Archive | June, 2012

BBC News: How did the FSA calculate Barclays’ fine?

29 Jun My analogy for the financial services industry - a hooded penitent who, when the hood is lifted, you can see is...well, smoking a fag. I'm working on my analogies. Semana Santa, Segovia, Spain, 2011. My own photo.

Well, here is my first bylined news story for BBC news, where I’m freelancing on their business news desk – and really enjoying it. Such a great team of people and such a great learning experience.

My analogy for the financial services industry - a hooded penitent who, when the hood is lifted, you can see is...well, smoking a fag. I'm working on my analogies. Semana Santa, Segovia, Spain, 2011. My own photo.

My analogy for the financial services industry – a hooded penitent who, when the hood is lifted, you can see is…well, smoking a fag. I’m working on my analogies. Semana Santa, Segovia, Spain, 2011. My own photo.

How did the FSA calculate Barclays’ fine?

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) admits it cannot explain how it decided what to fine Barclays for attempting to manipulate interbank lending rates.

A source at the FSA has told the BBC that the figure was simply a “judgement call” by its enforcers.

It said there was no specific formula for deciding how much Barclays should pay.

The FSA also admitted that its approach to coming up with fines is “opaque”.

The topic of the FSA’s formula for assessing fines is such a sensitive topic, few people want to speak about it – much less be quoted on the record discussing it.

The FSA fined Barclays £59.5m ($93m) for attempting to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) and the Euro Interbank Offered Rate (Euribor), two interest rates banks use when lending to one another.

On top of that the US regulator, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), levied a fine of $200m (£128.5m) on Barclays, the biggest fine it has ever issued.

The fraud department of the US Justice Department’s Criminal Division levied a $160m (£103m) penalty to Barclays “in a related manner”.

A director of one prominent shareholder interest group, who declined to be named, said that while the FSA fine was modest in comparison with that of the CFTC, shareholders “would not want it to be any larger as this would impact on future dividends.”

The director added that the FSA and CFTC fines combined amounted to almost half of the total dividends paid by Barclays last year.

On the other hand, the FSA fine is equivalent to not more than about ten days’ of profit for Barclays.

Critics argue the FSA’s £59.5m fine is too small to reflect the seriousness of the misconduct.

So how did the FSA decide what was an appropriate fine?

The regulator said that Barclays’ conduct contravened three of its principles by which all regulated companies must abide.

But it does not prescribe a specific cost to members for contravening them.

The FSA’s handbook sets out its procedure for setting fines, including five steps for penalties imposed on regulated firms.

In setting fines the FSA establishes a figure “that reflects the seriousness of the breach,” commonly the amount of revenue a firm generates from the part of its business involved in the case.

It then decides on a percentage of that figure to be the value of the fine.

Where there is not an appropriate figure to hand, or a way to determine the value of any potential damage arising from the violation, it “will use an appropriate alternative”.

But the FSA source told the BBC that, in the Barclays case, no alternative figure was generated.

“It is basically a judgement call – no alternative figure was used,” the source said.

The regulator’s handbook states that the amount of revenue generated by a firm from a particular product or business area “is relevant in terms of the size of the financial penalty necessary to act as a credible deterrent.”

But it could not explain how the fine levied relates to either the potential harm caused or the size of the division in question.

While fines levied by the CFTC are paid in full to the US Treasury, the FSA keeps the money to reduce the fees members (except the member who the fine is awarded to) pay it to be regulated.

The FSA source said that its fine “could not be compared like for like” with that of the CFTC because they come from different regulatory regimes.

The FSA is to be superseded by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) at the end of 2012 or the start of 2013.

The BBC’s source at the regulator says that it does not anticipate any change to the way it works out the size of fines.

But in a speech to Parliament, chancellor George Osborne hinted at the possibility for criminal proceedings to be brought against individuals involved in the attempted manipulation of interbank rates.

HSBC, RBS, Citigroup and UBS are under investigation for colluding in the attempted manipulation.

If the size of fines reflects the seriousness of the transgression, the incoming FCA may need to examine its US counterparts’ harsher response to such astounding governance failures.

It has some time to do so. The BBC has been given to understand that the FSA believes it will take “months” before the next settlement with a bank over Libor manipulation will be announced.


Campden FB: Is film investment all fur coat and no knickers?

29 Jun Members of Lord KItchener's First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, 1907. But have they got knickers under those fur coats? Heh. Flickr/National Library of Scotland

“It’s possibly the only instance in which prospective investors will be disappointed to see no sign of knickers.”

How did I get away with that one – in a magazine for the world’s wealthiest, often most conservative business families? This is a piece I wrote in 2004 for Families In Business magazine (now called Campden FB) about investing in film production. Very enjoyable.

Have a read.

Members of Lord KItchener's First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, 1907. But have they got knickers under those fur coats? Heh. Flickr/National Library of Scotland

Members of Lord KItchener’s First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, 1907. But have they got knickers under those fur coats? Heh. Flickr/National Library of Scotland

Returns of 500% sounds pretty juicy, but nothing’s for free. Melanie Stern scratches the surface of film investment and finds that this silver screen temptation is, well, just a boring old tax shelter – albeit a useful but ill-understood one

You might think it would take a pretty radical game of free association to link film and hedge fund investment, but it’s simple. The relation is three-fold – big due diligence and regulatory concerns make them both very high risk.

If one looks behind the proverbial fur coat of the film industry, it’s possibly the only instance in which prospective investors will be disappointed to see no sign of knickers. Film investment is simply a tax deferral scheme for the very wealthy, which is fortunate since this group is most likely to have the capacity for losing vast amounts of cash. Experts stress repeatedly that most individual investors never see their money again but the investment can be valuable as a capital gains shelter within the family portfolio – or simply, a pure passion investment with no expectation of returns.

