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.

Business Trend

Our trend this month focuses on businesses’ increasing focus on ethics, ethical issues, and ethical leadership. Ethical challenges have proliferated due to the convergence of a variety of other trends: expanding workplace and societal diversity, mobile technology, globalization, and social media. Many businesses are struggling to establish a common view of ethics across the multigenerational workforce composed of different cultural backgrounds and different worldviews. Globalization, mobile technology, and social media have flattened the world and shortened the potential point-to-point connections among people around the world.

Workplace Implications

Business leaders establish organizational culture, and their misconduct is instantly more public. Tales of ethical failures are quickly spread through internal and external communication channels. Therefore, organizations have begun to treat business ethics as a strategic management issue. Leading by example is not just a “good thing to do,” or the “expected thing to do,” it is the “mandated thing to do.”

In June, some of our Iowa business panelists had this to say about ethics:
    “Unethical behavior is poison and will affect everyone.”
    “Ethical leaders balance their own self-interest with the interest of other stakeholders.”
    “Ethical leaders do the right thing vs. the politically expedient thing.”
    “Ethics starts at the top of the organization. People feel empowered to be unethical when their role models are unethical.”
    “Ethical leaders think long term and endure short-term pains to achieve long-term results.”

A zero-tolerance mentality is emerging on the business landscape resulting in highly punitive actions for any ethical lapse. Concurrently, business leaders are challenged to respond to rapidly changing business dynamics. They are encountering unique and complex situations that require quick decision-making, often without all of the facts. This results in a stress-filled climate.

As the cost of failures continues to increase, prospective employees are more heavily scrutinized to determine fit. Meeting educational and experiential qualifications is no longer enough to secure a job position.   

Classroom Implications

The ability to do the right thing even under stressful, ambiguous situations should be emphasized with students. They need to understand the different ethical situations encountered within the workplace and an ethical decision-making process. Cultural context should be incorporated within the lessons so that students understand how viewing the same issue from different perspective may result in different ethical conclusions. Teachers may also want to review the cost of ethical lapses for both the organization and individual(s) involved. Finally, students should be engaged in a discussion on the causes of ethical lapses and given opportunities to support or refute their opinions with research.

Business Trend

Our trend for July is a hot topic with business leaders: the ongoing change in organizational models prompted by adoption of cloud computing, software integration, and alternative staffing models.  Businesses have continued to focus on lean operations that took center stage during the 2007/2008 recession. During that time, staff were downsized, and the remaining employees were asked to do more with less.  Companies also sought out opportunities to automate manual processes and to reduce costs through the use of contracted or outsourced services. Functions and specializations previously immune to staff reductions and alternative sourcing (e.g., accounting, human resources) were also affected.

Workplace Implications

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) and similar cloud computing arrangements are enabling small- to medium-sized businesses to automate various functions and activities. By capitalizing on advancements in technology, businesses of all sizes are able to replace their legacy departmental databases with company-wide software packages that provide holistic views of business operations in less time and with fewer manual resources.  This integration has reduced data-entry redundancy and improved data accuracy. Also, it has reduced the need for what were traditionally viewed as clerical functions.

As a result, employees’ job responsibilities have changed. Employees are expected to spend more time in analyzing and interpreting information. They are expected to extract value from the information and provide insights to management on how to improve the business performance.

Cloud computing technology has also expanded the pool of talent available to businesses. Geographic location is becoming less and less a barrier as the cost of virtualization decreases and the effectiveness of virtual communication channels improves. Current employees and job seekers are no longer competing with the local labor market. Rather, they are competing with individuals around the world.

Concurrently, the educational market is undergoing its own innovation cycle. Open course platforms have been used to provide access to world class college-level courses and certificates to individuals anywhere in the world with access to Wi-Fi networks. Through the use of technology, people can upgrade their existing skills or acquire new skills at a fraction of the cost of a traditional college education.

Classroom Implications

Students need to develop the skill sets that will enable them to compete in a virtual, global workforce. They must be able to analyze and interpret data, translate data into meaningful insights and recommendations, and communicate their observations clearly and concisely. They need to develop deep competencies in their chosen area of specialization to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. Students need to be taught how to learn and how to develop a habit of continual learning. They need to know that businesses expect them to assume responsibility for their own learning.

Business Trend

Analytics/Big data continue to garner attention and generate a lot of discussion with business leaders. As automation and digitalization continue their march through all fabrics of society, businesses increasingly have access to detailed information on consumers, employees, peers, and other stakeholders. The continued increase in computer processing power and decreasing cost of information storage make it feasible for businesses to analyze this information.

