Austerity – it can really drive you Wilde…

Dr Sue Konzelmann, author of Austerity, discusses the long-term impact of a policy that places price before value.

Over the last decade, most of us have been on the receiving end of innumerable attempts to justify continued austerity in the UK, all of which have had one thing in common – they focus purely on money. There has been much talk of public deficits and debt – although at times, even our prime ministers have confused one with the other. The impression you get is that everything has a price; and when it comes to austerity, that’s all that matters. In the words of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington, a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

There has been a fair amount of cynicism in discussions about austerity. For example, the value of spending over £136bn in public funds bailing out the banks following the 2008 financial crisis would be questionable enough in itself, without then using it as an excuse to deprive so many tax payers of essential government support services – especially since, as described in my new book, Austerity, the case of Iceland had clearly shown that there was a viable policy alternative to austerity. But whilst it all came down to cash at Westminster, the vast majority of us were losing essential public services that we use, value and, in many cases, depend upon.

If this continues, our society will soon begin to unravel at an even more alarming rate, as we cut the ties that bind it together. Cuts to local authority spending have already had a drastic effect on the level and effectiveness of social services, whilst you hear a lot on the TV – on a daily basis – about the devastating effects of cuts to the police and emergency services.

The corrosive effects of multiple cuts, acting together, became all too clear whilst filming a video about austerity at the Euston food bank – but that’s something you hear a lot less about in the news.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the vast majority of people who have been forced to use the food bank since it was set up in 2010 are actually in work. But the government’s attempts to save money through changes in the benefit system, like Universal Credit, has meant that people claiming it would not get a payment for up to five weeks. How many of us would be comfortable about missing a month’s salary – or more? Not many, I suspect.

It also turns out that in order to avoid homelessness, many Euston food bank users are choosing to pay their rent, rather than buy food. This is probably rather less surprising, given that the average UK household income is around £28,000 – and renting a two bed flat anywhere in that part of London will cost around £2,000 a month. Cuts to social care have also resulted in rising homelessness – and another source of people reliant on food banks.

Austerity, as a single policy, is a very blunt instrument, that has focused on price, rather than value. As a result, it has critically impacted many inter-related policy areas. Undoing its damage will therefore mean not only sharply revising policies in such areas of affordable housing, employment, health, education and social services; it will also require changes in benefit structures and delivery – to ensure that they work together as seamlessly as possible.

In a world where it is, for some unknown reason, apparently impossible to integrate such obviously linked services as the NHS and social care, this vision might seem ambitious. It shouldn’t be. In the words of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington once again, “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

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Why do women favour working in the public sector?

Research carried out by Birkbeck’s Dr Pedro Gomes and Professor Zoë Kuehn from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid aims to understand why women self-select to the public sector.

The public sector is a large employer, accounting for between 10 and 35 percent of total employment in OECD countries. In most countries, the public sector hires disproportionately more women than men. With my colleague Zoë Kuehn, I developed a model to try and understand this imbalance.

Through the lens of our model, we view the gender bias in public employment as driven by supply, meaning that it is not the government that acts explicitly to hire more women, but it is women that choose the public sector more so than men. Our objective was to better understand this selection, in particular, how much of it is explained by public sector job characteristics that are related to management, organization and human resource practices in the public sector.

We documented gender differences in employment, transition probabilities, hours, and wages in the public and private sector using microdata for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. We then built a search and matching model where men and women could decide whether to participate and whether to enter private or public sector labor markets. Running counterfactual experiments, we quantified whether the selection of women into the public sector was driven by: (i) lower gender wage gaps and thus relatively higher wages for women in the public sector, (ii) possibilities of better conciliation of work and family life for public sector workers, (iii) greater job security in the public compared to the private sector, or (iv) intrinsic preferences for public sector occupations.

A natural explanation for the gender bias in public employment could be that certain types of jobs that are predominantly carried out by the government could be preferred by women. However, our research revealed that, for the US, the UK, and France, once we exclude health care and education, women’s public employment is still 20-50% higher than men’s. Interestingly enough, the gender bias is less pronounced within public health care and public education compared to other branches of public employment.