The provision for the wealthy to invest in films has recently come under threat in the UK. Last February, the UK Treasury closed down a number of film production funds operating to the new Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) on fears they could give rise to abuses. To keep an eye on money flowing into these schemes and to keep it closer to the country, the Government has also been working to ensure that only ‘British-qualifying’ films are accessible.

One of the more popular tax deferral schemes – due to expire next July – is Section 48 Sale & Leaseback. Focused on production budgets below £15 million for a British-qualifying film, investors put up around 20% of the gross investment, and are permitted to write off the investment to receive a 40% tax rebate on exit from the scheme, paying the money back to the Revenue over 15 years.

It is to be replaced with ‘son of Section 48’- but observers say this will benefit only the producers and not investors.

“The whole industry is trying to figure out what role there might now be for the private investor, as there are no solid products replacing the closed schemes,” says Martin Churchill, Editor of the Tax Efficient Review (TER) and an expert in UK film partnerships. “I think the market for the private investor will drop away completely post-July.”

Section 42, providing tax deferral for budgets over £15 million, remained untouched by the Treasury but is less popular with the wealthy as the tax deferral structure is shorter-term, and because it is focused on smaller, less commercial projects. Institutional investors, though not as commonly involved, can benefit from this scheme because they pay a lower rate of corporation tax.

Like the scandal-ridden hedge fund industry, film partnerships grapple with a nascent and shifting regulatory landscape that serves to keep many wealthy investors, such as families, away. In the UK, the Inland Revenue keeps a close grip on these schemes for its own gain, but the UK’s Financial Services Authority sees them as unregulated collective investment schemes. Additionally, most companies selling investment participation have not been obliged to take regulatory status from the FSA, although they can be if a large group of individuals decide to sell these schemes together. It’s a vague distinction, but it is changing. The Treasury announced in February that all intermediaries will “soon” be required to register with the Inland Revenue, which could improve investor protection and sell-side transparency.

Simon Conder, creative products director of London’s Brass Hat Films, accepts the drivers of negative perception and explains that it is down to investors to swot up before they hand over cash to the industry. “You don’t need to be regulated in this business but it is in everyone’s best interests if you are,” Simon says. “If we’re selling directly to an individual, we will do it through our FSA-regulated arm which provides financial advice outside film.”

For the meantime though, many family investors just won’t touch anything entertainment-related as a matter of course, and the number of film investment fraud cases can only perpetuate that. “We keep away from entertainment unless we have real inside information on the company and the people,” one US-based family office member tells Families In Business. “Private investors are being seduced by the promise of glamour and high returns, but as I understand it, film is very high risk and only offers a very small opportunity for a very large payout.

“Of all the private equity opportunities out there, entertainment is the one with the most fluff.”

Companies that sell private placement in film do appear to make much of the ‘soft’ perks, offering investors one’s name on the rolling credits, on-set passes, premiere tickets, director’s chairs, and lots of other high-falutin activities – but spend less time detailing the financial risks resulting from one of the financial sector’s perennial bugbears, due diligence.

There are many risk factors in film investment that merit thorough due diligence before parting with any cash, usually all relating to how commercially successful the film can be, the main driver of returns for the hierarchy of investors.

Everything from the choice of director to the cost of each production stage, to the intermediary going bust, through to the star quality of the cast and the possibility that the film will not even be released threaten the individual investor’s chances of a return. (Take the precarious examples of Swept Away directed by Guy Ritchie and starring wife Madonna, or Gigli, starring celebrity ex-couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck: sure-fire mega-hits on paper, unbelievable loss-making stinkers in reality.)

Some companies allow clients to decide which parts of the process one’s money goes to, while others put it all into a pot and decide for themselves. That aside, the distributors always take between 50–75% of the box-office profits as the first creditor in the queue, followed by the major studio investors like MGM who take similarly large slice, followed by region-specific distributors like 20th Century Fox and recoupments for ‘print and advertising’ costs. Simple arithmetic can illustrate how low individual investors rank. For example, of the total US$22.5m capital currently being invested to make one commercial film starring a top Hollywood star, one leading film partnership company sunk $2.1m for its investors; to its own conservative projections it expects to end up with $571,500 (UK£311,105) to distribute to its clients, who each put in a minimum of £50,000.

“The majority of films turn a profit, but individual investors often don’t see it, because they’re right at the end of the creditor’s line,” Conder explains. “But if one of our current projects, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, does as well as Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation did, then our investors will see a return of around 450-480%.”

If that were the case, perhaps film partnerships would be more popular with the wealthy than other risky investments like derivatives or art.

Currently there is no legislation or any best practice guidance for the sell-side to ensure that clients are shown proof of thorough due diligence and risk assessment, and the relevant authorities have so far not shown interest in reviewing this. “There is usually a sponsor involved in projects who conducts the due diligence, but it is a very difficult area and investors need to be extremely careful,” TER’s Churchill warns. “There’s a lot of mis-selling in this business – these are very complex schemes and the risks are not always pointed out. Some IFAs don’t even know the risks themselves. I think most investors are told, ‘put in £1 and walk away with £1.50’, but life is never that simple.”

Our family office member concurs. “The golden times of high return, risk-free investment through tax deferrals has gone. Film investment always requires massive due diligence – you’ve got to know who you’re getting into bed with. That’s why it is so illiquid as an investment choice. A film investment is not an investment in film – it is an investment in a tax scheme.” Despite this, Churchill estimates that in 2003 UK investors pumped some £1.5bn into these schemes

The allure of the red carpet has clout among the wealthy and even with their close advisors, but involvement in the sector is held back by a lack of understanding or education. “People continue to think that film is fundamentally risky, but it is no more speculative that buying oil or commodity stocks,” Conder argues. “It is still outside most people’s financial understanding and there still aren’t enough experts in the field to guide investors.”

HR magazine: How can finance directors and human resources directors collaborate on ROI?

