Archive for February, 2012

Apple, Foxconn, and MBA Students

On February 21, ABC News’ Dateline ran a story about Foxconn, the Chinese firm that manufactures consumer electronics for major corporations, including Apple.  China may be thousands of miles away, but the Foxconn story raises an important business question that MBA students and C-suite executives face when studying and leading organizations.

The issue the Foxconn situation highlights is the struggle businesses face balancing shareholders’ interests and employees’ well-being.  MBA students learn that the executive’s role is to maximize shareholder value.  However, the question then becomes to what extent (if at all) should shareholders’ interests outweigh the safety and well-being of a firm’s employees?

Now it is important to keep in mind that Apple is not the only firm that manufactures products through Foxconn, it is simply the most renowned.  And Foxconn has taken steps to try and prevent future fatalities, in light of recent suicides and explosion fatalities.  The company placed suicide nets on its buildings and replaced humans with robots at a manufacturing site that had been rocked by a deadly explosion.  So the question for all businesses then becomes: At what point do the needs of employees outweigh the needs of shareholders?

When should organizations take steps, at the possible expense of their profits, to protect their employees’ well-being?  In the United States, the term “work-life balance” is frequently thrown about when talking about employees’ well-being.  But well-being has multiple definitions spanning various geographic locations and cultures.  At the Foxconn facilities, the employees’ well-being can potentially be attributed to working hours, the repetition and monotony of their jobs, living conditions, or limited opportunities for social interaction.  These factors are important to consider because they directly affect employees’ well-being, and the employees are the life-blood and energy that keep a company operating.

Employees should be treated as important and valuable stakeholders in a business’ success.  That is easier said than done however, considering most executives (and executives-in-training, such as MBA students) are instructed to maximize their companies’ shareholder value.  Certain firms, particularly technology startups, go out of their way to provide excellent care and rewarding perks for their employees.  Diverse offerings ranging from flexible work schedules to office air hockey tables to on-site massage therapists enhance employees’ well-being.  And these offerings also take away from a firm’s bottom-line.  I am personally interested to see if the business leaders of tomorrow focus more on caring for their organizations employees, or if we continue to see corporations place an emphasis on maximizing shareholder value and wealth.

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So How Does This Apply at Work?

Four weeks into my second MBA semester at CSUF Mihaylo, and I find myself attempting to apply concepts from the classroom to work responsibilities.  Specifically, I have been trying to find out how to apply linear programming methods to my daily tasks.  I know, it probably sounds boring, but I find the linear programs fascinating (and it definitely helps that Excel Solver does all the time-consuming computations for you).

Let me back up for a moment.  One of my classes this semester is ISDS 514 – Decision Models for Business and Economics.  The course focuses on using management science methods and programs to develop models for solving business problems by applying the appropriate software tools and accurately interpreting the results.  The material has been extremely interesting – using the data provided (usually profit margin and sales information) and taking into account specific constraints, Solver can calculate the appropriate solution for a given business problem.  Through the first several weeks of class, the problems we worked on in class consisted mainly of maximizing profits or minimizing production costs.

I’ve been intrigued by these new problem solving techniques, and attempted to apply them to my daily tasks at work.  However, I hit a roadblock and came to realize these tools don’t apply / aren’t needed for the work I do.  I am an Associate Transportation Funding Analyst for the region’s public transportation agency, and my role specifically involves securing state and federal funding for local bus and rail transit projects.  A large portion of my time is spent preparing and reviewing funding applications and ensuring projects are meet document submittal and reporting deadlines.  In my mind, these tasks don’t seem to warrant the use of Solver and linear programming methods.

However, if I was involved in determining which projects the agency should fund, then linear programming would help with developing solutions.  Solver can be utilized in binary problems that seek to evaluate which potential projects should be funded (and in the agency’s case, the projects that should be constructed as well).  There are certain political constraints that would limit specific projects from being selected over other projects, and the final determination would be limited by the amount of funding available.  On top of that, the professor began discussing the use of Solver to find solutions to Transportation, Shortest Path, and Minimal Spanning Tree problems.  I believe these strategies could be applicable to planning optimal transit system routes for our bus service or helping determine the best layout for rail stations.  As we explore these methods in greater detail, I will develop a better understanding of their structures and uses in order to eventually determine their usefulness at the transportation agency.

Classes and material like the linear programming methods I’m learning about definitely help me feel like the time and money I am spending earning my MBA is worth it.  I feel like the strategies I am learning will be applicable at my current position and in future work I do, and will ideally go a long way towards helping me grow into the most effective and informed manager I can become.

Do you have any tips for applying lessons learned in school to your role at work?  Or more specifically, do you use linear programming or Solver frequently as part of your daily work tasks?  Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

Here are a couple of interesting articles I have read recently:

“5 Ways to Transforms Greece’s Economy Now” – I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been hearing about the poor state of Greece’s economy for years now.  In reality, its economy has only recently gained notoriety in mainstream media, but I rarely hear about how the economy can be fixed (other than with more bailouts).  This article offers five interesting suggestions to help get the Greek economy up and running efficiently again.

“Why Starbucks Succeeds in China” – The world is getting smaller, and companies are continuously growing their international market exposure.  This article provides a great example of how businesses should weigh local culture and tastes when expanding into foreign markets.

“The Most Important Question You Can Ask” – I found this article to be extremely thought-provoking due to the one big question it asks: Am I adding more value to the world than I am using up?  It definitely got me thinking about the resources I use every day and the lasting impact I’m having on the planet.

Weekly Article Roundup

I’m sorry this week’s post is not CSUF related – I’m now getting into the thick of a new semester, and am dealing with my first exams and case studies.  New CSUF and MBA posts will be up in the coming weeks, but until then here are some articles I’ve recently read that you might find informative:

“When It Comes to Networking, Don’t Try to Wing It” – Not only do the authors offer great tips for taking full advantage of networking opportunities (my favorite tip is to always learn, even after finishing school), but they make a case that women are better networkers than men (a big part of the reason has to do with how women prepare for networking events and opportunities).

“You Could Get There Faster Without an MBA” – This article is directed at individuals who wonder whether they should earn an MBA before creating a start-up.  In the author’s opinion, factors including program costs, the education curriculum, and the time commitment required for an MBA provide little benefit to entrepreneurs.  The better strategy: get out there and learn from experience.

“The World Belongs to Those Who Hustle” – I stumbled across this blog, Art of Manliness, when searching for information about either dressing for success at work or starting a business (I can’t quite remember which topic it was).  Ever since discovering it, I have avidly consumed it articles and highly recommend it to everyone.  It not only offers advice on how to be a man in the 21st century, but it provides strategies for success (like this article) that are useful for both genders.