Tuesday, 28 February 2017

To Make Mistakes is Human

The late Sir John Gielgud was a gentile old actor of great renown. Successful since a young man, he was greatly loved by actors and audiences alike. He had one little fault if we could call it that; he regularly, but innocently, said ‘the wrong thing’. Standing in the wings of a theatre listening to a lady sing, in a style which might be described as ‘labour pains set to music’, he turned to the man standing next to him and said, “How dreadful!”. “That is my wife!” the man snarled back at him. “Oh no”, he recovered, “I meant the song.” With an ever reddening face the man replied, “I wrote that song!”

A happier mistake occurred in the life of the late great comedian Ted Ray. Whilst performing in a theatre he fell in love, from a distance, with one of the dancing girls. He thought about how to ask her out for a date, and formulated a plan. The lady in question was always the last of the line of dancing girls to leave the stage, and so he waited behind the curtain and, as she approached, he thrust a bunch of flowers in to… the hands of the wrong woman! Unbeknown to him the girls have changed the order of their line-up that night, and equally unbeknown to him the ‘wrong woman’ would prove to be the love of his life with whom he would have a long and happy marriage.

Then there is the debacle at the Oscars. How embarrassing for the ‘La La Land’ people to be stopped mid-speech and told they hadn’t won the award for best picture. They bore it with great dignity, but I would love to have been a fly on the wall once they got off stage. Their language could well have deviated from that used by our own dear Queen Elizabeth. In fairness to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) who were responsible for the blunder, they have overseen the process for 83 years, and this has never happened before. Ironically the two PwC supervisors overseeing the Oscars were very recently asked by the Huffington Post what would happen if a presenter announced the wrong winner at the Oscars.

It is interesting to see the different outcomes to these mistakes. However what about mistakes which have much greater consequences. It was once said that a politician was a man who would lay down your life for his country. Perhaps this cynical tone is not totally without foundation, but there are still those that genuinely seek to help their country. Two such politicians are former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair (Labour) and Sir John Major (Conservative). Recently Mr Blair, and last Monday Sir John, have both raised serious doubts over the process of leaving the EU.

Sir John said, “I have watched with growing concern as the British people have been led to expect a future that seems to be unreal and over-optimistic,” He continued, “Obstacles are brushed aside as of no consequence, whilst opportunities are inflated beyond any reasonable expectation of delivery.” As you would reasonably expect, pro-Brexit MPs reacted angrily and forcefully to this speech with their own side to the story. The inference of Sir John is that the 52% of British people who voted to leave the EU may have made a huge historic mistake; only time will tell. The question certainly puts what happened at the Oscars in to perspective.

Let me end on a more positive note. The business world cannot afford to suffer huge historic mistakes. It needs men and women who have the power to critically analyse and evaluate a broad range of factors, and make accurate and timely decisions of high quality. Teaching MBA and MSc students last weekend I witnessed these skills evidenced by my students who had come to London to develop them further. Their intellectual and critical powers were clearly demonstrated, and I left the room knowing that if I wanted something I could trust, something I could put my faith in, it was the ability of these students, of broad age and experience range, to deliver a future of economic success and prosperity.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)

An Australian four piece group called ‘The Seekers’ was very famous in the UK during the 1960s. Their lead singer, Judith Durham, had a bright sparkling voice, and she was accompanied by three young men, one on double base and two on acoustic guitars. They provided a more sedate form of entertainment than the Rolling Stones and other electric guitar bands of the time, and their gentle humorous approach provided a good contrast to those who smashed up their instruments on stage. In 2013 they embarked on a 50th anniversary tour, still remembered and still loved.

The Seekers officially disbanded in 1969, however Guitarist Keith Potger cleverly put together a British-based group called ‘The New Seekers’ designed to appeal to the same market, though with a little more rock and pop influence. The concept worked. In 1971 they had a hit with ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’, which was used by the Coca Cola Corporation in a successful advertisement, where a large crowd of young people stood on one of the hills surrounding Rome singing ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ to the same tune.

In the 1970s harmony would also break out in the UK, with the Equal Pay Act 1970 designed to equalise pay and conditions between men and women, though in 2017 there are still outstanding issues on such equality. In 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act sought to protect men and women from discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status. However during the winter or 1978-79 there was much industrial dispute and strife, in what is now referred to as ‘The Winter of Discontent’ , borrowing from Shakespeare. We might have aspired to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but certainly we didn’t manage it back then.

Let’s come forward to 2017 and the London Fashion Week. A BBC headline reads ‘These are the London Fashion Week designers shaping the way we see gender’. The report goes on to tell us that men have been modelling women's wear, unisex clothing brands and androgynous designs that anyone could wear. British fashion is said to be going through a ‘gender revolution’ at the moment. Irish-born designer Jonathan Anderson is working to the concept that men and women can share each other’s clothes. Nicola Formichetti - artistic director of Diesel – says, "Fashion has always been about mixing gender, but now it's becoming such an issue".

I think we should not forget that in the 1970s we wore long hair and flamboyant clothes. This was the era of ‘Glam Rock‘ and bands like ‘The Sweet’, where the male performers had hair and make-up that any woman might have been proud of. This flamboyance continued in to the 1980s with the ‘New Romantics’ such as bands Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. I can see that the present day fashion world is able to take their ideas and concepts to another level, in a world more accepting of such creativity, but we should still give credit to those from the 1970s and 1980s who paved the way to a more open fashion sense.

