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It struck last month with a force which made headlines round the world. Hurricane Sandy. In the Caribbean, it caused death and destruction. As it continued up the eastern seaboard of the United States, dramatic images of its effects on New York and New Jersey were sent around the world.
But was it a hurricane? Or just a 'post-tropical cyclone'?
US authorities have just downgraded Sandy to a 'post-tropical cyclone'. By the time it struck New York, they say it had lost some of its force. Many in NYC disagree. If it had been declared a hurricane, householders would have to bear a greater proportion of rebuilding costs. Now however, the amount insurance companies will pay out goes up.
This distinction may seem like a technicality to you or I. In the insurance world, it is critical for calculating claims.
Already, Sandy seems like a complex insurance case. Southern Manhattan, which was badly affected, has some of the highest property prices in the world. A lot of office space is now out of commission. The biggest assumed damage is likely to be for 'business interruption'.
Two things are clear. Firstly, the compensation will be huge, the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in history, surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While it is still too early to calculate reliable estimates of the damage, some predict $10 billion costs to the insurance industry. Others double that figure. Secondly, calculations may tie up the legal system for years. Maybe even until 2020.
Mere money cannot, of course, compensate for all the misery and human suffering caused by such natural disasters as hurricanes, tsunamis, floods or earthquakes. I feel lucky that I have never experienced a natural disaster. My recent experience claiming from insurance companies seems trivial in comparison – a 'lost or stolen' mobile phone. However, the process of claiming was endless. I ended up in a battle over technicalities. Finally, I was successful, but weary of the endless letters and phone-calls. Why do insurance claims have to be so lengthy and complex?
The process of claiming on insurance can be daunting. Yet, as a recent editorial in the Financial Times points out, it must be even worse to live without insurance, common enough in many of the world's poorest areas: Haiti, for instance. The insurance industry has been described by some as a 'necessary evil'.
Questions you may to ask your students:
1) Have you ever experienced a catastrophic event such as a hurricane or natural disaster?
2) Has your company ever experienced 'business interruption'? What happened?
3) Have you ever claimed on insurance? Were you successful?
It's September. Retailers are announcing their half-year sales figures; has there ever been a wider gulf between success and failure?
The fact that UK retail sales fell by 2% over summer is no real surprise. The decrease was predicted by economists and has been labelled 'the Olympic effect'. We were all too busy watching a summer of sport on television to go out shopping!
What was surprising, though, was a corresponding drop in online sales. Turning on the telly meant turning off the computer! For a long time now, online has been seen as a growth area of retail. As the financial downturn continues, just what kind of future are high street shops facing?
At one end of the spectrum is HMV. The troubled music store saw business slump further over summer with sales of CDs and DVDs continuing to fall. Somehow, amidst all the gloom, the company remains optimistic, partly because it now sells new technology such as tablet computers, and this part of the business is doing well.
At the other end of the spectrum is the world's largest clothing retailer, Inditex, which has seen an impressive rise in profits. "Fast fashion" offers affordable versions of new styles swiftly brought into stores from the catwalk. HMV has closed shops; Inditex, which owns Zara, has opened new ones.
Earlier this month, Inditex launched an online operation in China. This month, a new report on high street shopping sees the town centre of the future as being a hub for customers to pick up products ordered on-line. Will the future be 'click and collect'?
I happily buy my records, DVDs and books online, sad though I feel for stores like HMV and the dying bookshops. However, I'm never going buy my clothes that way. Whether we choose to leave our warm houses and venture into the shops or not, the future of the high street seems certain to change. And shopping on-line is unlikely to go away.
Areas to discuss with your students:
What do you buy in the high street, and what do you order on-line?
Which shops are doing well, and which shops are failing?
What do you think will happen to the high street in your country?
Sites you may wish to visit:
Apple vs Samsung: the verdict
Earlier this month, a US court ruled that Samsung had infringed Apple patents for mobile devices. The six patents were mainly connected with appearance and design. The South Korean company were ordered to pay $1billion in compensation. Unsurprisingly, Samsung will be appealing the court ruling.
Some consider this is one of the most significant rulings in any global intellectual property battle. After all, between them, Apple and Samsung sell more than half of the world's smartphones and tablet computers. Among the most obvious immediate effects were a rise in price of Apple shares, and a corresponding fall in Samsung shares.