Workplace Implications

The biggest issue that businesses grapple with as it relates to data is not its capture or acquisition, but rather, its synthesis. Sifting through the noise to determine what’s important, interpret the data, and generate a response from the data are becoming more complex.  Businesses that have traditionally dealt with transactional data and other types of structured data are now challenged to capture and integrate unstructured, customer-generated data available through social media channels. However, the sheer volume of customer-generated data necessitates fine-tuning of the filter process to key in on what is most relevant for decision-making.

There are many uses of analytics within the workplace that are still being explored. Human resource functions are experimenting with different analytic solutions that could improve talent identification, acquisition, development, and management. Finance and Accounting functions are exploring how to use analytics to identify opportunities to improve profitability, spotlight potential fraud, highlight potential economic shifts, and signal industry changes that could be catastrophic. Sales and Marketing functions look to analytics to forecast sales, segment markets, understand consumer behavior, target customers, and identify new product opportunities. Operations uses analytics to predict demand shifts, forecast production needs, pinpoint capacity issues, and more.   

Classroom Implications 

Students need to develop a basic understanding of data mining, data analysis, and analytics. They should learn how to synthesize information to identify trends.

Students should be able to distinguish between correlation and causation. They should be able to ask questions of the information to determine how best to interpret and apply it.

Students need to understand the limitations of analytics and how analytics fits within an overall decision-making process. Teachers may want to explore analytics within different business contexts to illustrate the breadth of analytics available and the importance of having an objective(s) identified prior to examining analytics.

Teachers should stress that businesses need and are actively looking for employees with data-mining skills—not just finding the data, but interpreting the data to aid decision-making. Many businesses have been forced to hire internationally to find the needed skillsets.

Teachers can integrate data-mining into existing courses or create courses around data analytics. Teachers who are unfamiliar with data-mining should consider taking courses in it to be better prepared to help students acquire the needed skills.

Business Trend

Our trend for May continues to receive a lot of discussion with business leaders. It is the need for collaborative skills. Collaboration has become the business buzzword as businesses operate flatter and expect more team, pod, and group collaborative efforts for problem-solving. .

Workplace Implications

Businesses are challenged to eliminate departmental silos to remain competitive in today’s dynamic world. They are challenging cultures that encourage “siloed” thinking in favor of enterprise thinking. Department leaders are expected to align departmental priorities with organizational priorities. Functional lines are becoming blurred as managers in departments such as finance, marketing, and IT develop alliances and work collaboratively to achieve the priorities of organization.

Additionally, businesses are increasingly moving toward the use of interdepartmental teams that form for a specific project, disband when the project is finished, and regroup with other teams when new projects surface. Smaller teams are expected to tackle big projects. Remote and geographically dispersed teams are expected to use technology to bridge time and space differences.
Classroom Implications

Students need to develop their ability to communicate with individuals from different knowledge backgrounds to prevent misunderstandings that could jeopardize achievement of the goal. Teachers should encourage students to develop a broad knowledge of business processes and techniques to supplement the technical knowledge related to their functional role. A marketing student should understand how marketing relates to finance and business management and be able to communicate well with these functions. The same applies to the other functional disciplines. Use of technical jargon, acronyms, or other language that may not be common knowledge for individuals working in other departments should be discouraged.

Students also need to understand the skills and behaviors required of a good project team member. They need to learn how to ask probing, open-ended questions to elicit information and input from other team members; how to consider dependencies in the ordering of task completion; and how to efficiently advise team members of progress and issues. Teachers should also teach students the challenges commonly associated with cross-functional teams and how to use systematic problem-solving and consensus-building strategies to gain resolution. 

Business Trend

This month’s Action Brief is: the impact of societal values on business decisions. Businesses are composed of people from many different cultures who interact with people from a variety of other cultures. As societal diversity increases and societal values shift, businesses are challenged to respond to these shifts.

Workplace Implications

Businesses are challenged to establish effective decision-making frameworks, policies and procedures for ethical conduct and human resource management that minimizes the potential negative influence of societal values on business decisions.

In regard to ethical conduct, businesses must consider the cultural background of their employee groups to determine what ethical guidance may be required. An action considered unethical in one culture may be considered the expected standard of behavior in another culture. These different mindsets and interpretations could leave the business exposed to significant financial and reputational damage. 