29 Jun Japanese merchant, identified as "Mr Shojiro", holding an abacus, taken between 1867 and 1869. Flickr/National Library NZ on the Commons

My second piece for HR magazine, and one in which I found hardly anyone wanting to go on or off the record. I think I clocked about 15 finance director calls and almost as many HR directors. Goes to show that FDs, who are the top numbers people in their organisations, don’t want to know the return on everything the company does – though it’s interesting to consider whether they should, and how they could do that. I once had a boss who told me that each page in the magazine I edited, if the magazine is working, should have the same and specific cost, vis-a-vis my monthly editorial budget (I forget the number). He was bean-counting it. I thought it was stupid. But then companies need to know what their outlay is to know their profits.

By the way, doesn’t the term ‘human resources’ make your blood run cold? Ah, we are but wooden beads on an abacus: assets to be counted, sweated, used and abused. The word ‘human’ there is not really more than a figleaf – we’re merely ‘droids.

Have a read.

Japanese merchant, identified as "Mr Shojiro", holding an abacus, taken between 1867 and 1869. Flickr/National Library NZ on the Commons

Japanese merchant, identified as “Mr Shojiro”, holding an abacus, taken between 1867 and 1869. Flickr/National Library NZ on the Commons

It is funny how, at the hint of a chance to talk about an HR director’s recent success in launching some shiny, new, bleeding-edge benefits system, a contacts book can fly open – and how it snaps shut when you want to talk about how they measure its return on investment.

Even funnier how the same thing happens when you want to talk to a finance director about those metrics.

Of about 10 finance directors approached for this feature, not one wants to talk about how they measure ROI on HR systems, and of the same number of HRDs approached, just two agree to discuss it on the record.

The HRD at one of the UK’s largest retail gambling outlets, which recently bought and rolled out a platform it hopes will help improve service levels, increase staff productivity and reduce staff costs across 10,000 employees, tells me off the record it initially wanted to roll the system out across the entire business – but decided to only use it in one part, because the trial showed “it didn’t forecast the ROI results we initially thought it may”.

That HRD doesn’t want to go into why.

At the same time, the HRD at a large hotel group implementing a system to automate labour scheduling and improve productivity says it is too early to talk about ROI. “We are in the middle of implementation and nowhere near able to comment on how we measure the ROI,” she tells me.

Another knockback comes from the chief finance officer of one of the UK’s oldest employers, which has just started rolling out a self-service system merging payroll and training on one platform for 16,000 people: “The system is only just about to go live, so I have no idea of its impact on the business – and the bit we are most interested in, which will pay staff, won’t be up and running till the autumn.”

Even these titbits open up a plethora of questions: Didn’t our gambling company HRD need to be confident of the ROI prospects before disrupting the business with a trial? Didn’t the hotelier HRD consider ROI measurement before buying in the system? And is it worrying that an organisation’s chief numbers person has no idea of ROI on his burning platform ahead of launch?

Could it be that neither HRDs nor FDs have a clue how to measure ROI on their reassuringly expensive employee benefits, online training, employee engagement and payroll systems – so simply don’t?

As another finance director – who prefers to remain anonymous – tells me: “It is a pretty cutting-edge area.” Why? “I have never done it.” It seems that’s a common response.

According to talent management technology provider SHL, which surveyed its HRD clients in November 2011, just under half of those clients across the globe collect metrics to demonstrate the value of their HR investments – 6% less than in 2011 – although 70% of its clients admit they feel under pressure to demonstrate ROI on the hire assessment platforms they use.

Interestingly, 42% of SHL’s clients are required by ‘internal stakeholders’ – be they the FD, the CEO or the board – to demonstrate a link between hire assessments (increasingly done through HR platforms) and business outcomes.

SHL’s survey shows that, while more HRDs are being asked to demonstrate the benefit of HR platforms to the company’s bottom line, fewer HRDs are now doing so. And the silence emanating from HRDs and FDs when asked to talk this through is deafening.

The motivation for buying in an HR platform that can automate employee benefits, training and the like often comes from somewhere other than the HRD, says Doone Selbie, an interim HR systems director who works with a range of UK employers on their platform implementations and setting their ROI metrics. With the single metric usually being to save money or reduce headcount, the finance director is frequently the person making that call.

Selbie has often seen HR platforms integrated with those of the finance department. This means HRDs don’t own or have access to the data the platforms produce – so they can’t do any value analysis. “And what they have access to they don’t use, because HRDs, although they are in charge of a lot of processes, aren’t good at process standardisation and ownership,” she says. “Quite often the end-to-end process of an HR platform isn’t within their remit. If HRDs don’t have good processes, it is difficult for them to measure ROI on their systems; if they don’t have good systems, it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of their processes. Often, they just have a gut feeling that the process needs improving and will buy a new recruitment system for that. They know the system will cut a few days off their hiring process, but they won’t have the time or resources to work out how long that new process is, end to end.”

And the way HR defines a metric is different to how finance does it – another bone of contention. “I don’t think FDs are interested in HR… they report numbers and payroll costs, but the numbers that finance does on HR are to do with cost of employ,” adds Selbie. “And I would say HRDs don’t understand their systems – they don’t see it as their job and they’re not massively systems-literate. They have delegated it somewhere.”

In 2009, mid-sized business publisher Incisive Media built its own employee benefits, training and payroll platform, YouChoose, using its in-house IT team. Some 73% of its UK staff use the platform.

Incisive’s HRD Stuart McLean believes the platform costs nothing, because it was built by existing staff and is run by the existing HR team. It seems more likely the costs are hidden, because no-one wrote any cheques to platform vendors or consultants. Measuring ROI on YouChoose could include the salary costs of staff that were taken off other projects to build the platform and the proportion of time its HR team spends on running it; this data would provide one metric towards the true cost, versus the £100,000 annual saving McLean says the business enjoys from it every year.

