Friday, 9 June 2017

Feng Shui for the Mind

I attended a meeting yesterday, at which my colleague suggested we should clear out all of the piles of dated paperwork and other detritus adorning our staff room. I wondered why she was suggesting this as I could not see the problem.

Yes I do have piles of old no-longer needed handouts left over from months of teaching, and which I have honestly meant to throw out, but basically the area around my desk is fairly tidy. However, as an ex-banker and therefore a thoroughly human and generous person (!) I thought I must give her the benefit of the doubt and I had a look at the area where I work.

I’m ashamed to admit that she was absolutely right! I suddenly saw in a new light the towers of ancient wisdom - which is a nicer way of describing old handouts - piling up on my desk and on my shelves, doing absolutely no good other than to gather dust, and producing an environment which is not exactly calm. So now my colleague has been deservedly given the nickname ‘The Feng Shui Fairy’, or as I prefer to call her, ‘Feng’.

I shall now make a cutting remark! I've been acting like a train travelling through a railway cutting, sure of my forward direction, but not seeing what was around me. I've become so used to the disorganised stationary in my vicinity that it began to be like wallpaper, and disappeared from my list of priorities. What my colleague managed to achieve was to make me look afresh at the situation, such that I could determine for myself that action was necessary.

Such a process is also common to many students, especially those of more mature years and experience. Something happens in their life which results in them re-evaluating themselves and their life progress, and realising that they need to progress their lives through education. This means that even though last year they were not considering further study, this year they are. They are enrolling and commencing on a fresh approach to life.

It is a healthy task to clear out one’s physical environment, but we must never forget the cerebral environment where so much of our life is lived and so many of our dreams are turned in to plans. Yes, this environment needs decluttering and freshening up. I call it ‘Feng Shui for the Mind’.

And the process works! I know this because each year at our ECBM graduation ceremony I see how happy and energized our students are, having completed their study, and now being in a position to take on new challenges and new directions. Education can have such a cleansing effect on the mind, helping us to see things in a fresh light. It can take away the clutter of the past, and replace it with clarity and new horizons. 

Graham Harman-Baker

Friday, 2 June 2017

Never forget the basics of customer service

Scotsman Robert Burns wrote his famous ‘To a Mouse’ poem in 1786. These words – translated from the original scots dialect - are often quoted: “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and leave us nought but grief and pain for promised joy”. Avoiding any discussion as to whether I am a man or a mouse, I can tell you that things certainly went awry for me this weekend.

What nicer thing to do on a warm summer's day in the beautiful county of Kent than to go into a typically English pub for a pint of beer and a sandwich. I enquired at the bar if sandwiches were available and was told that yes they could provide some, but then on taking my table the waitress said this was wrong and all she could offer me was some courgettes soup.

Oh well, this was not the end of the world, and I do love soup, but unfortunately it seemed that this bowl had not been within a metre of a courgette at any point. What I did taste, in large unappealing quantity, was pepper. The waitress asked if I enjoyed it, I told her no, and she shrugged her shoulders and walked off. I will not be returning.

Later I went to a hotel for an overnight stay with my family, before going to visit my aunt in a care home. On arrival everything was perfect and we drifted off into a peaceful sleep… and then it was at around 3 am when we were awakened by a group of young people out in the corridor who were not aware of their surroundings or the time of day. On check out we reported this to the front desk and there was an apology, and a small refund. I think the refund should have been larger, but at least the gesture was made.  

To complete the trilogy that I'm presenting to you, we then attended a friend’s funeral only to find that our flowers had not been delivered. On telephoning the florist she was horrified that they had made a mistake, and she immediately said, “What can I do to rectify this”? She went on to fully refund our money, and to send a beautiful bunch of flowers to my friend's daughter, and even photographed the flowers and sent the picture to us. This was genuine and exemplary service, the emphasis being on the word ‘genuine’.

We teach marketing and customer service, and cover a whole range of technical aspects. Those aspects are important, yet we must never forget the basics, to remember that the customer will often forgive you your mistakes, and that you will typically retain their business, if you react with a genuine and honest response. That’s our preferred way here at ECBM.

It doesn't have to cost you money, or at least not much, but attending to the basics will save your reputation, and avoid negative word of mouth advertising. “Don’t we all know this already?” I here you say. Well yes we do, but in our busy lives we sometimes forget, or perhaps it is only ‘other people’ who get it wrong?

