Is Organisation the Place for Care? – webinar recording available Reply

Our webinar on ‘Is Organisation the Place for Care?’ took place on 3 March. If you missed it or want to watch again, the webinar is now available to view on demand.

Watch the webinar 

The webinar showcases video highlights from the Business Perspectives masterclass, held in London last month and aims to stimulate thoughts around the challenges of incorporating care into working practices, HRM policy, leadership, organisational design, and organisational strategy.

Our webinar panellists included Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at The Open University Business School and Dr Clare Mumford, Research Associate at University of Manchester. The webinar is facilitated by Peter Wainwright, OU MBA Alum and Business Consultant at Askyra Ltd.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool  #OU_BP

Video highlights from our masterclass on ‘Is Organisation the Place for Care?’ 1

The Caring Leader: What do followers expect from their leaders and why? (Part 1)*

Professor Yiannis Gabriel, Professor of Organisational Theory, University of Bath

*Part 2 of this video is available via our online webinar.

Women’s Work: Being a working elder carer

Dr Viv Burr, Reader in Psychology, University of Huddersfield


Further video highlights from David Macdonald, Director of Organisational Learning at Arup, Zoe Davies, Head of Accent on Enablement Programme at Accenture, Professor Yiannis Gabriel, Professor of Organisational Theory at the University of Bath (focusing on an ethic of care) and Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at OUBS are available to watch during our online webinar (you will be required to register, if you haven’t already done so).

Free webinar on Care Relationships – a powerful blueprint for business & organisational relationships Reply

We are delighted to invite you to The Open University Business School’s latest Business Perspectives complimentary webinar:

Is Organisation the Place for Care? – Thursday 3 March 2016, 19:00 – 20:00 (GMT).


In this webinar, you’ll learn the importance of how our experiences of relationships of care give us the skills to become better leaders and change managers.

Our experiences of care help us to navigate the politics of unequal relationships, which may have a profound impact on how we manage, lead and follow in the workplace and wider community.

Amongst our presenters will be, Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies from the OU Business School. The webinar will be facilitated by Peter Wainwright, OU MBA Alum and Business Consultant, Askyra Ltd.

To register for this complimentary webinar and for further information, please visit our website.

Is Organisation the Place for Care? Reply

Our Business Perspectives half-day masterclass in London on Wednesday 10 February 2016 will look at ways in which care can influence leadership, organisational strategy, HR policy and issues of work/life balance. The event will be hosted by Dr Leah Tomkins, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at the OU Business School, who has held senior leadership positions in Accenture, KPMG, PwC and the Cabinet Office, Whitehall. Amongst the keynote speakers will be Professor Yiannis Gabriel (University of Bath), Dr Viv Burr (University of Huddersfield), David Macdonald, Director of Organisational Learning at Arup and Zoe Davies, head of Accenture’s ‘Accent on Enablement’ programme.


We’ll explore some of the meanings associated with care, and their implications for our approach to work, career and organisational and personal commitments. In thinking about where these meanings come from – and how they are charged with some of our most primitive emotions – we hope to offer some reflections and provocations for how care might influence organisational strategy and practice.  We’ll consider three particular aspects of care, and try to tease out their common themes:

  • Care as an element of organisational culture; what does a ‘caring organisation’ look like, and what are its barriers and enablers?
  • Care as a central dynamic of leadership; what does it mean to be a ‘caring leader’, and would we really want to work for one?
  • Care in relation to work/life balance; how can we reconcile the rhetoric of flexible working with the reality of juggling work and care, especially relevant with our ageing population?

This event will appeal to those interested in issues of organisational strategy and culture, leadership, HR management, demographics and workforce planning, diversity and equality. It will have a special relevance for those juggling these interests with a caring commitment themselves.

For further information and to register, visit our website.

Why leaders need to be systems thinkers 2

Systems thinking is a highly effective approach to managing organisations. It sees complex entities as a series of components that make up the whole, each part interacting with and influencing the rest.