London is truly a city that embraces change and diversity, bringing together disparate elements and pumping them out with imaginative, creative added value. This is a vibrant city for dynamic people. Be it in fashion, music, literature, or any other cultural area of activity, London is definitely the place to be. In 1971 The New Seekers sang ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’, and although there are still discordant voices I think we can safely say that in London harmony is clearly improving.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Love is in the air!?

Yes it’s Valentine’s Day once more and love is in the air! Also in the air - right up in the air - is the price of flowers. Can you imagine how it feels for an accountancy teacher like me to see these romantic blooms reach eye-watering prices? How could I possibly teach management accounting and financial prudence without feeling some degree of pain? However, having been married to a wonderful woman for 32 years does make it all totally worthwhile, and my flowers are on their way as we speak.

So where else is there love in the air? A BBC headline reads ‘President Donald Trump has welcomed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the White House. The leaders are expected to discuss economic links and women in the workforce’. There is a cutesy picture of them in a smiling embrace, and a video to go with it… but the video doesn’t play. It just says ‘This content doesn’t seem to be working. Please try again later’. Well I hope that is not an omen for their sake’s.

Then of course there is the question of love across the EU, as Britain prepares to trigger Article 50. We hear how the negotiations are supposed to be civilised and mutually beneficial, executed with dignity in a sort of negotiating bonhomie. Based on the comments already being made - both within the UK and around Europe - I somehow think there will be tears before bed time. In 1957 the Mills Brothers had a chart hit with a song which went, “You always hurt the one you love, the one you should not hurt at all”. That should be played every morning in every negotiation venue.

For those of us living in a UK still divided bitterly by the ‘In/Out’ referendum, we are told we should now forget our differences and all pull together. I suppose we are meant to take direction from William Shakespeare when he wrote of England: ‘…This happy breed of men, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea…’ Can we be a happy breed of ‘men’ and women again? We need to remind ourselves that the referendum did not create this division, it merely served to bring it out in to the day light and we must now accept and face up to our de-harmonised state.

Come with me now back to the sanity of ECBM where I have just been teaching a group of students, and we debated the meaning of democracy. We agreed that democracy was highly prized; people have fought and died for it after all. I then asked if anyone would allow a democratic vote to override the expert opinion of, say, a doctor. This lead to a stimulating multi-faceted debate, and linked nicely in to the fact that in the referendum many economic experts were overridden by UK voters.

I believe there is an inverse relationship between perceived responsibility for the consequences of democratic rights and actions, and the numbers of people exercising them. If you are one of only five people seated around a hospital bed your actions can be clearly scrutinised and you will react with great respect for the consequences of any decision made, but as one of sixty million people you can disappear in to the crowd when things go wrong, and subsequently experts get ignored and consequences are left to chance.

Conveniently we are brought to the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016: ‘Post-truth’. This is the position where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Put more simply, ‘heart before brain’. We have a perfectly acceptable legal right to make our decision on this basis, but where do we stand morally? Have we really a right to democracy if we are not fully prepared to take the consequences of our actions?

I believe that we need a new concept indivisible from that of ‘democratic right’ and that is the concept of ‘democratic duty’, and that we should live and work accordingly for a more harmonious existence.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Is 'reflection’ just a fancy name for a daydream?

As I start my journey to college the weather is mild and calm; it is a lovely February morning. However the traffic soon becomes exceptionally heavy, and I see this is due to an accident between a delivery van and a motorbike. Part of the main road is closed off, and a long line of slow moving traffic edges past the police cars in attendance. The young rider is not badly injured, and he and the van driver stand 5-6 metres apart, motionless and in apparently reflective moods. An ambulance can be heard approaching.

Later I pull in to an anonymous car park which gives way to a small, placid railway station. It has all you might need for your journey: ticket office; newsagent; coffee kiosk; a cosy warm waiting room. Unlike the other end of the line in London all is civilised and unhurried, and just sort of… ‘Nice’. Well not quite so nice this morning as my train was cancelled, but that’s okay as I am not teaching today and I can get the next one. Ah, but the next one is cancelled as well. All is not lost. I can get the third train. Is that still running? Yes, but I won’t be boarding it until after nearly an hour’s wait.

I cannot change to an alternative route - well I can but it will be convoluted and no quicker - so I find a seat on the platform, put my bag beside me, and take root. It’s actually quite pleasant. A pleasant February morning in a pleasant little station, and just the right atmosphere for calm reflection. I am able to revisit, review, refresh, re-evaluate and re-plan things going on in my life. I wonder how many of us find time in our busy days to do this. Thank you Southeastern Rail.

When I finally boarded the train I was not in a state of transcendental joy; the sunbeams weren’t exactly dancing on the station roof. I did however feel a little more ‘sorted’, and clearer about things I had to address that day. I also felt a little more connected to reality. I wondered though what the van driver and the biker were feeling; not all reflection leads to joy.

Here is a question… on that platform was I reflecting or simply day-dreaming? I have been asked if ‘reflection’ is just a fancy name for a daydream, so I need to identify what makes the difference between them. The answer lies in the structure we use. As academics we are always wanting to ‘up our game’ and contribute more to the world, and so we employ reflective processes structured by experts in the field. This makes sure our reflection is measured, effective and productive.

A daydream in comparison is like a dog let of its lead… It can go anywhere. There is nothing wrong with a nice daydream. It can be relaxing and calming. It takes minimal effort. It is free of charge. We all know how to do it. Wonderful. However it does not have the productive power of the properly structured reflection.

To achieve a mastery of applied reflective structure and process is not easy, and so it is one of the many skills our students are learning here at ECBM. I am pleased that they are learning to reflect so effectively, as all our futures are in their hands.

Graham Harman-Baker