It is a commercial tragedy if companies pay out thousands of pounds on advertising campaigns, and then forget the basic elements of customer care. It’s all about building relationships and establishing trust with your customer. Likewise in education, relationships and trust are primary determinants of effective learning and growth.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Education opens doors

As a child growing up in the 1960s, one of my favourite games was a driving game where I could manoeuvre vehicles around the town using a joystick. Actually I need to qualify this: it was a cardboard map of a town approximately 30 centimetres by 30 centimetres which sat in a box. Underneath the map was a magnet controlled by the joystick, and this in turn dragged the vehicles through the 2-dimensional town plan. To a modern audience this would seem really primitive, but back then it was for me a wonderful game.

Moving forward to the present day, my daughter plays intricate fast-action computer games with high definition quality graphics. It’s a different world! Recently she let me have a go and almost immediately I ran into difficulty. I wanted to move up to the next level which meant moving through a door, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get it to open. Most frustrating! However when she took over she knew exactly what to do, and very quickly pushed the door open and moved through to the next magical Kingdom.

I then had the realisation that this was similar to what we do at ECBM; we are in the profession of door opening. We provide education for students so the previously locked doors can now be opened, and additionally we provide a map for what to do once you have gone through. We have the key and the map. How you use them is up to you.

Professor Nigel Weatherill, Vice-Chancellor of LJMU,
 handing out certificates at ECBM's graduation last year
One of the institutions we work in co-operation with is Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU).  On the 27th April LJMU won the ‘University of the Year’ award at the Educate North Awards 2017, a most prized and sought after award.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nigel Weatherill accepted the award, saying:

“I am delighted that Liverpool John Moores University has won this prestigious award. This is testament to years of hard work by our staff and shows exactly what we can achieve by working together as a team, which makes LJMU the modern pioneering university in the North.

“It is fitting that this exceptional achievement comes in the 25th anniversary year of LJMU - another landmark in the history and journey of our university.”

The judging panel said: 

“The judges felt that the university demonstrated a clear strategic vision and contributed significantly locally, but also nationally and globally. The academic strength, management and financial stewardship are all contributing factors to their success.”

We at ECBM congratulate LJMU, and are proud to be part of its success story with our MBA and MSc programmes.

Graham Harman-Baker

Friday, 5 May 2017

The world is still a good place

I would like to tell you about one of my business students: city banker Bethany Fortune who is currently doing the Higher National Diploma with ECBM. Bethany ran the London Marathon for Cancer Research and did it in 5hrs 23 mins, an admirable performance!

I was thinking about the time leading up to the race. There is the training, the arrangement of sponsorship, and the knowledge that you are there in the spotlight and so cannot afford to fail. I can only imagine what it all feels like, and then there is the matter of the gruelling race itself!

You have to respect those who enter, and Bethany did it, raising valuable funds for her charity. When you witness such selfless behaviour you realise the world is still a good place. Well done Beth!

People leave us, others remain needing us to care for them, and others give their time and effort to raise money to pay for that care.

When you care you share, and change lives beyond compare. I wonder how many people reading this have their own heart-warming story to tell?

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Ability to Think for Oneself

As I approached the lift which descends from the platform at London Bridge station I saw two ladies look through the glass window, down the lift shaft, and they shook their heads. No lift. Another person leaned over, looked down, looked at the ladies and shrugged his shoulders before following them to the distant escalator. The last man of the group looked down, and walked away too. No lift.

My turn now, and yes I looked down the lift shaft. No lift; but also no call light on the panel beside the lift shaft. I pressed the down arrow, it lit up, and immediately the lift began its graceful ascent to platform level. That’s all that was wrong. The assembled people were so busy looking for the lift that someone had forgotten to call it.

So why did we all exhibit this same behaviour of looking down the lift shaft, and why did all the other people walk away one after the other? Are we really so incapable of thinking for ourselves?

At an American university some years ago the professor sent a student out of the lecture theatre, asking him to retrieve the class register left on his desk. He then told the remaining students he would bang on the table a number of times, and they should add one count to the number they heard. The first student returned and the exercise commenced.

As the mass of students added one extra count the lone student looked confused. However it was only a few minutes later when he started to add one count, all be it falteringly. Within 5 minutes he was adding one extra count without hesitation. Such is our relationship with the people around us.

