Diploma in Strategy and Innovation
As someone who works in the world of peace-building, strengthening democracy and international affairs, I engage daily with individuals on all levels in political, public, diplomatic, business, media, academic and community sectors. However, throughout my career I have had limited direct experience of the corporate world, which explains why executive education, and why the Diploma in Strategy and Innovation.
During many conversations over the first few days at Saïd Business School, a few of my fellow classmates (mostly high-level corporate executives), asked me how relevant and applicable the examples from the corporate world are to my work? We soon realised that they are more relevant than ever. Everything around us is changing, often quicker than we can endure: technology, social norms, our approach to relationships and careers, a collapse of long term thinking, planning and acting, the distribution of power and withdrawal of social solidarity. We live in an era of a rapid shifts and complex challenges.
In order to address some of the most pressing global issues of today (including polarisation, inequality, migration, terrorism, cyber-crime and climate change) we need to develop new creative networks of cooperation: cooperation between private, public and community sectors. Only together can we create a more stable and peaceful world with a shared sense of opportunity, shared sense of responsibility, and above everything else a shared sense of humanity. We have much to learn from each other.
As I reflect on Module 1 on Strategy and my own work in addressing some of the outstanding issues of the Northern Irish Peace Process and sharing our experience globally, I’ve started imagining Northern Ireland as a corporation. Let’s call it ‘NI plc’.
What would the NI plc case study look like if I presented it to my fellow classmates? Thanks to our Programme Director Professor Teppo Felin, we have analysed great case studies of Aldi, Ducati, Disney, Alibaba and Valve. Could we apply some of the lessons from the corporate world to the way NI plc is run?
You see, NI plc has been operating without an Executive for more than 12 months. Its customer base numbers approximately 1.8 million people and the annual budget for day-to-day spending is around £10bn, while the capital budget is about £1bn.
NI plc is a fantastic – if slightly dysfunctional – place. Lonely Planet named Belfast/Northern Ireland as the best place to visit in 2018. The people, scenery and quality of life are absolutely amazing.
It has a proud industrial past: at the beginning of the last century a world leader in cotton, linen and shipbuilding industries. NI plc brought us street cars, electric tramways, ejector seats, pneumatic tyres, portable defibrillators, discount department stores and mail order as well as milk chocolate (thanks Mr Sloane!) among many other inventions. Innovation was at the heart of NI plc operations.
Currently, NI plc is the number one global destination for financial services technology projects and the US FDI cyber security development projects (FT, 2017). Global hits like ‘Game of Thrones’ have helped to develop film and creative industries. Northern Ireland Knowledge economy is the second fastest growing region in the UK.
However, NI plc also has a very troubled past. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which brought over 30 years of violent politically-motivated conflict to an end. The architect of the Agreement – our top strategists and innovators with some international assistance, helped to create new structures, institutions and processes to address some of the disturbed historic relationships, inequalities and grievances.
Sadly, NI plc remains very divided. Segregation in social housing and education is still a major issue. A report produced by the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre for the Department of Finance indicated that public services incur an additional annual cost of up to £833 million in which division may be a factor. The most significant cost area is linked to policing and justice. NI plc’s economic performance has also been consistently below the UK average for several decades. Long-standing issues in the NI plc labour market include low productivity and high rate of economic inactivity.
The recent elections (polarised along sectarian lines) indicated that NI plc did not reach the threshold of social support: we are not at the “tipping point” yet. The society is too divided to provide collective wisdom to help to make crucial strategic choices. We have tried and continue to try different “synergy” bootcamps by bringing together politicians, civic and business leaders, people young and old. NI plc even has a dedicated, well-resourced strategy called T:BUG (Together: Building United Community), but are we actually doing what we can or what we should?
Currently, the newly appointed Secretary of State Karen Bradley, the British and Irish governments and the five main political parties are holding talks in another attempt to restore the Executive.
It is rather challenging as two “Executive Directors” (the leaders of the two largest parties, with a hefty public mandate) hold very different beliefs about the future of NI plc: one would like NI plc to remain as a part of the United Kingdom, the other envisages NI plc as a part of the Republic of Ireland. There are very few synergises and the foresight in relation to the consequences of Brexit complicates matters further. There is no much appetite to innovate, to explore new options – the relationship and trust are broken. We need time to restore it, but without the Executive even the routine practices are becoming increasingly difficult. We are running out of time.
It was fascinating to dive into the world of anthropology and philosophy during the Module 1. Thanks to very inspiring lectures by Dr Giovanna Vitelli and Professor Mark Wrathall, I was able to further reflect on social trust, institutions, time and innovation. It will take a very long time to reconcile deeply embedded cultural identities and address NI plc’s existential dissonance. Many behaviours in NI plc make little sense but are actually fully intelligible. Year after year NI plc returns to its default position of divisive elections and divided communities. And it’s not unique to NI plc: Brexit vote and the election of a controversial President in the US indicate that rationality is not enough, and social proofs can easily produce dysfunctional outcomes, such as group polarization.
NI plc operates in the environment characterised by social complexity, political instability and economic inefficiency. Even if the Executive is restored, due to the misplaced motives, zero-sum arguments and flawed synergy logic, NI plc will not be able to fully realise its potential. Diligence-based strategy (already applied by civil servants) and a renewed focus on activities, priorities, strategic capital and successful measurable outcomes should be at the core of the potential new agreement. Perhaps the appointment of Sue Gray – the new Permanent Secretary in the Department of Finance (NI plc’s new CFO), once described as “the most powerful woman in Britain” truly marks beginning of a new area? Fascinating times.
So, as I embark on this exciting new journey at Said Business School (yes, Teppo Felin – I did use the ‘j’ word), Northern Ireland is also entering a new phase. I have no doubt that my learning experience and these newly forged relationships will help me explore how best I can contribute to a more reconciled, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland. And I hope that the remarkable achievements of our peace process can also provide some valuable lessons to my fellow classmates from the world of business and commerce.Back to top of article