Our New Home

8 01 2016

moving-clip-art-RTAk5jETLWe’ve had the removers in and have moved to a new home.

You’ll now find the Cowan Global blog here and the Cowan Global website here.

We hope to see you at our new home.

Thanks for reading the Cowan Global blog.


31 12 2015

Pic: Huffington Post

Every year is the same; depending on which survey you read somewhere over 70%, 80% or even 95% of all New Year’s resolutions are doomed to fail. Where will yours stack up in that statistical pile?

Here are a few tips to ensure this year your resolution becomes reality.

I spend much of my time helping businesses, charities  and other organisations become more successful by helping them be better at strategy. This means not only better at delivering strategy but also, importantly, in establishing challenging but achievable targets to pursue in the first place.

And every year, where so many businesses fall short of their potential (and even fail), most of the population follow. Every year people set targets (aka New Year’s resolutions) they have absolutely no chance of achieving.

Key to your being successful in whatever you resolve to do in 2016 is to be smarter when you set your target now. By smarter, I mean SMARTER because it is an acronym you can test your resolution against:

S stands for specific. If you aren’t specific about what you want to achieve how can you honestly know when you have succeeded? “I want to lose weight,” simply won’t cut the mustard; “I want to lose half a stone” will. It is specific so that you know what it is you are setting out to achieve.

M stands for measurable. You need to be able to measure progress or you risk losing motivation. “I want to get fitter,” is a laudable aim but is hard to measure. “I want to be fit enough to run 5km without stopping” puts a measure on it and you can tick off 1, 2, 3 and 4 km as landmarks along the way to help keep you motivated.

A stands for agreed. If you are involving other people, they must all agree or you will fail. Beyond that people have a penchant for setting resolutions they think others will be impressed by instead of setting targets for themselves. Put another way, your resolution must be something that, deep inside, you agree you can and will pursue, you must agree your resolution with yourself! Half-hearted = half-arsed = doomed to fail.

R stands for realistic. You will know people (you might be one of them) who have big, often alcohol driven dreams every December 31st and who wake on 1st January to realise there is no way on God’s earth they will achieve their resolution and it bites the dust before it sees its first sunset. Unrealistic can mean plain crazy (eg I’m going to swim the Atlantic using butterfly) or ill-conceived such as committing to hit the gym for two hours every day when you know that work and family commitments will make one hour every other day far more realistic.

T stands for time-phased. In short; give yourself a deadline and, if it is a large undertaking, give yourself some time-phased check points along the way. So, if you are going to run to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for charity it might be wise to have some progressive targets along the way as you prepare.

E stands for exciting. Does achieving your resolution excite you? If yes, great; if no, bin it and get another because if you aren’t excited by it now the further we get into 2016 the less you will be motivated to achieve it and that will lead to only one thing – failure.

R stands for recorded. Not just a record for yourself but a public record to which you agree to be accountable. This might be as simple telling your friends you are going to raise over £1000 for your favourite charity or it might be sharing your progress towards fitness, weight loss, giving up smoking or whatever else on a public blog. By recording what your resolution is you make yourself accountable for its success or its failure.

Whatever your resolution, good luck in achieving it. Have a great time on New Year’s Eve; see you the other side!

© Jim Cowan, December 2015

If you are looking for a challenge to make your aim for 2016, one which will test you, help get you fitter and help others, why not join me in doing the Rio 3 Peaks Challenge in November?

There’s plenty of time to get fit, raise funds and in doing so you will be helping Street Child United continue their fight against child homelessness.


30 12 2015

Photo: bbc.co.uk

Recent weeks have seen parts of the UK battered by storms leading to the worst flooding on record. Many of those suffering are the same families who have suffered in other floods in recent years and the question has to be asked; how could successive governments get flood prevention and flood defence strategies so wrong?

It is a recurring theme in my blogs, that of government incompetence when it comes to strategy. And it is not a party political issue, it is a cross-party one. The assumption (as in many other walks of life) is one of assumed expertise and, when things invariably end up going wrong, the excuses expose the flaws in the planning processes.

