Professor John Oliver

John Oliver is a Professor in Strategic Media Management here at BU. John enjoys collaborating with policy makers for real world impact and has had numerous significant interactions with both Parliament and Government.

These include a parliamentary fellowship, written and oral evidence with multiple committees, providing training for parliamentary staff, and speaking engagements. 

John’s research on the impact of crisis events on innovation and profitability in corporations influenced a Parliamentary Select Committee leading to its adoption within the subsequent Government growth strategy.

“I’m from a military family, and for part of my childhood we lived in the Far East. I remember being taught a saying by the great Chinese philosopher Confucius, who said “knowledge without practice is useless. Practice without knowledge is dangerous.” I think he got it absolutely right!

I started my career working for British Aerospace and Lloyds Bank, before doing my MBA in the 1990s and entering academia. I’ve always been struck by the chasm that exists between industry and academia, something that Confucius would not have been happy with! However, the tide is turning and BU's Fusion Strategy and the Research Excellence Framework encourages academics to show the practical value of their research. The way I see it, Government and funders want to see a return on their investments. In any case, designing research with the end policy and practice implications in mind is much easier than trying to tease out the impact of your work later on!

“My research has to answer the ‘so what? question’. If it won’t make a difference to people’s lives, what’s the point?”

I keep up to date with industry trends and contacts, which provide a consistent source of research ideas. These are usually in the form of a problem a corporation is facing – I’ll take the problem as the starting point for my work and go from there. I’m pretty strict with myself – my research has to answer the ‘so what? question’. If it won’t make a difference to people’s lives, what’s the point?

Real-world inspiration is everywhere

It was actually a family funeral that got me thinking about my current research focus, which is applying ‘trans-generational response’ to the business world. ‘Trans-generational response’ is used by the medical community to describe how a severe trauma in someone’s environment can negatively affect future generations. It’s been proven to exist, for example, in the offspring of survivors of war and conflict.

I wondered if there might be a similar phenomenon in corporations – can a crisis event create a culture of dysfunction that exists long after the crisis is over? And if so, can it threaten the long-term performance, and even viability, of the firm?

I examined a number of firms in the research including AIG, BP, Barclays Plc, Blackberry, Wells Fargo, Yahoo and VW. In all cases the firms were exposed to a crisis and hired and fired CEOs in their attempts to overcome chronic poor performance. In short, these firms met the criteria for ‘transgenerational response’. Now we’ve had the coronavirus crisis, it’s likely many companies will deal with the after-affects for a long time to come.

The Committee echoed my views

I submitted evidence to the Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Select Committee, which was looking into the impact of coronavirus on businesses and workers. My evidence highlighted that there would be long-term problems, as well as short-term ones, that coronavirus will leave behind. It recommended the Government establish a forward-looking strategy to encourage investment that supports businesses to innovate and thrive.

The Committee echoed my views, recommending to Government that a coherent strategy was needed, more so than individual micro-policies. The Government responded by publishing its ‘Build Back Better’ growth plan, which commits to long term strategies to foster business investment to drive innovation.

John’s real-world research and influencing tips

  1. Look around you and talk to people about their lives and their work. Identify the everyday problems, obstacles and challenges that people are experiencing. Policymakers rate research that is firmly rooted and has demonstrable real world value. 
  2. Design your research with practical application and impact in mind from the start. Ask what those people would need to do, what actions they would need to take, to solve the problem. Shape your research plan as a journey towards those practical applications. 
  3. If you want to influence, context is key. I always imagine my audience is reading my work from a mobile phone, while on the tube. Everything you write has to be short, clear and to the point.