This is why several people walked away from the lift without noticing the call light unilluminated: they were more concerned with what the other people were doing. I too fell in to the trap, but as an academic I understand the power of thinking for myself, which is why I broke ranks and looked where the others had not and saw the lift had not been called.

The ability to think for oneself is central to the academic mind. If we did not do this then you would be going home tonight on a cart pulled by a donkey. We need to have vision and imagination, and the ability to pursue our ideas with determination.

However before we launch ourselves off in to glory, we must also remember the need to take a measured approach to what we do, otherwise we will separate ourselves from logic and reason, and success would be a chance occurrence and not one of design.

We also need validation. As academics we cite the experts in the field under investigation. We may have expertise but that does not make us experts. We must have confirmation from experts of the rectitude of our decisions and actions; experts who have made it their life’s work to research and study their chosen subject. This gives our work, and ourselves, credibility.

On Friday I will be working with MBA and MSc students in Munich, engaging in deep learning strategies. We will debate subjects of their choice from the field of ethics, and case studies I have provided, and their content will be aligned to the learning outcomes of the module. There is no agenda, other than to think freely and creatively to address management problems in an ethical context. As minds are unlocked, doors will open in to new worlds, and fresh thinking will prevail. The process is energising! 

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

We may not always succeed, but we try our best

Edith Piaf was a celebrated French singer, who lived from 1915 to 1963. She was affectionately known as La Môme Piaf, which loosely translates as ‘The Little Sparrow’. Nearly always dressed in black, this diminutive lady emanated not only a powerful voice, but a powerful presence on stage.

Her early years were very tough, and I won’t go in to details here. Some people are hardened by such experiences, and others become more human, and in the case of Piaf it was definitely the latter. She was a generous lady – some say too generous – but it was in her nature. Life however did pay her back through a successful international career, but sadly also in the tragic death of people she loved.

While performing in New York, she missed her boyfriend Marcel Cerdan, a French boxer. She wanted him there with her so much that she asked him to fly out one day early. After some strings were pulled he obtained a seat on an earlier Air France New York flight. While making an approach in to a stop over it crashed and he was killed.

Not only did she share her money, she also shared something more personal and profound – herself. Many of her songs were autobiographical, and she would sing with her heart reaching out to the audience. People felt they could share their troubles with her, as she was sharing hers and her pain of life with them. It was a genuine experience.

Let’s come back now nearer to home. Some students find studying a pleasant emotional experience, and others struggle against the demands of a busy life. However one of the pleasures of being a tutor is the ability on some occasions to ease the pain to some degree. Although we are here to teach, we are also very experienced in the ways in which a busy person can react to a schedule of teaching and assessment, and we understand their problems.

We cannot wave a magic wand, but usually we can help to re-frame our student’s problems and improve how they feel. We are not trained in counselling, and cannot play games with people’s minds, but often it is enough to be a good listener, and good listeners we are. Good listeners with helpful suggestions. We may not always succeed, but we try our best.

I would say to anyone thinking of starting a programme of study, or going back to study after a long absence, see the problems but focus on the opportunities. Problems can often be overcome, but not so easily a lack of opportunity. You won’t be alone: family, friends, college administrators and tutors can share in the journey with you. Nothing worth achieving is easy, but a challenge is not the same as an impossibility, and the highest hills provide the best of viewpoints.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Data is the Fuel of the New Economy

I’m a man who likes to live on the edge, always bathed in the glow of a powerful adrenaline rush. And so last pay day I went out and brought myself a new piece of extreme kit… a vegetable spiralizer. No more boring sliced carrot for me I say.

I am trying to eat more healthy foods, and so lashed out £29.99 for the machine, and then went to the market with my wife to buy courgettes, beetroot, apples and so forth. Back home I assembled my little machine, placed some vegetables in its jaws of death, turned the handle, and et voila… a range of fascinating shapes appeared thanks to its four blade options.

Green apple, beetroot and carrots curled themselves around each other with colourful crunchy delight, and with the addition of some ham and cheese a really tasty salad was born. It took only a few minutes to wash the blades through and pack them away… money well spent.

There is another market on my mind at the moment, and there’s not a courgette in sight. I refer to the Digital Single European Market (DSM).

