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

As consumers grow more health savvy, their demand for local, natural, and organic food choices continues to increase. In addition, these same consumers are learning more about where their food is coming from, and they are disenchanted with the ways our current food system is taxing environmental and social structures. This month’s trend explores how business practices are changing in response to these demands and realities, in hopes of providing consumers with the foods they want within a sustainable food system. 

Workplace Implications

The interdependency of environmental, social, and economic systems involved in the food supply are complex and not always easily navigated. Close collaboration all along the food supply chain is vital in creating sustainability, especially when the focus is on unprocessed, fresh, or natural food products which have a shorter shelf-life than their preserved counterparts. 

The organic and farm-to-table movements have been major players in sustainability efforts. While organic food has become widely accessible in grocery store aisles, it can be costly, presenting a barrier for many consumers. The farm-to-table movement, however, which emphasizes locally grown food choices, (e.g., farmers markets) have proven, in many cases to be a more affordable choice. Still, challenges exist in cost-effective sustainable food production, and businesses are charged with meeting demands of stakeholders and consumers in both areas. 

Proactive businesses are making changes, both major and minor, that align them more closely with sustainable models. Among them are:

  • Adopting the value of sustainability as part of their company mission
  • Closer management of supply-chain efficiencies
  • Sourcing from, and partnering with, local smallholders and suppliers
  • Increased attention to carbon footprints 
  • Developing and utilizing packaging that is reusable, recyclable, and/or biodegradable
  • Implementing employee and consumer education regarding sustainable food production and delivery practices

 

Many production processes can be complicated by evolving definitions of sustainability and growing government regulations that can shift based on locale, discouraging some companies from participating in the movement entirely. However, as consumers continue to influence the market, participation will be harder and harder to avoid.  

Lastly, companies are asking themselves: How are we doing? Are we making a difference? Efforts to increase sustainability need to be tracked using metrics that can indicate the level of progress towards more sustainable operations.  

Implications for students

Students can benefit from studying and learning about real-world examples of food growth, production, and distribution from beginning to end. This would include the source of raw materials, land and agricultural issues, supply-chain management, transportation and delivery logistics, processing and manufacturing, packaging, marketing, pricing, and consumer consumption habits. Choosing a food item at the point of sale, and tracing it back to the point of origin would prove eye-opening.  

In addition, students could be asked to consider the following in an effort to emphasize company and individual roles in food sustainability: 

  • How does what we eat affect our health and our environment?
  • What challenges do we face in becoming more sustainable?
  • How can we provide more food more sustainably?
  • How can we contribute to a more sustainable food system?

 

Government oversight, in the form of environmental regulations, has the potential to make our world cleaner and greener.  The innovation and new technologies necessary to meet the requirements of the regulations can also stimulate our economy in the form of new businesses.  However, existing businesses must still figure out how to comply with the regulations and meet stakeholder financial expectations simultaneously.  This month’s trend looks at how businesses are being affected, and how their processes are changing in response to increased environmental government regulations.

Globalization has led to an increase in consumer demand for products, but has also placed stress on the environment due to increased production, and transportation of goods. As consumer demands increase, so do national and international regulations governing how businesses produce, package, transport goods, and dispose of waste. As a result of these regulations, businesses modify their processes, products, construction materials, physical layouts and designs, product packaging, and supply chains, etc. While these changes may result in increased efficiencies, they can also mean added costs and production times which can strain some organizations.  

The cost of compliance affects businesses differently. Small businesses often take the hardest hit since often there is less room for absorption of compliance costs and fewer staffing resources to help interpret regulations. For larger companies, the costs may be easier to absorb, but managing compliance in a widespread business environment with multiple partners and delivery channels can prove challenging.

Many business owners are implementing environmental management systems (EMS) in an effort to meet or exceed government regulations. The implementation of an EMS can help foster the deep understanding of government regulations necessary for compliance. An EMS can also help employees become more aware of environmental issues, and help convince consumers that they are purchasing goods and products from a green company.  

Businesses successful in compliance report a number of helpful strategies including knowledge of regulations and a commitment to compliance, careful selection of suppliers and partners who are also committed to compliance, flexibility and readiness to adjust processes, transparency, and willingness to experiment and innovate. 