In the Apple camp, the behaviour of their rival was criticised. The court decision was applauded as giving the simple message: "stealing isn't right". To Apple, the victory was all about values.
In the Samsung camp, the ruling was seen as the manipulation of patent law “to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners"! In the eyes of the Korean giant, Apple’s ideas were heavily influenced by Sony. To Samsung, the decision will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices. In other words, "the loser will be the consumer".
Decisions in cases of intellectual property theft are notoriously difficult. How original is any idea? I remembered loving the George Harrison song 'My sweet Lord'. It was a shock to learn that he was accused of ripping off the tune of a song by the Chiffons - "Some fine day". Did my musical hero do it consciously? Did he do it unconsciously? Was the song the same or similar?
Business practice is littered with copied products and ideas, from the video recorder to the Walkman. It must be said that the idea of the tablet computer did not originate with Apple. They did not even invent touch-screen technology.
What happens next will be of great interest to mobile phone users around the world, with the arrival of 4G and the continuing battle for dominance between rival phone companies and rival mobile phone systems. One thing is sure: this is unlikely to be the last case of accusations of copyright theft.
Areas to discuss with your students:
Which make of phone do you own? Why did you choose this make?
Do you agree with the court ruling?
Do you have another example of copying a product or intellectual property?
Sites you may wish to visit:
Uncovered: the black market in Olympic tickets
It is the stuff all good newspaper stories are made of: secret undercover reporters from the Sunday Times pretending to be sent from a wealthy Middle Eastern ticket tout. They offered to buy tickets for the forthcoming games from official agents. 27 official agents representing 54 different countries were, apparently, completely happy to sell Olympic tickets illegally.
Police and the Olympic Committee are now investigating this multi-million pound black market for tickets. 30 websites around the world are under investigation for the illegal sale of unauthorized tickets, and fraud - the sale of tickets which do not actually exist.
According to the police,Britainproduces more ticket touts than any country in the world! Some touts see their work as similar to that of a market trader. After all, every day people sell high-priced concert tickets on e-Bay at a value set by demand. However, many touts have links to the world of organized crime.
As summer and the Olympics approach, it is hoped that the 2012 Games will lift our spirits, and help us forget government spending cuts. However, the security bill is massively higher than predicted. In fact, the original 2005 budget for the Games is now laughably low.
The arguments continue to rage: is winning the right to host a major sports event a real economic benefit or not? Some say that such events only offer a short-term boost for businesses.
One big unknown as the Games draw closer is: how many people will actually go toLondon? Will the transport system be robust enough? Anyone working inLondonthis summer is being asked to consider working from home or changing their working hours to help ease the pressure.
Love the Games or resent them, this summer the eyes of the world will certainly be on... London 2012.
Areas to discuss with your students:
a) Is it wrong to sell tickets at inflated prices?
b) Have you ever been a victim of a website fraud connected with buying tickets?
c) Do you feel it is an economic benefit for a country to host a major sporting event?
d) What is your own experience of projects being under or over budget?
Some useful websites:
The Rich List 2012: why are we so fascinated by the rich?
There are many paradoxes in British culture. While we disclose little of ourselves, we want to know every little detail about celebrity lives. Still, it is not too difficult to explain our fascination with the rich.
In a now annual event, earlier this month the Sunday Times published their Rich List, a breakdown of the wealthiest individuals in the UK. The list is the UK equivalent of the famous Forbes list in the US which we study with equal fascination every year.
So, who is the richest person in the UK? The top spot for the eighth year in succession is held by the Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, with a fortune estimated at £12.7 billion. The Queen is at number 262, while Posh and Becks (combining fortunes made in football and fashion) are at number 395.
This national institution is far more than a mere list. It contains many sub-lists, such as rich musicians. The richest musician is not Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John or Sir Mick Jagger, but Clive Calder, the man who made Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Calder is valued at £1,350 million and lives in the Cayman Islands. The richest youngest musician is Adele.
The sub-lists include wealth by region, lottery winners and even a list of top philanthropists. There's a list of wealthy women and one of 'social media millionaires', where the top three places go to Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype millionaires.
We are all, to some extent, intrigued by this topic and paradoxically, somewhat appalled about how the rich spend, spend, spend.