We could start by asking who in their right mind would think a deliberate plan of house-building on flood plains is a good one? Many spoke out at the time and now John Prescott’s grand, but flawed, design for partially solving the UK’s housing crisis has been exposed as a poor strategy based on finger crossing and hope rather than considered thought and informed research. And successive governments of all hues have continued Prescott’s flawed strategy so none can be absolved of blame.

Of course, many of the homes and businesses suffering pre-date recent governments and the policy of building on flood plains. They were therefore reliant on competent strategy for flood prevention and flood defence being in place.

On flood defence, despite the evidence of the past few years that things are getting worse, spending has been cut and planning has been of that flawed variety which considers only historical data, basing all decisions on that alone.

How  many times in the past few days and weeks have we heard the spokespeople for both government and Environment Agency tell us that the defences were strengthened and improved but were based on that once in a hundred years event and therefore were over-run by these more recent, worst ever floods?

Given we know the effects of climate change will lead to stormier, wetter conditions than ever before, shouldn’t we be asking; “why wasn’t climate change factored into your planning?” Shouldn’t we be asking why ALL available information including scientific predictions for future weather patterns were not factored in to planning for defences? Should we also be asking why our taxes were being spent on flood defences which were obsolete before they were started, let alone completed?

This is not advanced strategic planning for experts; this is Strategy 101 – be informed by ALL the available, relevant information; avoid the classic ‘schoolboy error’ of utilising only historical data.

And what of flood prevention? Experts have been telling us for years that strategies aimed at preventing floods ‘downstream’ need to be put in place upstream. We need agricultural land capable of holding excess water, we need more not fewer trees and foliage to assist in slowing the rate of flow and we need flood plains to be free to be just that – plains where flood water can sit, not places on which to build new homes.

It is a tragedy for those people whose homes and livelihoods have been hit yet again by severe flooding but questions must be asked as to the continued acceptance of incompetent politicians employing flawed thinking when designing strategy.

It is time our elected officials accepted their limitations instead of assuming non-existent expertise. The people who they represent deserve better but, instead, can only hold our breath and wonder as to where flawed government strategy will have negative effects next?

I fear this is far from the last time I blog about how politicians are a prime lesson in how to get strategy wrong. The only good news for the rest of us is that, inadvertently, they provide an exceptional study in how not to devise and execute quality strategy for those willing to look closely and learn.

© Jim Cowan, December 2015.


5 09 2015

The refugee crisis currently unfolding across Europe has created much debate, anger, pity and more but little in the way of genuine, workable strategies to deliver a long-term solution as opposed to a quick fix.

Aylan Kurdi

The tragedy of young Aylan Kurdi has only made matters worse as understandable emotion has started clouding sound strategic thinking, for as harsh as it may sound, a lasting solution will only be found by clear minds understanding a highly complex situation and, importantly, learning from the many errors of strategy of recent history which led us to this point. Strategy, both good and bad, leads cause to effect and many of the effects caused by what we have, and are, seeing were predictable.

Here in the UK we have almost become immune to politicians launching policy without thinking through what the medium to long term effects of that policy may be (cause and effect). In short, they launch policy but ignore strategy, which is, of itself, bad strategy. Some, me included, would suggest politicians simply do not understand strategy leaving the rest of us to suffer the after effects of populist policy badly delivered.

This is important to understand for much of the hostility to housing refuges in the UK can be found in frustration founded in years of policies which have failed to provide the population with an adequate stock of social housing, numerous benefits cock-ups, an underfunded NHS and a perception of job shortages made worse by an influx of workers from other EU states.

Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ policy, introduced at a time waiting lists were already growing, was extremely popular at the time. Incredible as it might sound, it has contributed to the social housing shortage. Every politician since has failed to grasp the issue as the gulf between what is needed and what exists has grown. The policy; Right to Buy, lacked a supporting strategy which ensured a continued, adequate housing supply for future generations. That shortage is now part of the fuel to the hostility as people question how we can take in refugees when, for example, 4500 former service men and women are homeless? And that is one small component of the complex strategic failures of successive UK governments, this is not a party political failure, it is a Westminster failure.