“Return on investment is not something we specifically measure. There was no real cost and no budget attached to YouChoose; it doesn’t really cost us anything, because we run it ourselves,” says McLean. “Yes, it does take up staff time, but that is very difficult to measure, because it looks after itself to a large extent.” What about other metrics: does it retain staff? “We would like to think so, but there’s no absolute measure of that,” he says. “What do we get back from it? We believe we are a more attractive employer because we offer benefits, but that is incredibly difficult to measure. Maybe it sounds naïve… but measuring its ROI is just not something we do.”

If HR were a religion, judging the value of a platform by what you like to think it does for staff retention would be adequate. One department that could provide hard-boiled ROI on HR investments is that of the chief technology officer or chief information officer, where they exist. CTOs and CIOs drive efficiency from systems across all parts of a business, and are experts in data collection and analysis to be used in business strategies. In other words, they are the cone-heads who really take an interest in HR ROI.

Information systems (IS) staff, as Selbie terms it, “are the gate-keepers of ROI, rather than the finance people, in my experience. Funnily enough, I see more cases of IS enforcing ROI calculations, justifying the business case for such investments and ensuring a business follows the appropriate project-management steps before investing, than I do from FDs,” she adds.

So many HRDs not only delegate ROI somewhere else, as Selbie says, or don’t see how things such as employee engagement or better employee satisfaction can be measured. Stanley Janas, a former HRD at US performance-management business, Halogen, warns that HRDs can’t hide from the increasing demand for HR ROI for much longer. “One of the things we often hear from customers and prospects is that they struggle to define the ROI of an automated talent-management system in order to justify its purchase,” he writes for Halogen’s blog. “Let’s face it, most of us don’t have deep training in finance, and are sometimes a bit intimidated by the prospect of financial calculations and estimates. But calculating ROI is critical for HR to get support from their business leaders for any investment in talent management.”

Speaking on how finance and HRDs can – or should – work together on ROI, Kathryn Hill, finance director at Crown Paints, dismisses as a mere excuse the notion that HR can’t measure metrics. “A business operates to maximise shareholder value, which is measured through financial results. Human resources has a role in explaining how performance strategies affect this, or how staff engagement impacts on performance,” she says. “It is not about who moves closer to who, but that the two disciplines drive towards the same strategic function.”

Do HRDs and FDs understand why they should know the ROI on these platform investments? They often say they do, but the evidence is stacked against that assertion. Incisive’s McLean says that his CFO is happy with the savings YouChoose has brought the business, but that ROI doesn’t come up in conversation at all. “If the organisation doesn’t force the HRD to measure HR ROI, they won’t do it. And the people to force it are likely to be the IS people more than the finance people,” adds Selbie.

In the future, though, HRDs may be forced by economic imperatives to get familiar with ROI and taking responsibility for process ownership. Jason Averbrook, CEO at HR consultancy, Knowledge Infusion, says the IT organisations he deals with regularly want to support HR, but not by “spending time writing custom reports or designing one-off interfaces between applications”. He believes HRDs need to ask themselves how they move towards a model that removes heavy reliance on IS or IT.

And Selbie adds that HRDs get frustrated with tech people when they can’t grasp how to extract data from their systems.

“They don’t understand all the nuances around the difficulty of extracting information, except that people will tell them it is difficult. They may talk about how long it takes to recruit and how much it costs, but they won’t be asking what their system does to support that and how valuable it is in helping with that – ‘does it give us those calculations?’ They just want to know how to increase the speed of hiring.”

Finance directors, ironically, have a similar mindset.

How do employers measure ROI on their technology systems?

The difficulty in measuring return on investment (ROI) through HR technology is that these tools often give intangible returns that can lead to more effective systems within business, but don’t translate into financial figures.

The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) advises ROI of HR technology could be measured as follows:

  • Reduced time and resources required to deliver outputs
  • Improved data reliability and validity
  • Improved maintenance and operational costs
  • Contributions to strategic business objectives
  • Contributions to strategic talent objectives
  • Indirect costs – avoiding unnecessary costs made by incorrect decisions
  • Improvements to user satisfaction
  • Improved individual and team performance
  • Improved attraction and retention of HR staff

With technology, rather than using traditional ROI to measure effectiveness of HR technology, SHRM also suggests employers could consider a cost/benefit analysis. SHRM compares the two methods as follows


  • Appropriate only when both ‘investment cost’ and the ‘return’ come over a short period
  • If longer, need to factor in time
  • Problem is finding an appropriate investment cost figure
  • Sometimes presented as a set of financial metrics, rather than one

Cost/benefit analysis

  • No precise definition
  • Positive and negative impacts are summarised and weighed against each other
  • Include a time dimension
  • Attempt to quantify every impact
  • Do not exclude an impact if it cannot be quantified

Here are some practical examples of how employers we spoke to measure the value of HR technology:

  • Reduction in HR staff time spent carrying out administration processes
  • Reduction in staff absence through measurement through online systems
  • Reduction in time-to-hire and cost of advertising jobs through use of social media recruitment
  • Up-take of employees using e-learning or mobile learning solutions
  • Cost savings from avoiding sending staff to training courses or bringing in trainers through e-learning or mobile learning
  • Cost savings on purchasing HR software by using cloud technology to store data
  • More collaboration between employees and higher staff engagement scores, thanks to more effective internal communications

The Guardian: five ideas for the future of the sustainable built environment

25 Jun A ferris wheel on top of a building, Osaka, Japan. Now THAT'S forward thinking. Photo my own, 2006.

Another write-up for the Guardian newspaper, this time from a live discussion they organised with four panellists and their readers on the future of the built environment. I was careful to edit out any use of the word ‘paradigm’ from the panellist comments – anytime corporate people talk about something that they think will change their industry, it rears its ugly head, but it’s just a buzzword – and I learned some really curious, interesting factoids about how planners and developers think. I’m pretty curious about the 20-minute living idea.

Have a gander.

A ferris wheel on top of a building, Osaka, Japan. Now THAT'S forward thinking. Photo my own, 2006.

