplished, and when it needs to be completed. This can help eliminate confusion. 
  • Track work progress. A tracking tool could be something as simple as a shared department Google Document or similar service where employees log the work they have completed in a day. This shows work progress, but it can also make employees feel more fulfilled if they see they are being productive.
  • Communicate often. While many managers have regular team meetings, it’s OK to check in more often with employees who may need more direction. Communication is a key factor for workers who may lose focus or struggle with decreased production out of the office. Using live meeting platforms for check-ins can be helpful as you try to replace in-office communication.
  • Choose a tool—and encourage team group chat. Instant messaging software like Slack is useful for less formal, day-to-day conversations with team members and can enhance engagement levels.
  • Look ahead and behind early and often. Some employees may need more help developing their work “docket.” When this is the case, review what has been completed, and talk specifically about what’s on the horizon. If necessary, reiterate the to-do list via email, so the employee has it in writing. Use this list as a shared guide when checking in with this team member.

A chief operations officer for a managed services provider in Ohio described an employee in their purchasing department who is struggling with task management while working remotely. This trait was mild when working in the office but exacerbated when the employee began working at home. The manager discovered a need to spend additional time with this employee developing a task list, and tracking task completion, in order to help the employee and the company be successful.

Remote working has brought about a “new normal” to many companies. The transition has been taxing in many ways. However, if some of the challenges are conquered, workers may be even stronger upon returning to the office.

Classroom Implications: 

Consider asking students what they would like to see in their ideal remote work setup. Do they think they would be more productive in an office or a remote environment? How would they keep track of their work progress? How would they want to communicate with their managers?

It’s possible that they are also adapting to their own version of working from home, as the coronavirus has also led to the closure of many school buildings. Ask them how they’ve found learning from home different than at school, and have them envision whether or not these same challenges would be present in the work environment.

Links for further learning: 

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