The various divisions, units and teams – the components – of a large organisation continually interact with and affect each other. In effect, they behave collectively as a system. As such, business leaders need to take a ‘whole-system’ perspective if they’re to maximise organisational performance.

Seeing the whole

To get the complete picture, leaders need an in-depth knowledge of the entire organisation, its various moving parts, and how each component impacts upon the rest. But there’s more to systems thinking than that.

Chain reaction

Business leaders need to understand the adaptive nature of systems. As dynamic entities, systems adjust to changes imposed on them – often with unpredictable results.

Leaders therefore need to know how the actions they take in any one part of the system will cascade down to affect the whole.

Supply and demand

What’s more, systems thinking requires a genuine understanding of both sides of the demand and supply equation.

Firstly, how much demand is there on the system? When and where will the organisation’s output be required? What are the likely peaks, troughs and seasonal variations in demand? What external factors will affect demand, and how?

And importantly, how much demand is due to the system not supplying what it should in the first place? In the UK public sector, some estimates put this so-called ‘failure demand’ at 80% of the total.

On the supply side, leaders need to understand their organisation’s capacity to provide the goods and/or services it offers.

Systems theory can help leaders to understand capacity constraints. This means they’re better placed to identify the resources needed for work to move effectively through the system. Otherwise, their focus is too often on the capacity to store work (storage capacity), rather than the scope to flow it (flow capacity).


Finally, leaders need to adopt the right management style, moving away from a purely command-and-control mentality. They must accept that the performance of their system is as much a factor of its design as of the work done by its employees. Issues such as poor performance, low morale or stress among the workforce often result from problems within the system itself.

Barriers to systems thinking

So what’s stopping leaders from gaining a systems perspective?

Organisations are structured into divisions and sub-divisions, each with its own managers, objectives, priorities, budgets and performance management targets. As a result, people understandably focus on the piece of the puzzle they’re responsible for. So it’s rare for leaders to be able to see the entire system.

Additionally, managers in each part of the organisation may not be incentivised to work with the other components to help meet the overall aim. As such, there may be no common vision; no shared ‘map’ of the system.

The performance targets that are often implemented in organisations can act as a barrier to systems thinking. They can bring about leadership behaviours that are counterproductive to the overarching mission.

And in the public sector especially, targets can be a tool for stakeholders to label units as a ‘success’ or ‘failure’ – rather than a measure of how the system is performing. To make matters worse, solutions to failure tend to focus on the part of the system where the target was missed, not the system as a whole.

Moreover, most organisations are managed in a top-down, command-and-control way. But systems-based leadership means allowing frontline staff to develop a thorough understanding of the organisation, and empowering them to improve processes from within.

Taking a systems perspective

Creating a culture of systems thinking isn’t a quick task. It takes time to embed the knowledge and behaviours needed to make decisions, and take actions, that will benefit the system as a whole.

With this in mind, systems thinking shouldn’t be the preserve of a select group of senior leaders. A whole-system perspective can only be achieved by developing the ability to map work flows and processes among the entire workforce. In this way, any changes to the system can start with a clear idea of the organisation’s aims and purpose – and crucially, the needs of its end-users.

Are you a systems thinker?

  • Do you see the whole system, rather than trying to optimise your local resources? A ‘local’ perspective can damage the performance of the system as a whole.
  • Do you regularly walk through the process that your customers experience? If not, it will be impossible to generate a map of your system, and identify its potential failure points.
  • Do you regularly map your user experience, and make the map available to all who need it? Process-mapping should produce shared knowledge about the way the system is configured, and how its performance is influenced by its design. This can then act as a reference for everyone involved in improving the system.
  • How do you measure demand and capacity? Many organisations – especially public bodies – measure activity (the work done), instead of demand (the work coming in). This leads to a lack of understanding of capacity constraints.
  • Are your performance management measures used for improvement, rather than judgement? Their purpose should be to prevent errors and improve processes, not to find culprits when things go wrong.
  • What actions occurred as a consequence of any process analysis? Good systems thinking practice is often characterised by fast decision-making and process change. Decision by committee isn’t conducive to systems thinking.
  • Is system design a top-down or bottom-up process at your organisation? System design is at its most effective when it involves the people who know the system best: frontline staff and service users.