Regarding transition probabilities, we estimated that the probability of moving from employment to inactivity is higher for women, but we found this probability to be significantly lower for public sector workers.

We also provided evidence that gender wage gaps and working hours are lower in the public sector. Individuals holding full time jobs in the public sector work between 3-5% fewer hours compared to similar individuals holding full time jobs in the private sector. However, fewer working hours are just one aspect of a better work-life balance (next to additional sick days, holidays, flexibility to work from home, employer provided child care etc.). In our model we wanted to capture differences in work-life balance across sectors in an ample sense, and hence we do not use these estimates to identify any parameters. Nevertheless, our results on fewer working hours in the public sector support the claim of a better work-life balance in the public compared to the private sector.

The results of our research suggest that women’s preferences explain 20 percent of the gender bias in France, 45 percent in Spain, 80 percent in the US, and 95 percent in the UK. The remaining bias is explained by differences in public and private sector characteristics, in particular relatively higher wages for female public sector workers that explain around 30 percent in the US and Spain and 50 percent in France. Only for France and Spain do we find work-life balance to be an important driver that explains 20 to 30 percent of the gender bias. Higher job security in the public sector actually reduces the gender bias because it is valued more by men than by women.

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Introducing the Centre for Innovation Management Research

The Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) is one of Birkbeck’s inter-disciplinary research centres. Professor Helen Lawton-Smith, Director of CIMR, explains what it’s all about.

CIMR is an inclusive and impactful centre of research excellence in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship. Inclusivity comes from the engagement in all our activities of CIMR members, our academic colleagues in Birkbeck and in other universities, our diverse set of visiting fellows and alumni (professionals in a wide range of organisations) and our PhD students.

Impact comes from our research, publication and dissemination in societally important topics. Recent studies include analysis of strategies for knowledge exchange, of knowledge co-creation, of diversities of innovation (BAME and disabled groups), public policy on entrepreneurship and innovation in differing regional, national and international contexts and on. We’ve been awarded research grants by the ESRC, British Academy, European Commission and Innovate UK.

Our recent workshops have included: Accelerating SME Internationalization: Academic, Policy and Practitioner Perspective (March 2019); International perspectives on measuring and evaluating knowledge exchange (July 2019), Strategies for knowledge exchange in a changing higher education landscape, (September 2019).

We engage in national and international collaborations. In 2019, led by CIMR, the School of Business Economics and Informatics signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Kogod School of Business, American University, Washington DC. CIMR colleagues work closely with scholars in the US and in mainland European countries including Sweden and Italy.

We publish in top international journals including Research Policy, Industry and Innovation, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, European Urban and Regional Studies, Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, Small Business Economics, and Regional Studies.

Our research insights feed directly into UK and international policy-making. We have informed practice in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Innovate UK, European Commission and the OECD.

Our research and international collaborations feed directly into teaching on technology transfer, innovation and entrepreneurship and blockchain. Masters students are welcomed to CIMR events and to join our alumni – we look forward to meeting you.

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How to find ideas that markets will love

Birkbeck alum and Innovation Strategy Consultant Melina Padayachy identifies the essential missing link for successful entrepreneurs.

Creativity, Idea, Inspiration, Innovation, Pencil

Finding ideas that markets would love can often seem like a feat that only few people are lucky enough to achieve. Study the stories of Amazon, Google and Starbucks for instance, and you would find that in each case, the innovators almost stumbled upon their ideas by chance.

Indeed, prior to the genesis of Google, Larry Page was a student at Stanford University where he was aspiring to download the internet on his computer and rank web pages based on their popularity. As a result, Google’s proprietary Page Ranking technology was born, making Google the leading search engine in the world.

For Amazon, Jeff Bezos came across an important piece of information about the exponential rise of the internet while researching opportunities for his boss and as a consequence, he created what is now the leading online retailer in the world.

Next, the idea to sell espresso in a coffee bar popped into Howard Shultz’s mind while he was attending a conference in Milan and he saw espresso bars at nearly every road corner. He wanted to import the concept to the United States and today, Starbucks is one of the leading coffee places in the world.

