Interview: Philip Powell

This year the coordinators of the EWG-DSS had the pleasure to interview our long-time colleague: Philip Powell, also a founding member of the EWG-DSS since 1989 in Madeira.

Philip was also in Lisbon by the occasion of the XXIV EURO Conference, and we had the chance to meet within a relaxing dinner. Among various subjects, we talked about Philip’s new position as Executive Dean and Professor of Management in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London.

The result of this evening is reported to you here. We congratulate Philip for his career achievements so far and we also thank him for giving us the opportunity of producing this exciting interview.

We hope you enjoy reading it!

Philip Powell

“My research has always been interest-driven.”

EWG-DSS: Tell us about your recent move to your current job and the challenges ahead.

PP: Birkbeck is one of the colleges of the University of London with a history stretching back to the 1830’s. It is unique in the UK in that it is a research-intensive institution that specialises in flexible teaching. Most of our students study part-time and are working. This presents an interesting set of opportunities and challenges. On one hand, our students are mature, eager to learn and bring a lot of experience to the classroom. For example, the average age of our undergraduates is mid-30s, while that of our post-graduates is late 20s. On the other hand, much of our teaching is done in the evening and students face many more work and family challenges that typical students.

A consequence of being atypical is that government tends to forget you when making arbitrary policy changes. We suffered from this recently when 30% of our teaching funds were removed. Excellent lobbying and media pressure got us replacement student numbers and the College restructured into five new schools with new executive deans and devolved powers – which is where I came in. My job is to develop a successful school especially by exploiting the synergies between my departments – Management, Organisational Psychology, Economics Maths & Stats, and Computer Science and Information Systems. We have 150 staff, 2500 students and a turnover of 20million euros. As a research-intensive institution I need to ensure my staff have the opportunities, time, space and funding to develop their work as I did.

EWG-DSS: How is it going? What have you achieved in terms of results so far?

PP: We are one year in and, while it has not been an easy ride, we have launched a raft of new programmes, increased student applications by 46%, achieved some measure of integration and moved one department to a new home. We exceeded our targets for last year and I hope we can do the same again this year.

EWG-DSS: How did you come to be an academic manager?

PP: I’ve been an academic for a long time – I was a founder member of the EURO DSS Group (with the moniker ‘P1’) – and I have held every position in the academic hierarchy – research assistant, teaching fellow, experimental officer, lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor, deputy dean and now executive dean. Along the way I managed academic units of increasing size – research teams, units, centres, teaching groups and departments. I became interested in academic management and did a part time MBA in Higher Education Management at the Institute of Education. The move to deputy dean at Bath was a very steep learning curve as there was something of a crisis, but we turned it around and now I am doing much the same at Birkbeck

EWG-DSS: Does your research background help you in your present post?

PP: My research has always been interest-driven. Either the topic themselves are interesting or there was the chance to work with interesting people. So, I’ve working in DSS, IS, supply chain management, OR, e-business, knowledge management, strategy and accounting. All these come into play when you are setting up a new school from scratch. I have also branched out into researching higher education management in the last few years and understanding how resource allocation models work and funding philosophies can be useful.

EWG-DSS: You are in the DSS area for a long time. How did it start? Tell us more about your research career.

PP: After doing a few other things, I started my academic career as a temporary research assistant on an inflation accounting project and I’m glad I did not stick with this. At the time, the department was looking for someone to become interested in IT and I saw an opportunity and tried to make myself indispensible. I was lucky enough to participate in a number of very useful training events. I was part of the International Teachers Programme in 1986 in HEC near Paris, then participated in the Euro Summer Institute DSS in Madeira in 1989 and the NATO Advanced Study Institute’s Programme in Tuscany. At these places I met a lot of very interesting people, many of whom I’m still in contact with and some I have done extensive research with. Meeting the right people at the right time was instrumental in encouraging me to continue with an academic career. I attended many of the early DSS conferences and was Secretary EURO Working Group on DSS for five years, but gradually moved my research more into the information systems field. I became Managing Editor of the Information Systems Journal and President of the UK Academy for Information Systems. I maintained an interest in DSS and more recently have tried to work more in this field. It is great to see old friends again and to see how well everyone is doing.

EWG-DSS: Are you tied to a desk now or do you still have time for research?

PP: Unfortunately, academic management is not really a part-time activity so my time for research has been limited in the last 7 years. I certainly cannot continue to do the IS research in small firms that I did for 12 years as I don’t have whole weeks free for case analysis. Nevertheless, I do try to maintain a research profile and I have an honorary chair in Groningen University in the Netherlands. This coupled with my family being in Brussels and our links to Portugal means that I spend a lot of time on trains but they can be good places to read, write and think, and with ubiquitous IT and communications one can manage a lot virtually. I hope, once things are more settled in London, to manage to carve out a bit more contiguous research time and to take on a couple of new PhD students.

EWG-DSS: What are your plans for the future?

PP: The financial crisis has certainly made working in publically-funded higher education much more uncertain but I’d like to think that the international groupings that we have will sustain and develop more. I have a five year renewable contract in London and hope that something else interesting presents itself at the right time. I certainly hope that my contacts with the excellent people in the DSS world I have met over the last 21 years endure and that we will all be able to celebrate the next 21 years together somewhere warm with good food and wine. I think that some very interesting new avenues of research are opening up in DSS. For example, we have witnessed the amazing predictive power of Paul the octopus during the recent World Cup. Imagine if this ability could be harnessed as part of a DSS. And we have not even begun to research the decision powers of other cephalopods – and there are 800 species.

EWG-DSS: Thank you, it’s been remarkable talking to you!¨

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About ewgdss

The EWG-DSS is a Working Group on Decision Support Systems within EURO, the Association of the European Operational Research Societies. The main purpose of the EWG-DSS is to establish a platform for encouraging state-of-the-art high quality research and collaboration work within the DSS community. Other aims of the EWG-DSS are to: - Encourage the exchange of information among practitioners, end-users, and researchers in the area of Decision Systems. - Enforce the networking among the DSS communities available and facilitate activities that are essential for the start-up of international cooperation research and projects. - Facilitate professional academic and industrial opportunities for its members. - Favour the development of innovative models, methods and tools in the field Decision Support and related areas. - Actively promote the interest on Decision Systems in the scientific community by organizing dedicated workshops, seminars, mini-conferences and conference streams in major conferences, as well as editing special and contributed issues in relevant scientific journals.
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One Response to Interview: Philip Powell

  1. Nice interview!

    I sincerely wish Philip continuous success in his current position as Executive Dean and Professor of Management in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck University.

    About his last comment, it was a pity that Paul the octopus has recently died… 😉

    Best wishes,
    Fatima Dargam

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