Case study: The NHS winter crisis

The 2014-15 Accident & Emergency winter crisis brings to light many of the organisational issues and challenges outlined above. It’s a textbook example of a ‘whole-system’ problem – and one where a lack of systems thinking has meant a failure to identify its root causes.

During winter 2014-15, only 86% of patients passed through A&E in four hours or less. This was significantly below the government’s 95% target, and a much greater shortfall than in previous winters.

Yet demand for A&E services rose only 2% year-on-year during that time. Such a marginal increase shouldn’t tip any system into critical failure – especially when seasonality is entirely predictable.

So why did the crisis happen? Why do winter crises keep happening? And why do they seem to get worse each year?

The issues at hand

A&E is, of course, just one part of the enormous, infinitely complex NHS system. Demand for A&E services, and the capacity to provide them, depends on other parts of the hospital, and on other institutions within the health service: GP surgeries, community health and social care services, the 999 and 111 phone lines, and so on.

Perhaps inevitably in such an intricate system, there’s no common view of the whole, and no shared vision of what everyone’s trying to achieve.

Each department is run separately, with its own objectives, pressures, budgets and targets. So clinical leaders rarely observe the patient journey end-to-end, and can lack visibility of potential failure points across the system.

The four-hour A&E waiting target brings its own challenges. As a yardstick to gauge flow capacity, it is an effective measure. But it’s widely considered – within and beyond the NHS – as a reflection of performance. It’s used simply as a ‘line in the sand’ between success and failure.

The upshot is that measures to improve A&E departments that miss the 95% target focus largely on the units in question. They fail to address issues elsewhere in the system which contribute to the problem. And they encourage short-term optimisation of A&E resources, rather than long-term solutions to the wider problem.

At the same time, demand for A&E services isn’t properly understood. There’s an assumption that more people, with more complex health problems, attend A&E units during winter. But the data proves otherwise. Admissions are actually higher in the summer, while the number of patients with complex problems doesn’t generally vary from season to season.

In reality, what lies at the heart of the A&E winter crisis is a system-wide supply problem. The flow capacity of the health service as a whole isn’t being appropriately planned.

Flow capacity reduces across most of the NHS during winter, as managers, clinical staff and support workers take their Christmas breaks. This puts more pressure on storage capacity, in the form of beds, so the whole system ends up getting jammed.

The wrong solutions

This lack of systems thinking is driving actions and decisions that don’t alleviate the problem.

Firstly, when planning service capacity, senior managers tend to look at only one aspect of supply: storage capacity. Making sure there are enough beds is of course essential; but a closer look at flow capacity would identify the impact that Christmas holidays have on the system’s ability to perform in winter.

Other commonly used tactics suggest a lack of understanding of the nature of demand for health services. Take the ring-fencing of resources, for example. GP surgeries might dedicate a half-day a week to seeing only children or elderly patients, even though this doesn’t relate to demand – it doesn’t reflect when people fall ill and need to see their doctor.

And as a winter crisis emerges, under-pressure A&E wards may go into firefighting mode, transferring patients who’ve spent four hours in their department to elsewhere within the system. This simply moves the workload – it doesn’t solve it.

NHS managers may also reallocate beds from other parts of the hospital to A&E. Or they might try to deflect demand, channelling patients elsewhere to relieve the strain. But both of these approaches reduce capacity in other parts of the system.

Finally, NHS leaders have a tendency to create overly complex solutions to problems. One trust ended up with over seventy different queueing priority systems in place in an attempt to manage urgent demand. A lack of coordination can also leave attempts to improve the system disjointed, overloading staff with conflicting workloads. At one point, for example, there were some 86 improvement projects running simultaneously within the NHS.

