15 November 2012

What have academics ever done for us?

Is seems that academics can never do anything right, especially when it comes to their work with businesses. Companies complain that university “boffins” don’t want to know about the sort of science that makes money, and when they do show interest in how businesses work, they are dismissed for being out of touch.

The latest manifestation of the latter complaint shows in the responses to a news item on Times Higher Education (THE), Business schools unveil plans for enterprise research centre. The story itself is a straightforward report of plans by Warwick Business School and Aston Business School to set up a Enterprise Research Centre.

The announcement was one of a PR binge that the government went on to mark Global Entrepreneurship Week, in a desperate attempt to appear to be doing something about business. Aston University, in its announcement of the initiative, says “The new £2.9 million centre will become a national and international focal point for research, knowledge and expertise on small and medium-sized businesses.” What possible objection could there be to that?

Back at the THE, ‘whatalife’ whines “I do find these ‘setting up’ of Business Schools to encourage enterprise very amusing. The vast amount of academics could not run their own weekly shopping budget and yet they try to tell business men how to run a business.” Then we get another comment from yet another person who does not want to reveal their real identity, ‘John’, who adds “Coming from the industry, I wonder whether these academics from business school know about real world business at all, let alone doing research in this area.”

I wonder if any of the business people who slagged off business schools on the THE site have actually read any papers based on the academics' research. I regularly read and write about papers about R&D management, for example. While these publications rarely deliver staggering intellectual insights, they are much better than all those expensive consultants when it comes to providing details of what they have done and in analysing their material. They are certainly superior to the ‘make it up as you go along’ style of management that has brought many British companies to their knees.

You won’t read papers from commercial consultants, unlike academic who consult on the back of their research. The ‘borrow your watch to tell you the time’ brigade don't dare reveal their sources, lest the audience see that there is nothing there. Just read the bland articles that many commercial consultancies put on their websites.

Jibes about academics' inability to manage their shopping seem to fall into the trap of thinking that understanding something is the same as doing it. Academics understand how water flows through pipes – it is called fluid dynamics – but no one expects them to be great plumbers.

The independence of academics – and perhaps the fact that their primary motivation is not to re-package old ideas in the mode of some commercial consultants – means that they are free to talk at great length to many many managers, far more than a practitioner can hope to reach without shirking on their paid work.

Academics also have the advantage that they are not in competition with the businesses they study. Companies will say things to academic researchers that they would never put on the record and would certainly not say in front of a rival. As a result, academics are more likely to have a better understanding of what goes on in the business world than many of the wonderful managers who have been so successful in recent years.

Unlike, it seems, these critics, I have read papers from both Warwick Business School and Aston Business School. They have interesting things to say and have worked with some of the more successful business around. Putting the two together in this way makes sense, not least because they sit in the middle of an industrial hotspot, stuffed with just the sort of businesses that the Enterprise Research Centre will study.

I have no idea if business schools are any good at training managers, although there is evidence to suggest that they are not a complete waste of time. I wouldn't be surprised if they are less than great. But that isn't what the new centre is all about.

15 May 2012

A not so snappy camera seller

Retailers succeed or fail on the strength of their communication with customers.

With my now very old, all of four years, digital Canon PowerShot 1000is on the way out, I thought it would be a good idea to move on a couple of generations for my next point-and-shoot camera. A sucker for Canon even before the company flew me to Japan on a couple of press tours, where I saw the quality of its technology close up, I found a likely candidate in the new PowerShot SX260. Nice looking camera with an impressive zoom range.

Looking around, I could see that Amazon and Jessops have similar

prices, when you factor in Canon’s cashback deal. I dropped into Jessops on The Strand to see what it looked like. Satisfied that it would fit into a pocket, and good enough to let me leave the Canon SLR at home, after checking that my favourite supplier, Park Cameras in Burgess Hill, could not hope to match the on-line prices, I decided to order from Jessops on the grounds that while the company might be a little bit dearer, unlike Amazon, it does not refuse to pay corporation taxes in the UK.

Jessops had the item in stock. So, order placed on Sunday. Would you believe it? “In stock” for “next day delivery” suddenly turned out to be a myth.

On Monday the camera magically turned out to be “On Back-Order” with the promise of a 10-day wait, making it a bit tight before I am go off on holiday at the end of the month.

This did not stop Jessops from despatching a pair of spare batteries to go with the non-existent camera, despite the fact that they are pointless on their own. But what about getting the camera itself?

Jessops, it seems, does not believe in communicating with customers. No email to say that delivery is delayed. No suggestion as to how long it might really take. Just a message about sending the useless batteries.

OK, give them the benefit of the doubt. Use their web system to ask about changing the order from delivery to the much touted shop collection – Jessops’s system suggests that it is in stock at a couple of shops near me. Unfortunately, the promised “response within 24 hours” turns out to be a myth. The next move is to try to cancel the order to see if that will get some sort of response.

Communication is what sets suppliers apart. Customers don’t mind the odd hiccup if they know what is going on. Jessops fails on that front. So, corporation tax or not, it isn’t likely to get my business in future. Pity, the assistants in the store on The Strand were friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. They are just let down by the systems that are supposed to support their efforts.

Update – While writing this I finally received a reply. Not a solution, or any suggestion as to when new stock might arrive. But at least a reply. Maybe the solution will happen tomorrow.