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The real business stories behind the recession headlines

  • Story Highlights
  • Business school study looks at real story in companies battling downturn
  • Many say that amid the gloom there is innovation and reform
  • Some complain that media headlines are too simplistic and doom-laden
By Peter Walker
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- On that Friday in September last year when Lehman Brothers collapsed and fellow banking giant Merrill Lynch was hurriedly sold off, the sense of shock that reverberated through the world financial system and was reflected in media headlines across the globe.

Behind the headlines -- is there more to the recesion story?

Behind the headlines -- is there more to the recesion story?

It was an implosion of confidence said newspapers, TV and the Internet, which labeled events "Black Friday."

But, after several more months of doom-laden coverage, what exactly has been happening within corporations at the center of the storm?

That is exactly what one leading UK business school decided to find out.

Since December last year, Kevin Power and Andrew Day, respectively a consultant and business psychologist at Ashridge Business School near London, interviewed dozens of business leaders personally and quizzed others via surveys.

Their findings cast a slightly more complex light on the aftermath of the credit crunch and the way companies are coping with recession: While many find things difficult, a lot are also using current events as a catalyst to re-think and shake up their own business models.

"Many organizations are working under severe resource and financial constraints which means they have to work with what they have got," Power and Day told CNN jointly via email.

"The old wisdom of 'necessity being the mother of innovation' is very relevant here.

"The more adaptable and responsive organizations are having to energize their people to stay close to their customers, and generate new ideas and possibilities for improving products, services and ways of working.

A common theme we heard was, 'We should have been doing some of these things a long time ago -- now they are essential if we are to survive and stay competitive.'"

A number of companies, they note, are attempting reforms that would have been seen as too radical, or too likely to antagonize unions, before the crisis.

But while their report gives a glimpse of a more complex world behind the headlines, the authors stress that the tone of the coverage, while not always helpful, was equally not necessarily the culprit.

"A few did blame the media for accelerating the downturn in their particular sector, for example the property and housing industry.

"However on the whole, most accepted that this was a global phenomenon and perhaps the bubble had to burst at some stage," they said.

"All our participants commented on the amplified levels of anxiety in their organizations, which they associated with the economic events, and their coverage by the media.

"Most leaders did say they had to respond to media coverage, pointing out to their employees the health of their organization, or being transparent with employees about the difficulties confronting their business."

Fact Box

FT MBA Rankings
1. London Business School, U.K.
2. Wharton, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Columbia, U.S.
5. Insead, France/Singapore
6. Stanford GSB, U.S.
6. IE Business School, Spain
8. Ceibs, China
9. MIT Sloan, U.S.
10. NYU, Stern, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2009

There is, according to Power and Day, nonetheless a feeling that some of the coverage has been over-simplistic and doom-laden.

"Whilst there are an awful lot of people losing their jobs in particular business sectors, we are also showing that businesses are being affected in a number of other different ways and even some of those in survival mode are showing remarkable resilience and wisdom. There are plenty of people who are saying this is a time of opportunity and renewal.

"Our personal reaction to what we have heard is that something very interesting and exciting is happening in organizations, and society, which is perhaps not being acknowledged in the media.

"Leaders are questioning the values and purpose of their organizations. A new attitude to rewards, short term growth and greed is emerging, and trust in government and financial institutions seems to be changing."

Overall, they say, events have given them "a unique research," and one through which they hope they can "uncover learning that would be genuinely helpful to organizations rather than to reinforce the feeling of helplessness."

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