Understanding and action

In order to tackle the underlying causes of the winter crisis, NHS leaders need a thorough understanding of:

  • how the different components of the health service interact with each other
  • the true levels of demand coming into the system at each entry point
  • how work flows through the NHS system
  • the difference between flow and storage capacity
  • the amount of each capacity type available to each component of the system at any one time
  • how the system itself can cause variations in demand and capacity
  • how these variations can result in delays and waits for treatment

Based on this detailed view of the system, leaders then need to consider taking the following actions:

  • create medium and long-term strategies to guarantee the capacity to meet demand in every part of the system, at the right time, without unnecessary delay
  • measure process behaviour in real time
  • use journey-time measures to assess where delays are being generated
  • address the causes of these delays
  • allow frontline staff to develop detailed knowledge of the system they work in
  • encourage continuous system improvement, based on sound process analysis and established methodologies such as ‘plan-do-check-act’.

In summary

Many operations in the public and private sectors can be viewed as complex, adaptive systems. As such, typical command-and-control approaches to running them fail to understand their nature. They’re not equipped to identify the root causes of any performance issues, or encourage sustainable, effective process improvement.

The NHS’ winter A&E crises – and the way they’re handled – are a case in point. They are the symptoms of a ‘whole-system’ problem, but are addressed locally, which fails to get to grips with the underlying causes.

A systems-based approach can help overcome such shortcomings. Properly executed, systems thinking provides a view of the whole organisation, its work flows and processes, and its demand and supply parameters. This helps make clear why services might be failing to deliver what they should.

But there are certain challenges that typically get in the way of systems thinking. Leaders must adopt the right management style and behaviours. They must take time to understand their processes from their customers and frontline employees’ standpoints. And they must embed the necessary skills across their workforces.

Only then can they gain the systems perspective required to truly maximise organisational performance.

‘Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers’ webinar – recording available Reply

Our webinar on ‘Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers’ took place on 30 November. If you missed it or want to watch again, the webinar is now available to view on demand.

Watch the webinar 

Listen to what our speakers had to say about the importance of management leadership in systems thinking, using the winter 2014/15 NHS ‘care crisis’ as a case study.

Our webinar panellists included Dr Paul Walley, Lecturer in Operations Management, OUBS, Kate Silvester, Managing Director, Kate Silvester Ltd and Nigel Edwards, Chief Executive, Nuffield Trust. Facilitating this virtual event was OU Associate Lecturer and MBA alumnus Elvin Box.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool  #OU_BP

‘Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers’ webinar 1

Our free online webinar on Monday 30 November 2015, will introduce video highlights from the Business Perspectives roundtable on Why Leaders need to be Systems Thinkers. The topic is based around the winter of 2014/15 when the UK NHS experienced its biggest ever “winter crises” within the Accident and Emergency (A&E) care system. A crisis which is part of a repeated problem that occurs at the same time each year.


In this webinar, we take the views of a number of experts who have studied last year’s winter crisis and its underlying causes.  The panel strongly believe that many senior managers still have a limited understanding of the full set of underlying causes.  Hence they will not be able to solve this problem unless they develop good systems thinking skills, start to correctly diagnose problems within their system and find the most effective solutions.  Presenters will provide insights to how behaviour has to change to lead the system improvement and prevent management practices that make the problems worse rather than better.

The discussions will consider whether other organisations in both public and private sectors can learn from the experience of the winter crisis to see whether or not similar knowledge and behaviour change is needed in other sectors.

We’ll draw on these contributions from the roundtable and further develop these discussion points during the webinar, where we invite you to contribute via our live online polls and Q&A forums.

Intercultural Working webinar – recording available 1

Our webinar on Intercultural Working took place on 15 July. If you missed it or want to watch again, the webinar is now available to view on demand.

Watch the webinar

Listen to what our speakers had to say about the issues relating to leadership and management in different multicultural settings, cross cultural coaching and the role of political astuteness in communicating with impact.

Our webinar panellists included Dr Björn Claes, Senior Lecturer in Operations Management at OUBS and MBA alum Jeremy Roebuck, volunteer Business Consultant, Grow Movement. Facilitating this virtual event was OU Associate Lecturer Peter Wainwright, host of our previous Business Perspectives webinars.