The European Commission website states, “The internet and digital technologies are transforming our world. But existing barriers online mean citizens miss out on goods and services, internet companies and start-ups have their horizons limited, and businesses and governments cannot fully benefit from digital tools. It's time to make the EU's single market fit for the digital age – tearing down regulatory walls and moving from 28 national markets to a single one. This could contribute €415 billion per year to our economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs”.

On the 10th January 2017, it was announced from Brussels that The European Commission is proposing new legislation to ensure stronger privacy in electronic communications, while opening up new business opportunities.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, Commissioner in charge of Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs, said: "Data is the fuel of the new economy. To ensure that Europe is successful in the new era of the industrial economy, we need a solid and predictable framework for data flow within the Single Market”.

So how will the UK share in all of this, now that we are intending to leave the EU? The European Commission’s web site states, ‘The Commission will engage proactively in discussions on reaching "adequacy decisions" ….. with key trading partners in East and South-East Asia, starting with Japan and Korea in 2017, but also with interested countries of Latin America and the European Neighbourhood’. What that would mean for the UK is too early to say.

As a Brit I am feeling like someone all dressed up for the party going on next door, but with no invitation in my hand.  All I can do is look over the fence and wish. Prime Minister May is about to trigger the UK’s intention to leave the EU… with so many issues on the table I just hope the significance of the DSM is not overlooked in the maelstrom of negotiations which are destined to follow.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Hakuna Matata - It Means No Worries

Life is never what it seems, we're always searching in our dreams to find that little castle in the air. When worry starts to cloud the mind it’s hard to leave it all behind and just pretend you haven't got a care. These words were written by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent for their hit song ‘The Other Man’s Grass is Always Greener’.

When I think about worrying I cannot help thinking of my paternal grandparents. My grandfather could never stop worrying; my grandmother could never start. Such a stark contrast would make a good case study, but that ship has sailed. Suffice to say I inherited my grandfather’s genes.

So what is all this leading to? Well as you ask, it is leading to some words I would like to share with you about student anxiety. I must say up front that I have absolutely no medical training, and that my words are just purely personal thoughts which you might find of interest, based on my experience of life.

Let’s start off talking of the students who believed they were going to fail. I referred last week to a lady who told me at the outset of a professional programme that she would fail an accountancy module, but one year later went on to study for her professional accountancy exams having grown to enjoy the subject. This gives us our first point about worry… it is so often pure fantasy, yet look at the energy we spend on worrying about things going on in our lives.

Another time a student told me they were worrying about passing their exams, and I replied that this was not what they were doing. I explained that they were perhaps worrying about how their career would be affected, or what their line manager would think, or even friends and family. You might think my reply solved nothing, but my second point is that taking the trouble to understand what you are really worrying about at least helps you to manage your thoughts more accurately.

Moving on, one student said that because they worried about taking part in a group presentation this was perhaps a sign of weakness. I pointed out that if they were really weak then they would not be on a programme. Their worry was that they would not do a good job for themselves or their fellow group members. You may not agree, but I think this demonstrates that the student was caring about task and team, and that this was a professional attitude. Point three then: sometimes just a little re-framing of the situation helps you to see things more clearly and realistically.

Finally point four: some people will never get to be students! When looking in to a course or programme they will meet a wall built of anxiety ‘bricks’. There could be many considerations to take in to account, and sometimes study is just not feasible, but I wonder how many great minds were never given their freedom because anxiety prevented it?

If you are thinking of studying, don’t let anxiety hold you back. Yes it’s a challenge, and no I don’t have any quick answers as I am a worrier myself; but I can leave you with this…

Don’t focus on what you don’t know today. Focus on what you are going to know tomorrow.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Approach the World of Study With a Fully Open Mind

What can be nicer than picking up a really good book, feeling the clean un-blemished cover, perusing the précised comments about the author on the back cover, and then tearing out the last page before anyone gets to read it. Oh the joy, for yes I am a former banker [sound effects: crash of thunder and maniacal laughter].

That is the kind of person I have been perceived to be when in the industry. The reckless behaviour of certain bankers did contribute to the financial crisis of 2007/08, and many businesses and individuals still bear the painful scars, but those bankers were the tip of the iceberg, and most of us are really normal and nice individuals.