A ferris wheel on top of a building, Osaka, Japan. Now THAT’S forward thinking. Photo my own, 2006.

Pressed by societal trends and government agendas to consider how they can help craft “sustainable lifestyles”, the construction, architecture and building industries are pondering the built environment of tomorrow. Ballooning populations, natural disasters as a routine, unaffordable energy prices and scarcity of resources are just some items on the list of problems to be solved. How can those industries come up with the house, commercial use building, town or city of the future?

With this question in mind, Guardian Sustainable Business ran an online discussion with readers and three expert panellists. Catherine Dannenbring, director for sustainability at Skanska Commercial Development was joined by Ben Hanley, an associate in asset management solutions at IBM Global Business Services and Melissa Sterry, a futurologist, design scientist and transformational change strategist to construction, utilities, manufacturing, design, publishing, media and communications businesses. Together they focused on five ideas.

20-minute living

How does the idea of living no more than 20 minutes’ travelling time from where you work grab you? Impossible, maybe? Not in Portland, Oregon. The traffic lights in downtown Portland are timed to the speed of a cyclist, so motorists see little point in driving faster than the cyclists, since they won’t make the lights. The effect, according to Catherine Dannenbring, is not only that the city feels safer to cycle around, “but you actually feel empowered as an urban biker, rather than fearful. I imagine the effect is that more people decide to bike and aspire to live within biking distance of downtown”.

That principle is being used by Portland’s property developers – calling it “20-minute living” – so that everything you need is within a 20-minute walk or bike ride of your home, therefore reducing traffic, pollution, fossil fuel use, saving money and making the city more sustainable. “If we can make sustainable living not just better for the environment, but a more pleasurable way for people to live, we have a win-win,” she adds.

Plan in regular Biblical floods

A 2012 exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art explored the idea of building to accommodate floods, rather than trying to keep water away. It brings together architects and inter-disciplinary teams to re-imagine the New York and New Jersey coastlines constructed so that they can survive sea-level changes. “Rather than try to develop systems for keeping the water back from our current low-elevation border areas – a la Thames barrier – the idea was, ‘let’s accept that solution as unsustainable, and permit the water to encroach…now how do we need to adjust our built environment to work with this new reality?” says Dannenbring. “A visionary- type exercise, but one that I think starts to address some of the issues.”

Watch emerging markets for innovation

British planning laws are bemoaned as a hindrance to building innovation, and many in the West look to emerging markets for the best new ideas on the sustainable built environment. Brazil is less hindered by policy, and as a fast-growing economy it needs to provide more housing and more work places as quickly as possible – while considering the environment. “This is significant, because it enables experimentation – ideas going from paper to build, which in turn enables learning, so that the R&D process can motor along at pace,” says Sterry.


The biggie – how to move from fossil fuels to renewables – matters hugely to the future of sustainable built environments. In the UK, buildings account for about 45% of energy consumption, but only around 6-7% of UK electricity consumption is derived from renewables. Could car-pooling (because of the cost of running a car), home sharing (ditto), or even home swapping, revolutionise our attitudes to city living?

“The first challenge is around how we help the renewable energy industry grow such that the renewable energy share increases. Second is how we incentivise building managers and owners to make energy more core to their strategy,” says IBM’s Hanley. “How do we encourage building owners to invest in solar panels or implement the measures that will wipe 10-20% off energy costs?” He points to the Eco Island project on the Isle of Wight, in which island residents are working on becoming energy self-sufficient and even to export energy to the mainland.

The tweeting house

Computer geeks with a love for saving money and the planet will love Andy Stanford-Clark’s idea. IBM’s chief technology officer for smart energy, Stanford-Clark has adapted his home so that it can tweet him updates about its energy consumption. A series of meters collect information about energy use, appliances being switched on and off, windows being opened and more. His smartphone receives tweets from these meters so that wherever he is, he can monitor the house’s efficiency – and he can switch things off in the house remotely from the phone. Gathering this sort of data in real-time using applications like Twitter can build an accurate picture of the life of a building – or even, perhaps, a city – its changing needs and where improvements can be made.

On top of tweeting houses, how about dashboards that display metrics – electrical consumption, water use – and thermostats that communicate with your phone? “We hear a lot of talk about ‘smart cities‘ – cities that anyone, anywhere can access as long as they have Wi-Fi and a personal communications device,” adds Sterry. How sustainable that is in itself is another debate.

I dun a poem, and then another

24 Jun A wee passing cloud. By Flickr/ Southernpixel -

I guess because death is so much bigger than the extent to which the brain can comprehend and express itself in response, I found myself writing two poems in the last year – having not felt the need to do so for some years. The first catalyst was my grandma’s death last Autumn from cervical cancer, and this Spring, the unexpected and wholly devastating death of a friend’s newborn girl just two days after she arrived in the world.

I can’t explain why, but news of these events made me quickly reach for my laptop and words started coming out without any prior thought or ideas about what I wanted to say or express. They’re probably the most genuine work I’ve done in years inasmuch as they remain almost precisely as they came out of my brain, the words, the structure, the sentiments. I wrote my grandma’s poem because when I heard of her death I immediately thought that her funeral might not reflect accurately the impact she made in her life, on me, on our family, on her community – because she was a divisive character, frequently leaving a bitter taste in many mouths. I wanted to sum it up honestly, with the warmth I always felt for her and reflect with immediacy and brevity the type of character she was in my mind. Then some months later, two says after receiving a text from my friend saying she was having the beginnings of labour but waiting around, I got her second text that the baby was gravely ill and that she was to turn off the life support machine the next day. The galaxy of space between those two messages sort of tore a hole in my perception, in reality. I felt the need to put pen to paper immediately, thinking of how fleeting this little girl’s time as ‘a person’ on this Earth was but how her existence would have more impact on her family in 48 hours than someone could do in a lifetime of events. I wrote the poem to be read at the funeral; I was barely finished with my chemo and didn’t feel strong enough to go, so I sent the poem to be read in my stead. I was thinking of the little girl like I think about the clouds that pass over my local park: just as you catch sight of one little cloud, it changes shape and form before you can really acknowledge it, and then it’s gone, as if it was something you only saw in your peripheral vision.

