COM 05/2018

CPG Annual Conference 2018 Interview: Making Compliance Work: Challenges and Innovations

Interview with Professor Ashly H. Pinnington, Dean of Research, The British University in Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates


Q:  First of all, you could tell us something about compliance in general. How do you define compliance, and if there are several components to it, how would you prioritise those? 

Compliance in a straightforward sense is about conforming to laws, observing standards and following policies and rules. Whenever someone mentions the word ‘compliance’ it usually refers to what has to be done in the future or what should have been done in the past. Often, when you hear the word ‘compliance’ it is because either one person or a group of people do not intend to comply. Sometimes, this is simply because they are unaware of the necessity and importance of complying in the same way that everyone else does.

The moral significance of compliance is crucial to understanding who is likely to comply and who is not. If people value deeply whatever they are complying with, often then, their words and actions will be consistent. In these situations, ‘compliance’ rarely has to be mentioned since it occurs automatically and is considered the natural thing for us all to do. Further, if people feel that non-observance of the rule or system will be seen by others and thus their actions disapproved, then, this encourages compliance. Even so, some individuals will comply simply to be perceived as good and well-behaved. A commonly used phrase in these situations is “paying lip service” which means people are saying things they do not really believe in or intend to do. Another example of half-hearted compliance is when we perform tasks at work without engaging our hearts and minds, acting for the sake of “mere compliance” with the rules and regulations.

Compliance is a very important part of any society. It is also central to any well-run organization or system. Compliance inevitably has explicit and implicit elements. The purposes and reasons for compliance should be explicitly stated since they need to be understood and shared by everyone. Similarly, the consequences of non-compliance have to be made equally evident and clear. The implicit elements of compliance rise to the foreground whenever compliance is implicitly understood and agreed. Positive outcomes usually arise from high degrees of conformity within any group or community. By performing in ways that accord with the culture, complying with its rules and standards, higher-level collective goals and activities can be achieved.

Q: What is the current academic status on the subject of compliance, how is it taught at your or other universities? 

From 2003 up until 2018, The British University in Dubai (BUiD) has concentrated on providing postgraduate Masters and Doctoral programmes in Business, Law, Education, Engineering and Information Technology. Compliance as a field of study is most apparent in our courses within the disciplines of law. We also have several subjects concentrating on different systems of governance and regulation such as on international business in the MBA, systems standards and architectures in IT, environmental standards in the sustainable design and built environment programme, and professional institute standards and policies. This last category is very common, with professional institutes influencing, for example, schools and higher education, project management, construction management, and human resource management.

I usually address issues of compliance in the classroom through plenary and group discussion of practical case studies on relevant industries and organizations. A number of our students choose to pursue specific topics for their assignments and research projects relating to compliance and examining the extent that government, semi-government and private sector organizations are complying with national (federal) visions and policies. Many of our students also examine problems of theory and practice set within the context of the local emirate (e.g. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah) and regulatory frameworks controlled by large government organizations such as the city municipalities, chambers of commerce, Roads Transport Authority (RTA) and electricity and water authorities.

Q: Are there any differences between teaching in the law department and teaching in the business/economics department?

Currently, my university concentrates on delivering one postgraduate programme in Construction Law and Dispute Resolution. So, in BUiD, we do not have the same level of diversity in law subjects that is typical of many large university law schools worldwide. Our law programme is accredited by the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and was established by Faculty members from the Law School in King’s College, London. It was quality controlled for its first five years of running by law staff from King’s College along with taught inputs by King’s academics and lawyer alumni on sections of the course syllabus, until the time came when we were fully experienced to run it ourselves. This programme draws on two main types of postgraduate student, first, qualified and practicing lawyers working in law firms or in-house for corporations, and second, engineers employed in various roles within the construction industry.

Our programmes in business management draw on a much wider range of undergraduate degree backgrounds and work experience. I think that there are some differences in so far as more of our law first degree students are accustomed to utilizing a large number of documents in case law and reports and opinions. Most of the law students possess the academic ability to write a detailed, systematic line of argument comparing and contrasting different ideas, opinions and judgements drawing on several different perspectives. As an academic, I cannot help but also notice the lawyers’ excellent capacity to cite and reference work, precisely and to-the-letter! We share the same professional tools and way of thinking in this area. Whereas, by comparison, our business students excel more in business situations where they can apply their in-depth knowledge and work experience of organizational cultures, client issues, business market constraints and opportunities.

Q: What do you talk about in terms of content if you want to convey the topic of compliance to your students?

I mainly teach project management and business management students. If I am dealing with issues of compliance, I often find that it works best for everyone when the students first collaborate in small groups followed up by plenary discussions. When they argue, debate and disagree between themselves on various matters of compliance, I normally find that they are then more interested later on in the class as to what I might have to add to their differences of opinion and perspective. They also are more willing to seek to achieve a consensus amongst the whole group on issues that initially they didn’t realise the extent of diversity of opinion within their class.

As a general rule, I usually start with a dilemma that requires improvement or collective solution. I find most students are happy to explore and learn about compliance issues along with the related ethics and practical considerations, but only when the problems are grounded in some framework or dilemma that they can relate to. So, project management students are usually keen to talk about compliance problems in relation to professional project management institutes’ standards and bodies of knowledge. Likewise, business management students will often go further in debates that relate to some practical consideration such as compliance with a country’s laws about how you should interact with government officials over commercial dealings or how compliance matters in pursuing TQM policies, achieving increased business excellence scores, and adhering to the corporation’s product and service standards in international business deals.

Q: Finally, in a few sentences or paragraphs, could you provide a brief summary of your contribution at our upcoming Annual Conference: “Collective Compliance with Soft Regulation? Creative Paths to Consensus.” ?

Sure. Let me answer in four sections:



My conference presentation reflects on the challenges of soft regulation seen from three different perspectives, longstanding problems facing multinational corporations in dealing with environmental sustainability in relation to the Anthropocene, global teams of multi-stakeholders engaging in the creation of social responsibility guidance (ISO26000), and, small and medium size enterprises seeking to enrol in social accountability standards (SA8000) stakeholders in their supply chains. The first case is a theoretical inquiry and discussion and the last two cases are based on empirical participant field research studies.


Aim and Objectives:


The aim of my conference presentation is to understand the challenges of achieving and maintaining consensus on soft regulation developed in contexts that have important social and environmental implications for economic growth and sustainability. The first case presents a set of dilemmas facing large corporations in contexts where they find themselves more routinely expected to be proactive in increasing the sustainability of business set within contexts of major global problems for environmental management. The second case concentrates on multi-stakeholder activities in ISO26000 working groups designed to reach consensus in contexts of disparate, geographically spread groups of stakeholders. Such groups are likely to possess a diversity of values, ideas and goals on the topics of soft regulation. The third case focuses on how a small and medium size company in the telecommunications industry endeavoured to interest, enrol and maintain the commitment to SA8000 Social Accountability standards of a group of manufacturing and services companies in its supply chains. In all three cases, the objective is to identify and explore the potential for creativity in collective participation in soft regulation.




The research reported in this presentation consists of three studies. First, a review of problems of managing in the Anthropocene and challenges faces business organizations seeking to remain within the planetary boundaries to ensure a sustainable world. Second, a case study of ISO 26000 and the voluntary formulation of global soft regulation, conducted through Non-State Market Driven (NSMD) systems and large scale multi-stakeholder collaborative initiatives. Third, a case study of stakeholder management by a telecommunications company in Morocco is based on a participant observation study by a PhD researcher on its journey towards achieving SA 8000 accreditation.




All three of these research studies reveal ways that issues of compliance are more obvious under the “command and control” regimes of hard regulation. It is noticeable that in voluntary contexts of soft regulation, collective consensus as to what ought to be done is harder first to achieve and then maintain. Innovation and compliance in voluntary programs and agreements demands more creativity at all levels on what soft regulation might be established and how it can be sustained.