It is interesting how our perception of people is influenced by the work they do. You are a nurse? How wonderful. You are an artist? How fascinating. You were a banker and now you teach accountancy? How… well I really must be going!!
The image of the bad banker couldn’t be further from the truth in most cases. Last week I was teaching a vibrant cohort, all banking and finance people, supported by excellent employers, attending ECBM for their Higher National Diploma programme. They have plenty of personality, and are all decent young people. They offer hope for the industry of tomorrow, its reputation and its integrity.

Perception can be a useful tool – marketers understand that – but sometimes it can discourage. I wonder how you would perceive going to college on a weekend? My colleague has just taught from Saturday to Monday, and his post-graduate students really enjoyed their learning experience. When dedicated talented students are led by a dedicated talented teacher the synergy which flows is exhilarating.

On graduation day I will see the results of all these students’ efforts and will applaud them loudly.

Sometimes people lack faith in themselves, to start a programme or to take it to the next level. I can cite a lady who told me at the outset of a professional programme that she would fail an accountancy module, but one year later went on to study for her professional accountancy exams. I introduced a despondent young man in a café to a foundation course he never knew existed, and now -after several years of study - he is a fulfilled, well-paid business consultant.

The point I wish to make is that we should approach the world of study with a fully open mind. Some of the most rewarding experiences in my teaching career have arisen out of transformations; watching people become what they thought they could never be. You don’t need to stay as the person you think you are now if you don’t want to. Become the person you wish to be through the pleasures of study. It will change your life, as it did mine!

And now, I must go down to the book shop…

Graham Harman-Baker

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

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

We start today with a love story…

It was a warm summer evening as Rupert and Jemima strolled the fields of Dingley Down.  He turned to her and took her hand: Jemima was entranced with love! Everything was a blur… she had forgotten her glasses.

They had often walked this way before - that is, putting one foot in front of the other – and the warm meadow grass felt soft and lush beneath their feet… and then soft and lush beneath their hands as they tripped and fell flat on their faces. The two love birds got up on their feet; nobody else’s were available.

They desperately wanted to marry and they both had youth on their side, the outcome of a drunken visit to a tattoo parlour in Benidorm. However they faced a major hurdle: they needed the blessing of the most dominant of grandparents. Grizzly and tough, a pipe smoker with a deep gravel voice, and never far from a whisky bottle, grandmother Cardomane would not be easy to persuade. Yes it was she who got cold in the family’s hairy tent. Sorry, I mean it was she who controlled the family’s inheritance.

I think I had better leave it there after that mistake…

There is nothing so warming as a story of true love. The simultaneous beating of two hearts, and the promise of a life of unity spreading ahead. However unity seems to be in very short supply of late, and this prompts me to re-visit this much posed question: “Why is it that we humans, so capable of love, and charity, and generosity, can end up causing such deep divisions in humanity?” Let’s look at some examples:

The population of the UK has been split in two by the Brexit vote. Passion still runs high on both leave and remain sides. Numerous well-attended anti-Brexit protests have been held, such is the anger at the outcome of the referendum. In a weekly BBC televised political debate, where members of the public can put questions and comment from the audience, normally polite people can be very insulting to each other. For example, ‘Leave’ supporters referring to ‘Remain’ voters as ‘Remoaners’, and ‘Remain’ supporters questioning the basic intelligence of those who voted ‘Leave’.

In America we have seen news broadcasts showing images of anti-Trump protesters on the streets – ‘Not My President’ one banner read - and now President Trump has just introduced the country’s toughest immigration regime ever, all be it temporary, and cancelled certain trade agreements which has been met with concern from US and overseas leaders, institutions and society. Reuters reported that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, evoked an image of the Statue of Liberty weeping.

In Germany the Social Democrat Martin Schulz – who will attempt to challenge and unseat Chancellor Angela Merkel this year – gave a speech to 1,000 supporters in Berlin, speaking of deep divisions in Germany and said he would fight for greater fairness and social unity. Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble reportedly acknowledged that Germany made mistakes with an open-door policy that saw more than a million migrants enter Germany over the past two years. A poll conducted earlier this month suggested that refugee policy would be the biggest issue for voters in the September election. Immigration was certainly a major factor in the outcome of the UK’s referendum. At this point however let’s remember that migrants are human beings and not commodities.