Here they are.

For Binnie – “Blackbird”

A little blackbird in the snow in Salzberg, Austria. My own photo, 2005.

A little blackbird in the snow in Salzberg, Austria. My own photo, 2005.

Let’s not pay our last respects,

Because we won’t ever stop paying our respects.

She went in the night-time

As befits a blackbird soul

It was always her way, or no way at all-

and not everyone could see why

But hers was a path for one.

The Sioux princess hair,

A lifelong rebellion

Proof that this lady wasn’t for turning

I often wondered what secrets she kept

But I knew we’d never know

As befits a blackbird soul

It was always her way, or no way at all

Not everyone could see why

If you didn’t like it – too bad.

Why would this leopard change

Its spots

When it trod a path for one?

True, to love her could be cold

Lonely, to take a bitter pill

I often wondered what secrets she kept

But I knew she’d never tell

So let’s not pay our last respects,

Because we won’t ever stop paying our respects.

She went in the night-time

As befits a blackbird soul

It was always her way, or no way at all.

For Madeleine – “A little cloud”

A wee passing cloud. By Flickr/ Southernpixel -

A wee passing cloud. By Flickr/ Southernpixel –

In a perfectly azure sky, on a spring day

I saw a tiny puff of white, a cotton wool ball

drifting, with no hint of where it came from

or where it was going

No one could have caught this little cloud

and I could barely keep it in my sight

Its form, almost round one second, ragged the next

torn, pushed, pulled, encouraged by invisible hands way up there

so lonely, but not sad – for it was free.

The wind took that little cloud away from me, I only ever saw it

from the corner of my eye,

and in a blink

it was not only somewhere else

but had a completely different form

no shape I’d ever seen, nor that there would ever be more than one of again.

A shape and form with no name, that had no use for such things

Because there was somewhere else that cloud had to go.

Where? I don’t know,

But in its way, wafting, rolling, puffing,

It knew, and seemed happy that way.

And then it was gone, without a chance to say goodbye

I went home, thinking about that little cloud.

The wind took that little cloud away from me, I only ever saw it

from the corner of my eye.

It’s somewhere else – something else now; I can hear an almighty downpour over the hill.

That little cloud is feeding the snowdrops and the daffodils.

That gurgling river, it’s filled with that little cloud.

In a perfectly azure sky, on a Spring day, that little puff of white, that cotton wool ball

Is at home – all around us, and forever.

The Guardian: A discussion on child labour

21 Jun Child weavers. Photo by -

A write-up I did for the Guardian Professional Network on a discussion they had with four pannellists and readers, on the International Labour Organisation’s lofty aims to eradicate child labour. Turns out that the ILO couldn’t get governments or companies to make enough efforts to bring about change that would show progress on that target, so they had another pow-wow and decided to make a shorter term target of eradicating “the worst forms” of child labour by 2016. I’m a cynic so I can’t see that happening either. But I thought it was good to see that some of the people working in the field could come up with some modest ideas for things companies could actually start to do to weed out child labour from their supply chains – and recognising that in some poorer countries where companies send a lot of their production work, families will keep sending their children to work so they can all eat and get a roof over their head if there is no other choice. Thus why I called the piece “Pragmatism and best practice”.

Have a read.

Pragmatism and best practice: how can companies tackle child labour?

Can child labour be good? The mouths fed by children who pick cotton and embroider the garments it eventually becomes may think this a rhetorical question. Western companies are under pressure to prove they are weeding out child labour from their supply chain, under the shadow of concerned NGOs whose damnation can move share prices. But the pressure on those companies to engage, directly or indirectly, in child labour to produce more for less, and faster, remains as sovereign as a daily meal is to the aforementioned mouths. How can companies serve the bottom line and tackle child labour at the same time?

To mark World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, Guadian Sustainable Business ran an online discussion to explore tackling the root causes of child labour with readers and four expert panellists. Marianne Barner, Ikea’s senior advisor on sustainability and Joanne Dunn, a senior protection advisor on child labour at UNICEF, joined Carmel Giblin, general manager at Sedex – an information exchange on labour standards and business ethics – and Julia Kilbourne, who leads the apparel and textiles department at the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI).

What policies or guidance form Western companies’ current response to child labour?

In 2010 the International Labour Organization (ILO) published its roadmap for achieving the elimination of “the worst forms of child labour” – those deemed most likely to cause harm to the child – to reinvigorate its 183 member states in the overarching aim of eliminating all child labour, as enshrined in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (1998) and the ILO Convention, 1973 (No. 138).

The roadmap commits member states to enacting national legislation against child labour and for developing “cross-sectoral national action plans” to eliminate the worst forms of child labour; for regularly reviewing and updating national lists of hazardous work prohibited for children and enforcing sanctions against perpetrators of the worst forms of child labour, strengthening the inspection and monitoring that brings cases to light, documenting relevant court cases and ensuring access to justice for children and families. Its labour market policies require member states to work towards regulating and formalising the informal economy, strengthening state labour inspection and enforcement, and towards “creating an environment” that aims to combat child labour in supply chains.

Principle 2 of the Children’s Rights and Business Principles, published by UNICEF, the UN Global Compact and Save the Children in March 2012, states that all businesses should “contribute to the elimination of child labour, including in all business activities and business relationships”. The Children’s Rights and Business Principles identify good practice as companies taking steps to prevent child labour, enforcing corrective plans that consider the child’s best interests where instances are identified.

How important is local culture to companies trying to eradicate child labour from their supply chain?

How can companies implement a policy on suppliers in regions where child labour may be an accepted fact of life, a necessity for families to survive, or even state-supported? “State-sponsored forced child labour in Uzbekistan (cotton picking to be more exact) is an ongoing problem despite many global brands pledging to avoid cotton from the country,” said reader Helmikelmi.