But in order to resolve the crisis, we need to look beyond simply a capability to take in (or not) refugees, we need to know that the flood can be reduced to a trickle and even stemmed. This is not a UK issue, nor even an EU issue, although its open border policy has definitely not helped; this is a global crisis born of poor strategy on a global scale. To comprehend how we fix the problem, we must understand some of its making, a highly complex making of which the following can only be a simplified summary for fear of turning an article into a book!

One strand of the problem’s history can be found in Beirut but the cause predates even that and can be traced back to western governments’ policy of hostility to the Palestinian cause. Note, not to support for Israel but to hostility for the Palestinian cause. The margins here are fine and within the refugee camps of southern Lebanon and Beirut displaced Palestinians could not understand how the west could consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation. After all, they had insisted on free and fair elections in Gaza, elections won by Hamas by a majority western leaders only dream of, elections declared free and fair by independent observers. And yet, the west refused to do business with the elected government of Gaza and the populations of displaced Palestinians in Beirut could only scratch their heads at the injustice. Play the west’s game and still they ignore you, still they leave you isolated. The west’s strategy of demanding free and fair elections had back-fired and their devil had been elected. But rather than support the democracy they had insisted on, they changed strategy and looked the other way. Cause and effect; what were many of those Palestinians to think of the west and how might a handful react?

While most still saw their main cause that of Palestine, from this resentment of the west, ISIS was born as a very small minority took extreme misinterpretations of the Koran to create a new approach. However without other circumstances conspiring, that small group would have remained just that, a small group. But nature abhors a vacuum and the west was about to create a vast vacuum that ISIS could fill.

The civil war in Syria has multiple root causes ranging from downtrodden people mimicking the Arab Spring to drought driving farmers to the cities and many more besides. Those many causes collided and a civil war began.

A war weary west with armies depleted by budget slashing politicians and cautious after going into Iraq without just cause didn’t want to intervene without confirmed backing and so sought international agreement for support for the Syrian rebels. For strategic reasons of their own, China and Russia blocked the move and the west, instead of supporting, sat back to watch what might unfold.  Lacking clear strategy the west had been out thought and out-played by Russian leader Vladimir Putin who protected his nation’s arms sales in the region but, more importantly had tested the west’s resolve  for doing the right thing when it mattered ahead of planned interventions in Crimea and Ukraine (and, still possible, the Baltic States).

The rebels in Syria saw vocal support from the west without genuine support in the form of hardware if not military action. In a world where ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ into the void stepped a small, largely unheard of group from the refugee camps across the border in Lebanon. ISIS had a small, but strategically important toe-hold and used it to grow and spread their message of terror and hate to devastating effect. Before a strategically inept west realised what was happening, ISIS had grown beyond all recognition and was establishing their self-styled caliphate.

Still the west did not react and what had become a three or four sided civil war in Syria became an invasion of Iraq as the caliphate grew. The Kurds resisted, the Iraqis ran before regrouping, the Syrians continued fighting each other as well as the now powerful ISIS. Finally, too late, the west woke up but instead of employing a decisive strategy to remove ISIS from the region, decided on air strikes only. It was, and still is, too little too late.

In Syria, some people were already fleeing an oppressive regime and a war which was destroying once habitable cities but now they were also fleeing the terror of ISIS, fleeing beheadings, child rape and forced marriage in a warped interpretation of religion. In northern Iraq, people were fleeing the same.

The Lebanon faced a humanitarian crisis as a new generation of refugees arrived, not the Palestinians of recent history but Syrians and Iraqis. Jordan and Turkey too were faced with crisis. Before long those camps were having to cope with 4 million refugees and inside Syria and Iraq a further 3.5 million were displaced. It was a ticking bomb waiting to go off.

And here we are. What did our governments expect? Their short-sightedness, failed strategies and self-denial has led us to where we are. And where we are is in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since the 1930s and 1940s with an ineffectively opposed foe at the root cause (cause and effect) and no sign of an end.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect any sort of competent strategic thinking from the  very ‘leaders’ who brought us to where we are and so, short of the short-termism of where to place the refugees, no one is thinking, no one is planning to address the root cause of the problem. And without doing so, the refugees will keep coming. The estimated 800,000 on mainland Europe could double and treble in size within a few months because no one is looking over the horizon and asking, “how do we solve this problem?” Not the symptom, refugees, the problem, what they are fleeing.

The text books are full of various types of strategy coming under a vast range of terms but there are in reality only two types; issue based strategy and vision based strategy. Issue based to address an immediate problem before you can proceed, vision based to design a vision of a future you desire and then plan towards it.

This global problem requires global co-operation to find a solution. If Vladimir Putin chooses to block that co-operation then now is the time to proceed without him. The globe, all nations, need to agree to aid Europe in addressing the current refugee crisis (an issue based strategy). The globe, all nations, need to then agree a vision based strategy for addressing the issue at its heart – the annihilation of ISIS. If nations choose not to participate the rest must proceed without, because hand-wringing and argument won’t solve the issue, sound strategy properly deployed by competent leaders will.

Back in the UK, our armed forces are the smallest they have ever been. Currently, we don’t even have an aircraft carrier. It has been said, and I agree, that to protect peace you must be ready for war. Part of our own vision based strategy must be to rebuild our armed forces, it must provide affordable housing for all, an NHS which works, and benefits which provide a genuine safety net not a scroungers charter; it must deliver the land fit for heroes that was promised long ago.

There will be those who say we should avoid war at all costs; we should house as many refugees as it takes. While I applaud their humanity, I cannot agree. We either solve the crisis short-term and address its root cause medium to long term, or we will end up at war anyway because without destroying ISIS, that war is coming if it’s not already here.

Let there be no more Aylan Kurdis. Cold, clear, quality strategy will get us there, let’s not let emotion lead us further down this wrong path of simple, emotion driven solutions which we have been on for too long. Let’s not address a highly complex issue like it is a simple puzzle.

© Jim Cowan, 2015.


21 07 2013

christopher robin and edward bearIt is probably not something that has occurred to many business owners and executives but nonetheless it is fair to say that when it comes to strategic planning, the vast majority are mimicking Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.

Let me explain…..

But first, a quick history of strategy. 2500 years ago Sun Tzu wrote about the concept and application of military strategy in ‘The Art of War.’ Then, for 2300 years or so strategy developed almost exclusively as a military tool. In the 19th Century sports people recognised the value of planned training and started exploring the concept of strategic planning, developing into the finely honed tool it has become for today’s world class performers.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century businesses dabbled with planning and the mid-20th Century business even employed an early form of ‘strategic management’ however it was not until the release of H. Igor Ansoff’s ‘Corporate Strategy’ in 1965 that business began to properly embrace strategy.

Since then, many business owners and executives have developed and delivered strategy but have failed to grasp one of, if not the, primary reason(s) for having strategy. Strategy should be about the art/science of seeking and gaining a competitive advantage.

The military recognise this. Leading sports performers and their coaches recognise this. The majority in business either do not recognise or choose to ignore this.*

Instead they prefer to employ the insane method of developing strategy. And gaining competitive advantage means avoiding the insane.

  • Insanity Planning is doing the same thing today and tomorrow that you did yesterday and expecting a different result.
  • Insanity Planning is doing the same thing as your competition and expecting to beat them.
  • Insanity Planning assumes the competitive environment does not change and expects the plans of yesterday will yield the same results tomorrow.

And modern business loves Insanity Planning. Businesses seek templates of strategies developed by others; copy the plans of others expecting different results. Such insanity should have no place in the seeking of competitive advantage; of excellence; of high performance.

Quality strategy was, is and always will be personalised. Having the same (or similar) strategy as everyone else will not deliver competitive advantage.

Of course, historically there have been times when the military have forgotten this important point in much the same way as business has. It usually takes a leader to come along and put in place strategy which avoids the insane to change thinking and remind people of the insanity of what they were doing. In hindsight, the new strategy might even look like common sense.

Such a leader was Horatio Nelson. In 1805, in the build up to the Battle of Trafalgar he recognised Insanity Planning for what it was (is). Had he not, I might be writing this article in French or Spanish.

Battle_of_Trafalgar_Poster_1805At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s fleet of 27 ships came up against a superior combined French and Spanish fleet of 33. The conventional, accepted strategy of the day was to line the ships of the two opposing forces up parallel to each other and, effectively, start shooting until a winner emerged.

Outgunned, Nelson recognised this template for strategy employed by everyone else for the insanity it was. He knew that if he engaged the opposition in this way the odds of winning were extremely long. Insanely long.

So he chose to employ a personalised strategy which would give his fleet competitive advantage; which avoided the insane. As the enemy lined up according to the accepted, shared, strategy template of the day, Nelson chose to sail towards them in single file and at right angles to their straight line. He evened the odds, caused confusion amongst his foe and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nelson recognised the need to personalise the strategy to HIS goal; HIS resources; HIS (and his sailor’s) skills and abilities; HIS definition of success. In doing so, he gained competitive advantage.

What does any of this have to do with Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh?

To explain that, I will quote Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne:

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

When it comes to strategic planning for business who do you mirror?

Are you an Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson or a Winnie the Pooh?

*Just a small selection of the research to support this statement:

  • 84% of a sample of 3543 companies confuse Mission and Vision. 64% thought Mission and Vision are the same thing. 91% lacked concise Vision. (Forbes 2009).
  • 61% of CEOs believe inflexible corporate structure hampers successful delivery of strategy. 82% of companies design structure ahead of strategy. (Forbes 2009).
  • 47% of CEOs say their strategies are better described as matching industry best practices and delivering operational imperatives; in other words, just playing along. (McKinsey 2011)
  • 87% of companies plan strategy using only intelligence that they share with their competitors. (McKinsey 2011).
  • 79% of Company Executives do not understand the language of strategy yet still use it. (Business Review 2007).

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2013

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Twitter @cowanglobal



26 06 2013

Committed_to_Equality_1I haven’t written on the value to business of understanding equality for a while however an email exchange from this morning leaves me compelled to wonder whether many still view it as something not worth the bother.

There are many very good reasons to ensure that your business takes Equality seriously. Of course, the biggest driver for many is the desire not to fall foul of the law even if, at the back of their minds, many view meeting the requirements of the Equality Act (2010) as little more than red tape.

It would be nice to believe that in the 21st century laws to ensure access to equal treatment for all are not necessary and that we all seek to accommodate our fellow human beings as best we possibly can. Sadly that is not the case and I am not naïve enough to believe it is.

That does not mean most people deliberately put barriers in the way of others. What does happen is that ignorance drives practice and the right questions are not asked, reasonable solutions not found. For that is all that the 2010 Act requires; that reasonable adjustments be made.

But other than the legal and the ‘human’ reasons for trying to provide equal access to all for your company or organisation there is another; good business practice. It might sound obvious but I will say it anyway, the easier it is for more people to access your company or organisation, the more likely it is they will use your products or services.

Which brings me back to that email exchange from this morning…..

I will shortly be acting as an expert witness in a court case. While most know me as an expert in Strategy, in this case I will be appearing specifically as an expert in Equality Strategy. Earlier today I received an email from a solicitor asking that I pass comment on a document he had prepared for the Court. He was keen that if we were to be arguing a case based on equality, any documents submitted must reflect both expertise and belief in that area.

The content of both the solicitor’s email and the attachment read well and were factually correct, however both fell short of his aim due to his poor choice of font. I commented as such, suggested a different font and advised him why it made a difference.

His reply interested me. The attached document was now presented in a good, accessible font. However his email remained in the original font. I remarked on this over the phone and, to paraphrase his reply, was told, “Oh, that’s okay, the Court won’t see that.”

This attitude is not uncommon in businesses and organisations in all sectors. Government departments, local government, charities, sports clubs and others all discriminate against significant sections of society because they can’t be bothered to change once their ‘ignorances’ are pointed out to them.

The law requires reasonable adjustments be made. I believe changing the default font setting on emails is reasonable. I do not believe that not being bothered is but, to date, no test case has been brought to support my view.

But beyond the law, what about running a successful business, department, charity, club or whatever? Does it make sense to deliberately make it more difficult for large parts of society to work with you? Does it make sense not to make access as easy as competitors who do make reasonable adjustments? Does it make sense not to steal a march on competitors who do not make those reasonable adjustments?

You tell me. The example of the poor choice of font used above could negatively impact on dyslexics accessing and making use of that solicitor’s services. Ten percent of the population are dyslexic, 4% severely so. Even at four percent, that is potentially 2.4 million customers (UK) you are gifting to your competitors. Why? Because you can’t be bothered.

The Equality Act of 2010 is the legal driver behind businesses and organisations in all sectors making reasonable adjustments which will provide improved access for all. Some call it red tape, I prefer to think of it as acting like a decent human being.

But even if the legal and the human reasons don’t drive you to reasonable adjustment, maybe the business case should?

If you can be bothered.


If you would like to find out more about this topic and/or would like to discuss arranging an Equality Audit for your business or organisation, please drop me a line to the email address below.

Also on Equality:

Equality – No Room For Excuses (2012)

Equality and Ignorance Driven Insanity in Business (2012)

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2013

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Twitter @cowanglobal



16 06 2013

what is your mission?A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog entitled ‘Corporate Strategy; Not A New Idea But Not As Old As You Thought.’ In that article, I noted that the “Mission Statement and Objectives – describe the company’s mission, vision and values…..”

I have since received a request asking me to clarify how the Mission Statement also contains the Mission and asking; “aren’t they the same thing?”

The words Mission and Vision frequently generate confusion from senior executives in large corporations to one person operations. Some omit one or the other, some confuse the two and some believe they are both the same thing. I discussed this in ‘The Vision Thing’ in 2010 but, in short, your Mission is why you exist while your Vision is where you are seeking to get to.

But what of the Mission Statement, that much-loved (and abused) adornment of annual reports? If it isn’t the same thing as the Mission then what is it and how do the two differ?

A good Mission Statement should provide a valuable touchstone for management and employees, helping to maintain focus, protecting culture and values while serving as a reminder of the organisation’s purpose(s).

The Mission Statement does not need to be the long rambling, mind-numbing tract seen in some annual reports. In essence its purpose is to cover three bases:

  • “Our Mission” – why we are in business; what is our purpose.
  • “Our Vision” – where is it we are planning to get to in X number of years.
  • “Our Values” – what we stand for, what we believe in, our style and what is important about the way(s) in which we work.

The Mission Statement does not create these elements, it reports them; they should already exist. It is not aspirational although, containing the Vision, should include that aspirational component.

The Mission Statement is never (repeat, never) a strategy. Its components might guide and, in part, inform strategy but it is never the strategy itself.

The confusion around the Mission Statement and its components has led to companies getting it wrong and, in some cases, avoiding having such a statement at all. In some sectors management have shied away from using terms like Vision and Mission, believing (wrongly) they serve little purpose, probably because they are frequently applied so badly.

As a way of addressing this fear of the Mission Statement and/or belief it has little value, I have recently applied a different, plain English, use of terms with some clients which you may find useful (they certainly have):

We replaced the trio of Mission, Vision and Values with a quartet of defining statements:

  • Why Are We Here?
  • Where Are We Going?
  • What Do We Stand For?
  • Who Are We?

In answering “why are we here?” the organisation is defining its Mission, regardless of whether that is what they call it. By declaring clearly “where are we going?” the business is putting in place Vision. And by considering “what do we stand for?” and “who are we?” the company Values are declared.

Taking it a step further, my challenge to those organisations with which I have employed this method, is to present the answers to the four questions as a ‘Statement of Intent’ in a way that can be clearly presented and understood on one side of A4 paper.

In achieving this they have created their Mission Statement and included their Mission, Vision and Values. Whether that is what they call them is unimportant. What is important is that they exist, are recorded and can be clearly understood for what they are/say.

If you are getting bogged down in and/or confused by the Mission Statement and its component parts or have avoided addressing them properly at all, give this way of addressing it a go, you will likely find it quite liberating.

In doing so you will also remove all confusion between what is the Mission Statement and what is the Mission.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, June 2013

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Twitter @cowanglobal