From a human resources perspective, businesses must determine how to respond to differing societal values and views on the role of women in the workforce and in leadership positions, the role of faith in the workplace, and the role of business in the health and wellness practices of their employees.

For example, integration of individuals from a male-dominated society into a company with significant female representation in leadership necessitates different learning and development to address the conflict between the business culture and societal values.

From a marketing and sales perspective, knowing your audience takes on additional levels of complexity. Recognition of societal values impacts all aspects of customer communication. Shifts in those values should be monitored and incorporated into communications when the changes align with organizational valies.
Classroom Implications

Students should be exposed to different decision-making processes and the values that underlie these processes. They should examine the different perceptions of standards of behavior that exist in a multi-cultural environment. For example, a discussion on plagiarism could be expanded to include the perspectives of students from cultures where knowledge is considered commonly owned or vast memorization occurs and original sources are not necessarily remembered or recorded.

Students should also evaluate the societal values that communities may seek to impose on businesses that either have a physical presence in the community (e.g., a Somalian community, a Latino community) or have a significant representation of the population group within its workforce. Students should analyze the factors that businesses should consider in response to these pressures. Teachers may want to enhance the learning through review of recent business responses to values-related issues.

Business Trend

This month’s trend is about information use, protection, and retention.

Workplace Implications

Businesses are repositories of sensitive data. As such, they are responsible for storing, protecting, and ethically using the private or personally identifiable information they collect. Unfortunately, they are prime targets of hackers—just ask Target, Neiman Marcus, J.P. Morgan Chase, Premera Blue Cross insurance, etc.

As digital traffic increases, the threat to data security also increases. The increased use of cloud technology, mobile devices, and social media and the ability of employees to work remotely hamper businesses’ ability to protect data.

At the same time, businesses are attempting to reduce their information technology costs by adopting bring-your-own-devices (BYOD) policies. This forces companies to grapple with how to manage the risks associated with reduced control of configuration settings and installed software applications.

Escalating data breaches are increasing in scale, frequency, and ultimate cost to businesses and to the U.S. economy. As a result, regulatory scrutiny has grown, and additional resources have been allocated to address the issue.

Managers in this environment must continually evaluate data security policies to determine whether the policies best suit their business’s risks, needs and priorities while meeting applicable regulations. This trend is creating demand for qualified workers who can navigate the rules and work with technology.

Classroom Implications

Students need to understand the different classifications of information (e.g., personally identifiable, sensitive, private) and the importance of protecting that information from unlawful or unethical disclosure. Teachers may want to use case studies to explore the long-lasting damage that can occur to individuals’ financial, physical, and mental health when they become victims of identity theft. Likewise, they can discuss the impact that hacked data is having on businesses.

Students should be made aware of the ease with which information can be compromised through lost or insecure mobile devices or social media use. Schemes used by hackers, fraudsters, and other wrongdoers to obtain sensitive information should also be discussed (e.g., fake password reset emails, fake subpoenas requesting information disclosures). These techniques should be related to policies that businesses often implement to protect themselves. The importance of complying with company information privacy and security policies even when they seem inconvenient should also be emphasized.

Business Trend

This month’s trend is the increasing importance of soft-skills leadership. Fostering collaboration, developing talent, managing personal growth, communicating clearly, and thinking critically are must-have skills for success in today’s workplace.

Workplace Implications

As Baby Boomers join the ranks of the retired, people are being promoted to fill their roles in organizations. Often, companies promote staff with the best technical skills into those leadership roles and are learning that having great technical skills do not automatically qualify staff for leadership. In fact, staff with the highest level of technical acumen often lack the very skills most needed to lead: collaboration, negotiation, communication, problem-solving, listening, self-awareness, motivation, empathy, social skills, flexibility, optimism, conflict resolution, etc.—the soft skills.

Soft-skill expertise has enduring value throughout a person’s career, while technical skill requirements change due to innovations. Although soft skills are important at all job levels, their importance and complexity increase as a person advances in an organization. After all, for leaders to achieve business goals, they must lead through others and must develop a balance between their technical and soft skills.

Soft skills can be learned and internalized through repeated application and reflection. As a result, businesses are spending more on training that requires use of soft skills in a variety of real-world situations. Staff application of soft skills contributes to a brand’s uniqueness that sets it apart from competitors’ brands.

Classroom Implications

Teachers should help students understand the role of technical skills in getting jobs and the importance of soft skills in career advancement. Due to the increased value businesses are placing on soft skills, teachers should help students highlight their soft skills on their résumés. Students should relate their soft skills to the jobs’ requirements.

