Serious business

From the politics of global warming to the economics of democracy, Professor Daniel Nyberg is seeking to understand how corporations responsibly – or not so responsibly – engage with society and the environment.

Professor Daniel Nyberg is tackling some of the most pressing and complicated problems in the world. Indeed, delving deep into the unknowns of everything from climate change and capitalism to the intricate relationship between industry and government is ‘business as usual’ for the business researcher, who takes an interdisciplinary approach to his studies on the activities of corporations.

“These are some of the biggest threats facing humankind,” he affirms.

“How could you not be interested?”

Under watchful eyes

Daniel’s research career began in 2005, when he undertook a PhD at the University of Melbourne. Largely considered an ethnography, the three-year probe sought to observe the different levels of control exercised by key personnel in call centres across Australia.

“Some years ago, most or all workplaces used to have supervisors who would stand over employees’ shoulders telling them what to do and what not to do,” he says.

“When their backs were turned, other staff could easily work a little bit slower or take a short rest break.”

“There is nowhere to hide or slack off in call centres, however, because supervisors are listening in to phone conversations and can see on their screens exactly what people are saying and doing every minute of every day.”

Also reflecting on the opportunities and challenges presented by the Digital Era in this “extreme scenario,” Daniel looked to understand the value and implications of control from multiple angles.

“Electronic video surveillance now means workers are observed around the clock – they don’t know when or where so they always have to behave,” he explains.

“Advancements in technology have similarly allowed us to get closer to our tools.”

“Those in call centres regularly work with their computers, for example, rather than towards them.”

“They wear headsets and often repeat exactly what is written on the monitor – there are no deviations.”

Shifting the onus

Daniel relocated to The Netherlands after receiving his award in 2008, signing on to pioneer further research on corporate control and responsibility at Radboud University. The Swedish native specifically focused on defining the “not-so-easily defined” during his stint abroad, leading a project on long-term sickness absence in the workplace.

“The goal was to identify how organisations deal with employees who are burnt out or stressed or ill due to their jobs,” he recalls.

“This work was on the back of new policies that were implemented right across the continent.”

Exploring a number of social welfare programs and policies throughout the enquiry, Daniel concedes his findings were a very “mixed bag.”

“Perhaps not so surprisingly, I discovered that a lot of countries in Europe manage long-term sickness absences through ‘activation,’” he reveals.

“Basically, this assumes that it is the responsibility of the individuals themselves to ensure they recover and return to work as quickly as possible.”

“It is my belief, however, that you need to be healthy in order to deal with an illness – if you are employed within an organisation and work makes you sick and it is your job to get better, there is limited room for you, the employee, to move, as you cannot change how your organisation operates.”

“So we can liberate people to take care of themselves but we also need to liberate them in the workplace.”

E is for eco-conscious

Daniel spent the next four years at the University of Sydney and then the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, turning his attention to corporate responses to climate change. He also published a book on it in September 2015.

“I wanted to know how businesses deal with this issue internally, such as through the design and delivery of green products and services, as well as how they deal with it in the industry, such as with carbon offsets, and how they deal with it in the public debate,” the bilinguist elaborates.

“It’s important to understand what corporations are doing in order to mitigate and/or minimise its effects.”

“We also need to have knowledge about what they’re doing so we can regulate their activities.”

Moving to the Hunter in April of last year to become a Professor of the University of Newcastle’s Business School, Daniel again looked to expand his research focus.

“I’m currently exploring how corporations influence democracy,” he states.

“The clearest example is the Labor Government’s super profit tax proposal of 2010, which the mining industry vehemently opposed.”

“Even though it spent $22 million doing so, calculations by the Australian Financial Review suggest it saved $10 billion by agreeing to a truce with then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard.”

“So, you can see it’s often much easier and cheaper for corporations to deal with public policies than it is for them to deal with their processes.”

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