Can we trust the figures? The short answer is 'no'. In the small print, a disclaimer states that the figures are "based on our estimates". Still, as the recession bites in, studying the Rich List is perhaps a distraction that helps us forget the real financial crisis around us.
Questions you can ask your students:
Here are a couple of interesting sites:
Download the PDF of this blog post by clicking on the link under the title.
The UK government has recently (and anonymously) investigated the tax returns of a number of wealthy individuals. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the UK finance minister, is apparently 'shocked' that is many of them pay little or no tax. Just how do they do it?
It’s all about the difference between ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘tax evasion’. The first is legal, the second isn't. There are a number of ways to avoid or reduce paying income tax. You can:
The reason tax avoidance has suddenly become such a ‘hot topic’ is the idea that some rich people give money to charity simply to avoid paying tax. Charities are now scared that branding donors as ‘tax- dodgers’ is unfair to their benefactors. Mind you, it has been observed that there are some so-called charitable organisations that do “very little charity work”.
In the world of tax avoidance, where reputable accountants devote their lives to discovering tax loopholes and creating offshore accounts, it strikes me that the division between tax avoidance and tax evasion is maybe too simplistic. There is a grey area in the middle. Should wealthy individuals really be allowed to pay little or no tax?
Questions you may wish to ask your students:
1) Do you know any charities which do ‘very little charitable work’?
2) What do you think about the various schemes for avoiding paying tax? Can you add any more?
3) Is the tax system in your country fair?
Some websites of interest are:
The new iPad: is the tablet changing the face of business?
March 2012. It's here: the new iPad, the first product launch from Apple since the death of Steve Jobs. It’s the higher screen resolution that most tech reviewers are gushing over. This has been described as: “simply stunning”.
The other changes (faster connectivity; better camera) are more ‘evolutionary’ – improving an existing product – than revolutionary. Of course, criticism of the device continues (cost; the lack of ports), but one thing is sure: sales will continue to rise. Not just iPad sales, but sales of other tablet devices.
Not bad for a product which did not exist two years ago. Is it now a must-have accessory? Noticing is the number of business people clutching their iPads has got me thinking about how tablets are changing the way we do business.
Many business users may be just relaxing and watching movies on their tablet, but some will be reading the FT online; using it for note-taking in meetings; finalising that presentation or spread-sheet, or downloading one of the vast and growing number of business apps. You can now track flights; photograph a document and fax (yes, fax) it; record a business call (with the other person’s permission, of course); snap business cards and store them; even join a business video chat with WebEx.
So, is all this work (supposedly!) going on using tablets leading to an increase in productivity?
Not everyone is happy. Many IT managers dislike employees using personal devices at work. Integrating them into a corporate network may be risky. Neither do they like too many users logging onto the wi-fi at the same time.
Some companies are actually buying tablets to replace PCs, which strikes me as a bit premature. Will there come a day when the pc and the laptop disappear? Love them or not, the tablet has certainly made a splash in the business world. I’m actually off to a conference next week. Of course, I’ve just downloaded the free conference app…..
Questions you can ask your students:
Will you buy a new iPad? Why / why not?
What are the pros and cons of tablets?
Will tablets replace laptops?
Can tablets improve productivity?
Which is your favourite business app?
Here are a couple of interesting sites:
Top 25 apps for business
The best iPad business apps
Download the above article in pdf version on the icon above.
As austerity measures impact on the lives of people all around the industrialised world, a simple question is once again being asked: “Should bankers get big bonuses?” This leads to several more complicated questions: what is each employee worth in terms of salary? Should bonuses be a part of your salary, or should they only be given to reward success? Should anyone receive high payouts when many others are suffering hardship? And how does one financially reward the board of director, the CEO and other senior management?
The current row over bankers’ bonuses has erupted around one man, Stephen Hester, the chief of RBS - the Royal Bank of Scotland. Everyone remembers how the banks were rescued, how the government stepped in to prevent the banks from failing. Today 82% of RBS is owned by the taxpayers. At the end of 2008, RBS reported the largest annual loss in UK corporate history: over £24 billion. Stephen Hester was brought in to turn around the bank's fortunes.
