Donald Garvin Harris OBE 1938-2013

If I ever come to write the story of my time in academia (and it’s likely to be more Twilight than The Masters given the changing nature of universities) then there will be a special place reserved for those that have mentored and helped me along the way. Unfortunately one of these special people died last week.

Donald Harris will have been known to a number of followers of this blog from his career in Tesco, his involvement with retail and education technology, his roles (and then fellowships) with professional bodies such as the Institute of Logistics and Distribution Management and the Institute of Grocery Distribution and from his time as an academic at Stirling, where he was influential in the introduction of the MBA in Retailing.

In 1998 the University of Stirling awarded Donald Harris an honorary doctorate to go alongside his OBE for services to computing, retailing and education. My 1998 oration (the University’s word not mine) is available here for those who want to know a little more about Donald and the affection and esteem with which he was held at Stirling.

Donald was a mathematician by initial degree. However, he joined Tesco in 1964 and led and developed their computing department at a time of great change in technology and in the company. He was a Board Director at the time of Operation Checkout and oversaw the initial transformation of the supply chain that this “wild success” spawned. He also played a wider industry role in the introduction of bar-coding and electronic trading to UK retailing. Throughout he was interested in education, research and academia, achieving a PhD part-time on retailing and technology and becoming a member of the Computer Board for Universities and Research Councils.

The pull of these wider interests encouraged Donald to leave Tesco, graduate from the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Programme and join the University of Stirling in the mid 1980s. At Stirling for over a decade he dispensed wisdom and enthusiasm and left a distinctive mark on cohorts of students, including our MBA in Retailing graduates.

In recent years Donald’s health had sadly declined but he still kept a keen watch over the development of Tesco and a strong interest in the changing nature of retailing.

Some of my memories of Donald are included in the attached oration, but in paying tribute to him here,  I would like to make two wider points, which reflect both the man and the changing nature of UK Universities.

Donald was informed, intelligent and erudite and brought these qualities to both retailing and academia, spanning the ‘divide’ between them. He helped me significantly by opening doors in Tesco for my PhD, at a time when most other retailers kept them closed. He had no reason to do so, other than he wanted to encourage research and especially research into retailing. He “got” the need for business to engage and involve and not be seen as distant, and not to see academia either as simply an exploitable resource or as a threat.

But on the other side, I am forced to reflect on the serendipity of timing. Stirling was lucky to recruit Donald as we established the IRS and its programmes.  His background was not typical, yet provided huge value to the University (he quickly became the chair of the University’s Computer Users Committee to great effect), not only in teaching retailing and making links with business. With the current pre-occupations of Universities on the REF and a uni-directional focus on highly-ranked (but often unread) academic peer-assessed journal articles, we would be unlikely to be able to recruit someone like Donald today. And that change diminishes Universities, teachers, researchers, students and business.

Donald Garvin Harris, OBE – gentleman, retailer and scholar.