Implications for Students

Students should have some exposure to environmental threats posed by products and businesses as well as the legislation enacted to address those concerns such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Farm Bill, etc. Instructors need to address the ways that these regulations impact businesses differently based on the type of business and its products and processes. To put these differences in context, teachers can have students interact with their business mentors/partners to determine regulatory impact on local businesses.  

Educators can help students understand the importance of compliance by looking at case examples of how companies fulfill the regulations. Presenting case studies about disasters, both manufactured and natural which have had far reaching, negative consequences can be helpful as well. Looking at how compliance helps or hurts businesses in the short and long-term will assist students as they learn to look at success as a process rather than just a moment-in-time. 

Business Trend

Businesses today are increasingly exposed to a wide range of risks which, if realized, can result in significant harm to their reputations and their bottom lines. This month’s trend focuses on the risk of loss and the damages that can be incurred, and sometimes amplified, through social media channels.

Workplace Implications 

Heightened competition, an increased regulatory environment, lean operations, and information availability are all contributing to the high risk environment that is business today. Natural disasters, equipment outages, failed ventures or partnerships, and data breeches can all cause ripples throughout supply chains. Often, the risk is realized through the actions of a single employee or customer. The rapid spread of information on social media, promulgated by the wide use of hand-held devices used for recording and sharing, creates a further hazard which companies must face.

Mismanagement of social media outlets by employees can jeopardize a company brand and undermine carefully constructed reputations. Last year, a restaurant chain suffered a public-relations setback at the hands of an employee who posted personal information about a customer on Facebook. The company made matters worse by deleting negative comments and blocking users from its Facebook page as the story spread. Customers and commenters quickly became outraged. 

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violations offer opportunities for major damage to individuals and healthcare organizations. A healthcare provider acted quickly to fire an employee who posted a picture on Facebook of the backside of a patient receiving treatment in the emergency room. Employees who commented on or “liked” the post were also reportedly fired. Subsequently, the healthcare provider was sued by a physician who commented on the post but felt she was wrongfully terminated. 

Even educational institutions are not immune to the perils of employee missteps. A university was embroiled in racial controversy this past fall, a professor was filmed trying to physically force a photographer from a demonstration scene.  She now faces potential assault charges. Footage of the incident captured live, quickly went viral, and both the professor and the university were quickly tried and condemned by the public based on footage that lasted just over a minute. 

Businesses need to fully evaluate and understand the risk of loss they face from within and outside their ranks. Written policies and procedures and ongoing training that specifically address appropriate employee communication (i.e., who can share what with whom) should be mandated. A comprehensive risk management plan, which includes prevention measures, provisions for whistleblowers, and response procedures is vital.

In addition, businesses need to make sure employees understand that they represent the company brand even when they are posting on their own personal social media profiles. Sometimes, the best examples of judicious behavior in this area can come from company executives, as they post on their own personal social profiles, in ways that are mindful of the company brand.

Classroom Implications 

Students need to fully understand how to evaluate current and emerging risk factors in business. Looking at real-life examples of business losses will help the learning process. Students should brainstorm about strategies that could have prevented losses in the examples presented and discuss mitigation approaches. Students need to understand that when they work for a company, they become the company’s brand ambassadors. Actions they take in their personal and work lives reflects on the companies for which they work. In addition, instructors need to help students realize how violations of personal information, especially from a healthcare perspective, can affect victims. Allowing students to hear first-hand from affected individuals could have a lasting impact on students and help sensitize the future workforce to the importance of these issues. 

Business Trend

Humans tend to be creatures of habit. Businesses that understand and respond to what makes us tick give businesses a competitive advantage. This month's trend focuses on the use of psychology in business.

Workplace Implications

Marketing has traditionally relied on psychological understanding to determine what customers want and what influences and persuades them. It has used its understanding of what makes people tick to build relationships and effectively interact with them. Marketers provide a variety of product and pricing options to appeal to customers’ varied preferences and needs.

Now, psychology has become a key business tool. It’s being used across companies by supervisors and managers to motivate employees, to make effective hiring decisions, and to form effective teams.

Research indicates that people act differently in groups than they do individually because they are concerned about their image. They want to impress others, becoming self-conscious and error-prone. This indicates that people tend to work better on simple tasks when in groups and better individually on complex tasks. Knowing this helps to guide managers as they structure projects and teams, enabling them to create better, more cohesive teams.

Psychological understanding of followers’ personalities and motivators enables leaders to effectively manage interpersonal-relationship issues that crop up. Knowing what motivates followers can be used to encourage them to do their best.