Hester has, by most accounts, done well. This year he was awarded a 'share-only' bonus, worth nearly £1m. What happened next was a huge public outcry. How can such an award be justified? This month, in an extraordinary move, Stephen Hester said he would waive his right to these shares, due largely to public pressure.
Since then, the chief executive of Network Rail has turned down his bonus of over £340,000. In his case, the company failed to meet some of its performance targets.
The argument on pay is now sharply polarised. One side believes simply that rewards for City executives are too high and need to be reduced, especially in a time of austerity.
The other side say that this view is fundamentally 'anti-business'. Bonuses and pay are essential to ensure the work attracts the most skilled people and so leads to broader prosperity. In other words, success should be rewarded.
So, the controversy about bankers pay and bonuses goes on, raising many issues. Questions to ask your students include:
Was Stephen Hester right to turn down his bonus?
Do bonuses exist for some jobs in their own country? Are they fair? Should bonuses always be linked to success?
Whose salaries (banker, doctor, politician, CEO) are too high?
Here are two interesting links:
Public 'want top pay reined in' http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16778264
'We expect restraint' on executive pay http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16694862
You can download a pdf of this post through the link icon above.
Does money make us happy?
It is called 'Blue Monday'. The third Monday of the year is supposed to be the most miserable day of the year, partly due to the weather (in the UK, anyway!) and the fact that our personal debt is usually high just after Christmas.
On Blue Monday 2012, the IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs), a 'think-tank', released a report on so-called 'happiness economics' or 'well-being'. This report is critical of the UK government's attempt at trying to find out what makes us happy. The answer, it seems, is: money! In other words, richer people are happier with their lives.
Can this be true? The UK government is actually spending £2 million in trying to find out what makes people happy. A pilot project by the ONU (Office for National Statistics) drew up a list of indicators, including health, education, income and work. People in the UK were asked to evaluate their 'happiness' or 'life satisfaction' on a scale of 1-10. The average is 7.4. That makes us a pretty happy nation!
The idea of measuring happiness originated in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. They questioned the idea that you can measure a countries' success using one economic indicator - GNP (Gross National Product). The concept of GNH or 'gross national happiness' was born.
There are many surveys out there. Forbes has measured happiness in different countries, based on a number of factors such as the economy, entrepreneurship, education, health, safety and personal freedom. Norway comes out as the happiest nation on earth, according to this survey.
One survey by the Wall Street Journal and the iOpener Institute across 80 countries looked at happiness in the workplace. It found that the Dutch were happiest at work and the Italians most miserable. There are certainly benefits to measuring happiness at work. It could lead to staff retention, and better productivity. However, 'happiness' itself is a pretty subjective concept!
Do your students believe it is possible to measure happiness? Does money 'make us happy'? What do they think about the findings of the 'happiness surveys' mentioned in this blog post? How would they evaluate their own happiness at work?
Here are some interesting links:
You can download a printable version of this post above.
Level - Upper Intermediate
Users of Prezi pass the five million mark: is this business tool changing the way we deliver presentations?
Last month, the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies announced its list of 'Top 100 Tools for Learning, 2011'. What made me take notice was that fact that Prezi had risen to number 7. PowerPoint, on the other hand, had slipped down the chart, to number 19.
What exactly is a Prezi? It's a tool that allows you to deliver a presentation in a 'non-linear’ way. You can zoom in on any piece of information at random, be it a picture or piece of text. I first saw a presenter use Prezi last year, and I was very impressed.
With PowerPoint, we tend to think in a linear way, one slide after another. With Prezi, the presenter can focus on things as they come up. This means they can respond to the audience, and give a more interactive presentation.
I've lost count of the number of PowerPoint slides I have seen that are packed full of text, details, dimensions and statistics. I know that the audience will be suffering from 'death by PowerPoint'!
As the number of Prezi users worldwide soars past the five million mark, it seems like the idea of 'zooming' presentations is becoming much more popular. The original e-lesson ‘The best presentations ever …?’discusses the idea of breaking the rules, just like Prezi is breaking traditional linear rules of presentation.
However, we are still just talking about presentation tools. Great presenters still need confidence and, above all, charisma. They also aim to be impactful and memorable. Ah well – it looks like I'm going to have to try out Prezi myself!
Some questions you may wish to discuss with your students are: