Brendan O’Connell discusses the elements of environments vulnerable to corporate collapse and scandals.
Professor O’Connell has conducted high-level consultancy and commissioned research by public companies, professional accounting bodies and national teaching and learning institutes. He has been a recipient of substantial research grants including an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant.
What is your current research focus/teaching focus?
I am interested in corporate governance, scandals, collapses and ethics. I have written and been interviewed about major scandals such as Enron, James Hardie and the Essendon Football Club drug saga.
I conduct research that interests me and is industry relevant.I strive to collaborate with industry to undertake research and teaching that is useful and applicable to contemporary practices.
I am currently teaching a subject on business ethics. I assist students with understanding ethical philosophy and relativism, appropriate decision-making and implications on business practices and macro-environments.
What is your goal - what do you seek to learn?
I believe that we can learn a lot from studying scandals, in particular preventing them from being repeated in the future.
For example, the Essendon drug scandal reflects a total failure of governance at all levels of the organisation combined with an inappropriate tone at the top: "whatever it takes to win".
Explain the impact of your research, who can learn from it and how? Or who will it affect and how?
My research papers have a lot of interesting and diverse lessons. If I were to generalise, it would be that corporate collapses commonly follow periods of economic prosperity where hubris and poor oversight due to complacency generate an environment conducive to major collapses.
Executive compensation and key performance indicators are poorly structured in many organisations by emphasising short-term results and excessive risk-taking. These ingredients create the environment for poor decisions and behaviour.
Have there been any unexpected outcomes from your research?
The most surprising thing is how influential tones at the top of an organisation are critical in influencing those throughout the organisation. If this is wrong, for example at Enron, then very bad behaviour will follow.
How has your work developed over the years?
I started out doing mainstream financial research but found this less interesting than what I do now. I am more interested in taking a critical lens to what I see around me in financial markets and to use qualitative research methods like interviews in the field rather than relying on statistical analysis of share prices or financial statement figures.
Focusing on statistical analysis is sadly overdone by many academic researchers in my area and very little of this latter research has any meaningful impact, in my view. Whereas, what I do does get people interested and so I am often asked to speak and be interviewed on TV and radio.
What has been the proudest moment in your research/teaching career so far?
My proudest experience was being invited last year to present the CPA Australia - University of Melbourne Annual Research lecture on the future of accounting education in Australian universities.
This lecture series has been going since 1940 and has featured virtually all of the prominent accounting academics globally since then. It has been described as "the world's most-enduring annual accounting lecture series". To be mentioned in that list of presenters was incredibly humbling.
Anything else you would like to add specific to you?
I was President of CPA Australia in Victoria two years ago and Chief Examiner of the CPA program in Australia from 2002 to 2011 so I have gained strong industry connections.
One thing that I love to do is travel, especially throughout Asia. I have taught, participated in study tours and researched in countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Story: Monaliza Platini