You can also share your views and comments about the event or topic by following us on Twitter @OUBSchool  #OU_BP

Bending my mind to intercultural leadership and political astuteness Reply

Guest blogger: Dr. Elaine Monkhouse, Open University MBA tutor, and freelance coach and consultant.

The Business Perspectives masterclass took place on 23 June, if you would like to watch video highlights you can register for our webinar on 15 July 2015.

The recent Business Perspectives seminar on intercultural leadership, cross-cultural coaching and political astuteness really left me thinking.  On the face of it, here were three topics with which I have experience in practice, and I thought that I understood the relevance of each to the others as different but related areas of management. And yet the fundamental pertinence, indeed the crucial link between them, only struck me fully while sitting in the seminar and talking with fellow participants.

As Dr. Bjorn Claes pointed out so clearly, today’s business culture norm is multi-cultural. We can assume nothing about someone’s cultural identity, whether through origin, upbringing or socialisation. And yet as a manager, as an executive coach, and as someone often finding my way through organisational political mazes, aren’t I making assumptions all the time? I may encounter colleagues and team members in a conventional British or European setting, much as I did 20-30 years ago, but all the cultural constituents to building those relationships with any of those three hats on has potentially changed out of recognition.

There are of course instances where I am consciously operating in a different cultural context, such as a coaching contract I carried out in Dubai. That very obviously different setting, the way every gesture and custom is distinctive, immediately puts one’s cultural ‘antennae’ up and we are perhaps automatically more sensitive and less liable to make assumptions as a result.

But the presentations and discussion pulled me up short on how much I am in danger of assuming about someone that I encounter in my ‘home’ setting. Very useful, and I must thank Phil Hayes, who spoke about cross-cultural coaching. But add to this the fascinating insights that Professor Jean Hartley brought to us in her presentation on leadership with political astuteness, and I was humbled. Can I really advise a Director of Strategy of a very high profile Dubai corporation on how to secure the sponsorship and buy-in of the shareholders? I realised that I understand so little of ‘how business is done’ in that setting, despite being alert to it diverging from my ‘norms’.

Thankfully, I was left feeling that ‘yes! I can still be useful as a coach and an advisor’, if I continue to develop my skills and cultural sensitivity by embracing some of the very useful and practical, and what’s more generically valid, principles that both Jean Hartley, and Phil Hayes proposed. My three big ‘take-aways’ from Phil, which I aim to adopt in my own practice, would be (1) don’t assume that feedback is always seen as good or appropriate, (2) recognise that not all cultures are goal and change focused, and (3) helping someone reach their individual potential (as is usually the point of coaching) may not be the point at all in a culture where collective performance is the primary goal.

Jean’s explanation of the key components of political skill really struck a chord with me. I am a strategy consultant by trade, but so much of successful strategy is about managing politics, and so the penny dropped with quite a thud at about 4pm that afternoon in the seminar! The alignment between personal skills, interpersonal skills, reading people and situations, building alignment and alliances, and strategic direction and scanning really brought it all together for me.

Intercultural working trend report & webinar Reply

Intercultural Working trend reportOur latest Business Perspectives trend report looks at our current topic of Intercultural Working. The report considers the wider world of business culture, focusing on hiring, development, communication, embracing and the big picture.

The pace of business has never been so fast, which is why this summary has been designed so it can quickly inspire you at home, in an airport or on the go. You can download the report now, absolutely free.

Download the report

Continue the conversation with our free Intercultural Working webinar, where we’ll explore issues relating to leadership and management in different multicultural settings, look at the role being political astute and hear about cross-cultural coaching. Our free one hour webinar will take place on Wednesday 15 July 2015 at 19:00 (BST).

The online webinar will introduce video highlights from the Business Perspectives masterclass, held in London recently. During the webinar, we’ll draw on contributions from our masterclass and further develop these discussion points. You can contribute via our live online polls and Q&A forums.

Register for the webinar

We invite you to download and share the report and send us any comments.

If you would like to contribute your perspective towards future topics, please contact our Business Perspectives Editor.