Students need opportunities to practice their soft-skills attainment. This can be accomplished through the use of group projects in which students must work together and be accountable for project completion. Projects should allow sufficient time for reflection—what went well and what should be changed.

Another opportunity for practicing soft skills is by having students give peer reviews. Teachers will need to explain how to conduct effective peer reviews so that students learn how to provide constructive feedback to classmates.

Business Trend

In our ongoing conversations with the business community, we asked them to identify business trends impacting the workplace. One frequently cited trend is: increase in the importance of risk management. Risk management is an everyday issue that impacts everyone and impacts the company brand.

Workplace Implications

Businesses are increasing the resources dedicated to risk management in response to the environment in which they now operate. Political and regulatory uncertainty, harsh weather conditions, volatile markets, unexpected price changes, disruptive technologies, regulatory noncompliance, and talent shortages are some of the major risks creating business losses. Ethical breaches, data breaches, and operational failures have all been in the news over the last few years. Additionally, businesses have paid significant fines for questionable practices, quality failures, and compliance violations.

As businesses focus more on risk management, they emphasize organizational culture and leadership character and not just the technical competence of their employees. Businesses have realized that rules and policies aren’t sufficient to address the variety of risks that they must manage. Policies cannot cover every situation, and new risks are continually emerging.

Businesses need a risk management process that is dynamic, while also being predictable. They want employees to determine the right actions to take in ambiguous situations. For this reason, businesses are also investing more time in assessing candidates for fit that extends beyond skills and abilities. It also includes assessment of personality, integrity, motivation, strategic thinking, critical thinking, and problem-solving. This emphasis on risk management is also leading to a greater demand for risk assessment skills and risk-related certifications and accreditation.

Classroom Implications

Risk management should receive more emphasis across the board, especially as it relates to self-governance, ethical practice, internal controls, and global trade. Students should discuss the top risks that businesses face, trends in those risks, the implications for businesses and the strategies businesses are using in response. Ethical decision-making and its relationship to risk management should be discussed. Additionally, students should understand their personal responsibility for managing business risks and explore how they could apply risk management principles at different stages of their career.
Students could research recent incidents that have exposed businesses to significant negative publicity, fines, and/or litigation. They could estimate the total cost to the business, including lost customers and revenue, increased spending on marketing, and spending to improve operations to prevent further incidents. Teachers could reinforce this concept through review of publicly-traded company’s responsibility statements. Teachers could discuss supplier code of conduct, compliance programs, and other practices businesses have implemented to manage their risk. 

Business Trend

In our ongoing conversations with the business community, we asked them to identify business trends impacting the workplace. One frequently cited trend is: Increase in shareholder and consumer lawsuits and employee-initiated audits. Businesses that have experienced an increase in lawsuits have also noticed a decline in investor and consumer confidence.

Workplace Implications

Businesses continue to increase their focus on customer satisfaction and quality. They expect employees to be responsible for customer satisfaction and quality within their own job function and are tying performance measures and metrics to quality goals. When mistakes occur, they expect employees to take ownership of their mistakes and to communicate their mistakes quickly to the right individuals in the organization. They expect employees to work with management and others toward an amicable solution.

Similarly, employees are expected to uncover and to help resolve any issues that come to their attention that could affect staff and internal and external customer satisfaction. This expectation exists regardless of whether the issues are related to their specific job responsibilities and duties. Employees are also expected to follow internal protocols on reporting incidents, use of social media, and the sharing of confidential information so that the business’s exposure to lawsuits or audits is limited.   

Classroom Implications

Students need to understand how to manage operations and brand cost-effectively while always maintaining a view of protecting the company (e.g., disclaimers) in an environment that has an increasing emphasis on consumer protection.  They need to understand that risk mitigation, quality, and safety are everyone’s responsibility.  They cannot look at their jobs as just doing XYZ; they need to understand how they impact the final product or service and how their behaviors affect the overall workplace environment.

Students could research recent product recalls and discuss the factors that led to the recall. They could analyze the effect of the recalls on the business (e.g., brand/reputation, consumer confidence, employee satisfaction, sales, lawsuits, and settlements). Teachers could also reinforce this concept through classroom activities that require students to predict the effect of a particular action on customer satisfaction and loyalty. They could engage students in a series of what-if discussions dealing with increasingly more complex situations but always focused on action taken or not taken by lower-level, front-line employees. Students should be encouraged to consider how long it takes and how much it costs to re-establish trust once broken.

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