Dunn says that a zero-tolerance approach to child labour is often undeliverable, suggesting a more pragmatic approach for companies to instead ensure a living wage is paid to its adult workers and that their children have access to school. “Our experience is that efforts to impose exclusionary criteria unfortunately often lead to child labour being hidden or removed from reporting systems,” she says. “Whilst most corporates and local authorities or large purchasers can monitor the first level of their supply chain, subcontractors or homeworkers who provide specific pieces are too often missing from formal systems, providing employment on an ad-hoc informal basis – frequently involving children.” She recommends that companies install collaborative monitoring systems, rewarding suppliers that provide decent work and are transparent in addressing the drivers of child labour.

How much influence do Western companies really have?

It’s on the wane. Julia Kilbourne says ETI’s supply chain map shows Western brands only take a fraction of production from key supplier countries, while non-Western companies are placing more orders with local suppliers. This means Western companies only have a fraction of the influence in driving change.

How can companies take action?

More and more large companies are drawing up anti child labour policies, moving from a pass or fail approach to seeing success as a continual process of improvement. Ikea’s Marianne Barner works with UNICEF and Save the Children on programmes supported by the business to address the root causes of child labour in rural areas (mainly in India).

Drawing up a company policy which includes the Children’s Rights and Business Principles would engage employees in clear corporate thinking. “People working in a company can be great advocates for children’s rights when policies are clear,” adds Barner.

UNICEF’s Joanne Dunn suggests companies appoint a senior board member to report on progress against such a policy and to check newly selected suppliers comply also. That individual can ensure any supplier risk assessment includes an understanding of local realities, says Dunn, “and that business practices do not reinforce bad practice by paying inadequate wages that cannot support a local family,” or automatically exclude suppliers who admit to using child labour.

Can companies support the aim while doing businesses with suppliers that may still use child workers?

That’s why pragmatism is crucial in tackling child labour. Reader Desus argues that in countries where child labour has been officially banned, children have ended up in drug dealing or prostitution. “For millions of families, the only safe alternative to a sufficient income is having their children working. In my opinion, for as long as children are main providers of their family’s wellbeing, corporate responsibility means taking education and safety for children to the workplace”. ETI’s Kilbourne suggests that if a company discovers children in its supply chain, the focus should be on moving swiftly to secure their transition from work into good quality education. That may take time – but however modest a start, it would demonstrate corporate will to meet the ILO’s overarching aim.

HR magazine: Is it time for a shared payroll strategy between finance and HR?

12 Jun Many tentacles, one brain - can HR and finance share a payroll platform? Photo by brododaktula at Flickr.

This is my first piece for HR magazine, a British monthly title for human resources directors in the UK. A nice opportunity to blend in my finance director knowledge with a brand new area. I have a second piece coming out in HR in a few weeks.

Many tentacles, one brain - can HR and finance share a payroll platform? Photo by brododaktula at Flickr.

Many tentacles, one brain – can HR and finance share a payroll platform? Photo by brododaktula at Flickr.

Keep your fingers crossed for Dean Shoesmith. As these words hit the page, the head of HR for both Sutton and Merton Borough Councils in South London is preparing to hit the big red button that will see a brand new, big-bang, shared-services system crank into life. He hopes it will prove why HRDs and finance departments should work together on payroll services.

What is different about this big bang is that it involves sharing HR services between not just those two councils, but with a third for part of it, neighbouring Kingston upon Thames borough council, which will include the payroll chunk.

It is the culmination of two years of work on a masterplan for HR shared services across Sutton and Merton, which Shoesmith reckons will save each borough £250,000 every year. A governing board comprised of Shoesmith, finance representatives from all three councils and representatives from HR, payroll, appraisal and recruitment, have together drawn up their shared vision, agreed on a payroll provider – which also has a seat on the governing board – and bashed out who is responsible for what.

From 1 April, payroll will be run from one platform across the three councils, governed by both HR and finance across the trio. Could this shared solution provide a way out of the perennial confusion as to who owns payroll, and a path through the myriad accountability, reporting and legal burdens payroll presents?

The oncoming auto-enrolment legislation is a microcosm of the challenge contained in this collaborative approach. A survey of 103 payroll, HR and accounting professionals, conducted this February by the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals (CIPP), found 27% of employers would be asking payroll, HR and finance to collaborate on overseeing changes to payroll necessary to comply with auto-enrolment, which goes live this October. A little over 23% of companies said they would put auto-enrolment solely at the feet of its HRD and just 9% would hand it entirely over to finance. Bluefin, the employee benefits advisor, has suggested departments as far away from HR as IT, or even legal, should play a part in rolling out the new pensions responsibilities.

Payroll is a financial function, but pertains to employee salaries and links to employee benefits. Politically and practically, how can HR and finance be organised to share payroll?

Finance directors, for their part, like the idea of sharing payroll. It sings to their interest in streamlining and making cost savings, but it can be a battle for hearts and minds. Narin Ganesh, group FD at relocations company Crown Worldwide since November 2009, says that while his predecessor outsourced payroll, he recently tried – and failed – to make a case to his board for bringing it back in-house, as part of a project to re-define the relationship between finance, payroll and HR. “We do retain a payroll administrator function in the business, which sits as part of the finance function now, but was part of HR before. HR didn’t want it, so it ended up with me,” Ganesh says.

“The in-house payroll administrator is intended as the interface between company and outsourced provider – but in practice, we actually have pockets of payroll work going on in HR anyway.”

Despite having identified that the outsourcing arrangement was dysfunctional, because it lacked clear objectives from the outset, the company decided not to have in-house collaboration between HR and finance. It instead chose to draw clearer lines between HR and finance, keeping payroll off the HR mandate. “The outsourcing provider was not being held up to the right level of scrutiny and work ended up being done in-house to cover for its deficiencies,” Ganesh says. “I set about re-defining the relationship with the outsourcer – even having to withhold payment in one case – but its performance improved dramatically and we now draw on more services. At the same time, we are re-defining the scope of work that needs to be done in-house and removing payroll from HR as far as possible; the latter is over-burdened with stuff that isn’t adding value.”