In all three cases, it would seem that the innovators were either in the right place at the right time or they were trying to solve the right problem. As a result, one may be tempted to conclude that innovation is essentially serendipitous and that any attempt to decode it would be futile.

Yet, if you examine how past innovations impacted their markets, you would find certain distinctive patterns that could be emulated. For instance, some innovations capitalised on existing trends while others were caused by growing and changing trends, and still others, created new trends.

Of even more significance, are the facts that based on their respective market impacts, different ideas would need different development, go-to-market and scaling strategies.

The implications are quite significant because often, new ideas are subsumed under the generic banner of innovation and no distinction is made among their respective market impacts. As a result, some fail to take off. Indeed, scroll through the post-mortems of failed ideas and you would see that often, ideas failed because their market impact was either wrongly framed or overlooked, and as a result, the wrong development and go-to-market strategies were applied.

The Link between the market impact of an idea and its development strategies

Amazon.com

Take a look at Amazon.com for instance. In 1994, Jeff Bezos spotted a growing trend in the use of the internet and he noticed it was starting to change the way that books were bought. Internet technology was new at the time and people had just started buying books online. Already cognizant of the facts that internet usage was growing at the rate of 2300% per year and that books were the most sold items on the internet, Bezos decided to launch an online bookstore. However, the uncertainties facing the company were quite high.

To start with, it wasn’t clear whether book buyers would continue adopting the internet and if so, whether they would change their book purchasing habits. In that respect, Amazon relied on market intelligence to gauge the rate at which internet usage was growing.

Also, by observing markets, Jeff Bezos could find that there were already two online booksellers and that the market was growing.

Then, Amazon’s beta test prior to its launch helped identify the barriers to adoption, namely customers’ concerns about storing their credit card information online. Amazon thus came up with a secure credit card system. Incidentally, the company “finished 1996, its first full year in business with net sales of $ 15.7 million- an attention getting 3000 per cent jump over 1995’s $ 511000.” Clearly, the trend had caught on.

Boo.com

Similarly, Boo.com was an online fashion company that was founded in 1998 by Ernst Malstom, Swedish poetry critic, and Kajsa Leander, former Vogue model. Aspiring to be the “premier online location where the cool and the chic would be able to buy their clothes,” Boo.com launched with 400 employees in eight offices.

However, in as much as only 20% of UK households had access to the internet, the company had few visitors to its sites and not enough sales to sustain itself. Furthermore, the website’s features could not be fully accessed with the dial up connection in UK households. As a result, the company had to close down two years later.

Question is: Could Boo.com have done anything differently?

To start with, Boo.com impacted its market in very much the same way that Amazon.com impacted theirs. Indeed, the company capitalised on a growing trend in the use of the internet, to change the way that an existing job was being done, i.e purchase of fashion.

The uncertainties that Boo.com faced were quite similar to those faced by Amazon.com.  Yet, unlike Amazon.com, the company did not understand its market impact and as a result, it did not try to overcome the uncertainties associated with the idea.

For instance, it should first have had market intelligence pertaining to the rate of growth in internet usage in its different markets. Market intelligence would have revealed that only 20% of UK households had access to the internet, and that information would have enabled the founders to adequately gauge the scale of their initial business and potential rate of adoption.

Then, with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), Boo.com would have identified the barriers to adoption. For instance, it would have discovered sooner that the features on its website were not supported by dial-up connection and it could have perhaps simplified its website or found ways to get around the problem. The MVP would have also allowed the company to test the fit between the service and markets and the fit between the business model and markets.

Instead, the company was focused on scaling and as a result it did not survive.

Thus, by understanding the market impacts of innovations and by understanding their implications for the development, commercialisation and scaling of new ideas, innovators can avoid diving into new ventures armed with only their gut feeling, and can successfully bring their ideas to markets.

Melina Padayachy is an affiliate alumnus of the Birkbeck Centre for Innovation Management Research. This blog is adapted from an excerpt of her new book, The Innovator’s Method: Bringing New Ideas to Markets.

Based on an analysis of past innovations and of start-ups that have failed, The Innovator’s Method identifies a unique link between how an idea would impact the “job to be done” of its market and its ensuing development, go-to-market and scaling strategies.

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