I have only covered a few divisions, and the task of healing them is gargantuan, but there are things we can do. Academics have the tools to make a contribution, and any contribution no matter how small is worth making. Just like Rupert and Jemima we may fall on our faces sometimes, but the academic community has a responsibility to promote critical objectivity wherever possible, as the antidote to ill-informed, subjective thoughts and deeds.

We need to develop the healing path of mutual respect and understanding based on honest, truthful, critical objectivity

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

London: World City

As I crossed London Bridge this morning the fog hung thick over the river Thames. I could hardly make out the familiar form of Tower Bridge no matter how much I tried to focus. There was a certain subdued magical charm that the Thames always takes on under these conditions. I wondered how the river craft would manage under this wintry veil, and if the aircraft destined for London City Airport would have the radar capacity to find the runway.

I was on my way to ECBM to teach a subject called ‘London: World City’, and on this foggy day in London town I felt I needed a political radar. What with the apparent ‘hard Brexit’ plans of British Prime Minister May, and the election of the unknown quantity which is Trump, I was not sure that I knew where the world was heading.

I arrived at ECBM, and prepared myself for a group of young bankers who were arriving from Frankfurt. Outside the fog was clearing as I collected up my papers and walked to room 2.2. These young people were happy to be in London, in great spirits, and looking forward to spending 3 weeks immersed in London culture for their Professional Development Programme. Energy and enthusiasm ran high as we critically analysed the challenges of being a world city.

I emerged from that classroom in a very positive mood. Seeing these young people with their lives ahead of them, positive about their futures and enjoying life so much, reminded me that I do not have to focus too much on the negative headlines of the day, as there were more positive and equally important elements of life around me. Yes… there are times when we humans need to be reminded of things we had already learned, and today it was my turn.

This is my lesson re-learned… How fortunate I am to be in this world of progress and personal growth. How fortunate I am to be a part of young lives filled with enthusiasm and potential. How fortunate I am to be a part of mature lives hungry for new skill sets and qualifications.

If you are ever in a fog, find your way to Great Eastern Street, for we have our own brand of sunshine, and it burns brightly.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

Last Friday London was in a strange mood. It couldn’t decide what it wanted its weather to be. By midday we had wind, sunshine, cloud, snow and then sunshine again. I suppose you could say this is very appropriate weather for a city like London: the diversity in the skies matching its ever-changing skyline and the diverse culture of the people walking its streets below.

I was also in a strange mood. Most of the UK had been hit by snow, and where I live outside of London the snow was thick on the ground and the pavements were treacherous with ice. Having nearly slipped over several times the night before, and as I would not be standing in front of any students, I decided to come to college wearing jeans and boots to save my formal clothes. I felt most uncomfortable; it just didn’t feel right.

That’s the thing with change: whether it brings pleasure or pain it does take us out of our comfort zone, and there we stay until a new zone is established. Like the weather we cannot stop it, and the speed of change can be remarkably quick. We are just passive observers; or are we? We may not be able to change the weather but we can dress for it, and we may not be able to change our lives but we can prepare for life changes.

The Economist magazine has a fascinating special report this week on life-long learning, and on its website there is a healthy debate in progress as to how we should envisage the concept. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) has been around in the professions for a long time now, and before that phrase was around we called it ‘keeping up to speed’ or something of that kind; the important point I am making is that CPD is nothing new, and I am sure your grandparents did it under the title of the day.

So why do we need to debate life-long learning? The answer lies in the growing complexity and diversity of the corporate environment, its ever-ambitious strategies requiring ever-ambitious personal development if we are to maintain optimum personal contribution to the achievement of strategic success. Can an institution such as ECBM provide all of this diverse learning? Well yes we can: we simply build another 1,000 floors on top of our present building and recruit 5,000 new lecturers.

Okay, that’s not going to work, but as an education professional I have a burning desire to play my part in meeting the challenges of a changing business world. So what can I do - what can ECBM do - to play its part in the learning challenges we now face? Well just look around you. Every building you see, despite their diversity, despite their ever-changing designs, are all built using mathematical and architectural principles which have been used for hundreds of years. New techniques have been developed, and some new materials, but the core principles remain.