Classroom Implications

Teachers need to show students how psychological understanding can be applied in business functions to effectively and meet company goals. Since businesses use past customer and employee behavior to predict future business actions, students need to be taught how to use historical data and events for insights. Local business representatives can be invited to speak to students about current applications of psychology in their industry and/or function.

Business Trend

It is a small world . . . after all. This smallness is reinforced when economic ripples are felt throughout the world. This month's trend focuses on how the global economy affects domestic businesses.

Workplace Implications

A global economy presents opportunities and challenges to business. It provides opportunities for new, untapped markets, thereby increasing the level of production and consumption. It can lower the cost of production and the prices consumers pay. Since businesses can focus on maintaining and selling specific inventories vs. a wide variety of inventories, they can take advantage of economies of scale, making specialization profitable.  A global economy also provides access to labor with needed skillsets, regardless of where the skillsets are located.

While China’s economy was growing at unprecedented rates, its businesses were buying up commodities that would be used in production. This drove up commodity prices, making it more costly for U.S. businesses to obtain needed resources. As China’s growth rate slowed and it shifted to a service focus, the resources’ prices decreased.
 
When the value of one country’s currency increases relative to those of other countries, challenges crop up. This situation is currently playing out with the devaluation of the euro and the Chinese yuan. When compared to the value of the U.S. dollar, it’s less costly to buy from businesses in those countries—even with the addition of shipping costs. In turn, U.S. exports decrease.  This negatively affects businesses’ bottom line and eventually employment rates.

Business leaders need to apply a global frame of reference when forecasting, strategizing, and making business decisions. Without that focus, businesses can be blindsided by economic challenges and miss out on economic opportunities.

Classroom Implications

Students often have a very narrow view of the world—if “it” isn’t happening locally, “it” doesn’t matter. Teachers can broaden students’ world view by having weekly discussions about world events to have students reflect on and discuss how the events can potentially affect local businesses. Teachers should also share U.S. events and have students discuss the events’ potential impact on business and society in other countries. Current issues for consideration:

  • With the presidential elections coming up, have students debate candidates’ stands on international issues, examining the economic pros and cons associated with the various views.
  • Millions of people are fleeing the Middle East. Ask students why European countries are closing their borders to them.
  • Millions of undocumented aliens currently live in the U.S. Ask students to discuss or debate the best economic solution to this issue.

Business Trend

As the 14th anniversary of 9/11 just passed, our September trend appropriately focuses on national security and its impact on the business community.

Workplace Implications

The well-being of the U.S. economy rides on the shoulders of national security, an ever-present issue given technological and environmental issues. Cyber attacks and acts of terrorism threaten and can disrupt economic activity. Unfortunately, businesses are experiencing rising costs associated with cyber attacks from domestic and international sources, including governments, other businesses, and individuals. U.S. data breaches in 2015 average almost $1.6 million in lost-business costs per occurrence. Professionals must consider the impact of terrorist acts on their companies, including human loss of life, disruption of operations, and lost profits.

These security risks impact brand management. A single breach can become a PR nightmare if not handled quickly and to the satisfaction of those affected by it. Companies must be positioned through advanced planning to respond as soon as a breach is identified.

Companies in certain industry sectors are expected to have robust security measures in place given their role in the food-supply chain, pharmaceutical-supply chain, etc. For these companies, employees must have a heightened awareness of contingency operations, in-depth knowledge of their supply chain and disruption risk, and sensitive risk-detection systems.

Employees must be vigilant in their use of mobile devices and social media. In essence, they need to understand the potentially crippling effects of sharing company or customer information. They need to know and adhere to company policies related to cyber security. For a younger workforce, this is an even more difficult challenge as they must counter the “invincibility” mindset that is normal.

Classroom Implications

Teachers can institute classroom cyber policies, providing a rationale for them. At the same time, teachers need to explain that employers have policies related to social media, email, mobile devices, BYOD, and unauthorized software use. Encourage students to ask about cyber security policies when on the job so that they do not unknowingly violate company policy. Provide students with up-to-date statistics about the frequency and costs associated with cyber attacks so that they understand the magnitude of the issue. Educate students as to the ways businesses protect their data. Teachers can have students examine the school’s emergency response plan and identify ways that the plan would differ in business settings.

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.

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