He admits demarcation between HR and finance is “blurred” and that he spends a lot of time working out the issues between them. “The functions should collaborate – payroll straddles both teams, so collaboration in my view is pure commonsense.”

The lack of a shared payroll strategy raises the risk of compliance issues. Payroll ends up delivering compliance with employment law by virtue of its role – and as payroll is still, more often than not, reporting into finance, compliance risk lies with staff who are not trained in those laws. Auto-enrolment is an opportunity for companies to address that compliance risk on a more systematic basis, and to take a shared HR-finance approach.

“HRDs and FDs can be ambivalent about payroll, because it is often seen as not adding any real value to an organisation. Many see it as just a function that needs to be undertaken,” says Paul Rains, director of Transact HR, a performance measurement company. “Though traditionally payroll reports into finance more than HR, some savvy HRDs with control over payroll have harnessed the analytical skills of payroll professionals to provide them with management information about the workforce, which assists in strategic planning and the resolution of operational issues. A uniform approach to auto- enrolment makes good commercial sense and needs to be planned jointly by HR and finance to be effective.”

Payroll outsourcing is common, but there are many employers that want to control the process and are looking to in-house shared services for that. Defence multinational Thales implemented a shared finance and HR service platform in 2009, incorporating an in-house payroll shared service, for its entire UK business. Management and governance of the process is the responsibility of HR, but the over-arching strategy is set collaboratively by finance and HR for their respective teams.

The driver was governance controls across the group; HR ‘owns’ payroll production and reconciliation, finance runs the general ledger, budget control and does costing projections. A payroll service delivery manager curates the payroll piece with a team of 10 payroll and finance specialists looking after 8,000 paychecks.

The result? “Excellent payroll controls, with effective segregation of duty, minimal payroll error rate, credible ‘one version of the truth’ HR information,” says Joe Ales, director for HR shared services at Thales UK.

How did the company deliver that? Sort out the politics first, draw the battle lines, agree terms, and draw up the plan with all parties involved.

“Strategically, it was decided payroll would be directed by its main functional customer, HR. But the business recognises payroll is a critical operation within finance as well, so we invested time in defining clear ‘lines of sight’, as well as the segregation of duty and where responsibilities for activity actually sit,” Ales explains. “While the governance and direction of payroll is managed through HR, finance is a key stakeholder in the process; there are clear ‘hands-offs’ in the payroll production, payment and reconciliation between both functions.”

Sutton and Merton’s Shoesmith concurs. He appointed Sutton the ‘lead’ borough of the trio for HR shared services, with its director of resources heading the governance board. The roadmap for delivery was written by HR at Sutton and Merton (which under his leadership had already merged into one team). A shared HR and payroll platform is in place.

The governance board appointed an outsource payroll bureau for the shared service, but a shared payroll client team has been formed out of Sutton as the lead borough.

This was particularly prescient, given the introduction of auto-enrolment this October. Jes Turner, programme manager at payroll provider ADP, doesn’t see how payroll can do auto-enrolment at present, and says that company HR departments should be responsible – though HR sees auto- enrolment as a payroll job. “HR passes the information, but payroll determines the contributions. This argument is falling between the cracks for some employers,” says Turner.

As always, the devil is in the detail. Sutton was running a small in-house payroll client and outsourced payroll processing out of finance; Merton had an in-house payroll team sitting in HR. Each team had different suppliers, contracts and cultures.

With contracts too expensive to terminate, Shoesmith was pragmatic. “To embed a shared service approach on a single platform with one way of running payroll, we had to align contracts we were tied into with some mini contract extensions that run until we can switch to a new provider,” says Shoesmith.

“We have had to agree on key protocols between HR and finance and each borough, so we know the outsourced provider can run our plan in a simple way, and we have agreed we will do things the way of the system – rather than what often happens, which is that people invest in a system, then later try to tailor it to the way they work.”

A common chorus comes out of FDs and HRDs that have enacted payroll shared services: it’s a partnership with particularly acute need for clearly defined leadership. “I would recommend anyone thinking of doing this to manage design and implementation using effective project-management and change-management disciplines, to clearly define the business case, scope and who owns what aspects of the payroll process,” says Ales.

But it is Shoesmith who sums up the risk and the reward: “You need a common language between finance and HR. Thus far, we have ironed out most problems,” he says. “But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and it boils down to personalities – the ability to problem-solve, compromise and find solutions.” That should be something with which HRDs can assist their financial opposite numbers.

Facts and figures

  • 20% of employee salaries are processed by outsourced payroll services
  • 30% of total HR costs come from payroll and personnel costs
  • ‘Visible, measurable’ payroll costs around €200 per employee
  • Switzerland has the lowest uptake of payroll outsourcing (1% of businesses), while Denmark and Belgium have the highest uptake at over 80% of businesses in both countries

Auto-enrolment in a minute

From 1 October 2012, legislation will start to roll out, meaning that, depending on the size of the organisation, by 2017 every employee aged between 22 and state pensionable age, earning above the income tax personal allowance threshold, must be automatically enrolled by the employer into a qualifying pension scheme, to which both employer and employee contribute (the employee can later opt out if they wish).

Employers are required to either make a 3% contribution towards a defined contribution scheme, the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST), or to offer membership of a defined-benefit scheme that meets certain criteria.

Preparedness is patchy. In March, a Northgate Arinso study of 100 senior decision-makers responsible for auto-enrolment found seven in 10 worried about the additional workload and new processes required to comply. Nearly half don’t understand what the new legislation requires of them. Worse, the cost of amending payroll systems in a business with 7,500 staff is thought to be as much as £300,000.