I see it as our role to deliver core business principles, for example well-planned objective research, critical analysis, logistical decision-making, corporate governance, ethical business, and strategic success. We then integrate these disciplines into mainstream business scenarios. These are the kind of tools required to work with corporate and environmental change, to get the best out of change, and to ensure that when change happens we are ready and fully prepared to handle anything which is sent to challenge us.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

We live in a world of facades

There was such a rasping cold wind this morning, as I stood a few metres from the Shard tower waiting for my bus to the ECBM. 11,000 glass panels, covering a façade equal to 8 football pitches, doing a better job than my coat was for me in shielding 72 habitable floors served by 44 lifts and 306 flights of stairs from the January weather. People pass by, necks craned upwards, as they try to comprehend the magnitude of this edifice. I crane my neck as well, looking for the 149 bus.

Should I take the tube? Yes, let’s take the tube… but what’s this? The barriers are pulled across. The station is locked. Yes, the majority of tube stations are closed today due to a strike by London Underground staff. This great London institution, and inspiration to transport planners around the world, has ground to a halt. There will be no gaps to mind today.

So what has happened? If you listen to the media, you will see that the different parties are trading allegations with great efficiency as they always do. What we start in the school playground, we continue so effectively in the office and the board room. “Children! Play nicely!” Such is the business world where corporate ‘children’ typically don’t play nicely, but rather with self-interest as an agenda topper. Have I any chance of getting to the objective truth of this dispute? Probably not.

In so many ways we live in a world which is hidden from us by facades, some good and some bad. It doesn’t matter whether these are the glass facades of the shard, the dark tunnels of the London Underground, the character of the West End theatre actor, the second hand car dealership or other forms of man-made façade such as – dare I say it - the image we humans try to present to others. We live in a world of facades.

Some facades are so good that we don’t even realise they are there or what is going on behind them. In so many ways we see the world as others wish us to see it in order to serve their own purposes. However if you take the path of the academic, you can start to flood these facades with the bright light of applied critical research, evaluation and analysis, and slowly the façade breaks down and the truth begins to be revealed.

Can you face up to seeing the reality of ‘reality’? To see life more like what it is rather than what you wish it would be? If you can, then this will be one of the most rewarding elements of your being an academic, and you will find that it is one of the few life skills which is genuinely life-changing. You may even, in your management roles, get corporate children to play nicely.

Graham Harman-Baker

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Now is the time to reset the clock to January, as another year begins!

We are a few days in to the month so probably half of our new year’s resolutions have fallen away, or is that just me? How often have you been saying to people “Happy New Year” I wonder? For my part I don’t like saying “Happy New Year” to anyone. Can you guess why?

Well it could be because I am a miserable soulless former banker, but no that could never be the case, as we bankers are a warm and joyful lot of men and women, always looking to bring pleasure in to people’s lives as you well know. So why would I not want to say “Happy New Year”?  

Am I perhaps not a happy person? Well generally I am happy; as long as I don’t look in the mirror too often I maintain a fairly good sense of well-being and contentment.

So let me tell you then… I think “Happy New Year” is too passive an outlook on life. It feels to me – and I could be wrong – like relying on a wish. That is why I don’t like saying it. A wise person a long time ago told me that happiness does not emanate from external sources; it is generated from within, and I believe it. What’s more I want to believe it as it would make me self-sufficient in the well-being department. It is not easy to self-generate happiness, as life is never that simple, but I see it as the way forward.

We are all different and all have our own philosophies, so I am sharing mine but not arrogantly asking anyone to follow them. What I would like to do however is to quote a man of Wisdom, or to be more precise the late Sir Norman Wisdom. Sir Norman had a terrible childhood, living unloved behind a London statue, begging for food and drink. He even walked in his desperation from London to South Wales because someone told him he could get a job on a ship there.

Sir Norman went on to become a successful recording artist in the 1950s, a musician, a writer and a major comedy film star. He developed tremendous self-belief. When he was asked the secret of his success he said this: “The harder you work, the luckier you become”.

From those early days of being the teenager who walked to South Wales he went out looking for opportunities, and consequently found and made the best of most of them. He became a rich man with a beautiful house he designed himself, a Rolls Royce car and a yacht. He was a principled man as well, living in the tax haven of the Isle of Mann, but having his tax address on the mainland where he would pay full tax. What an inspiration!

I wish you “Many New Opportunities” and the self-belief to take them!

Professional development at the ECBM is always an opportunity.

Graham Harman-Baker