Archive for April, 2012

A Brave, New MBA World

Every year, employers receive surveys from various organizations asking questions about the companies’ MBA employees they have and those they will be recruiting.  And I am always fascinated to read what skills employers feel their MBA new hires are lacking.  In 2011, the University of North Carolina partnered with the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) and conducted one of these surveys.  One section of the survey listed skills employers had identified as most valuable in MBA’s, but the firms were reporting the lowest satisfaction with these same skills in their MBA’s.  Those skills included:

  • Ability to adapt/change to new situations
  • Creative problem-solving skills
  • Oral communication skills
  • Written communication skills
  • Ability to think strategically
  • Ability to make decisions with imperfect information
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Leadership skills

Business schools have a difficult challenge finding ways to teach these skills to their MBA students.  But Harvard Business School is attempting to implement a new graduate business curriculum that could do exactly that.

Harvard Business School recently undertook a bold revamp of its MBA curriculum.  Instead of focusing the majority of its course-work on case studies, the school has developed a program titled FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) for first year MBA students which exposes them to the trials and tribulations of creating a start-up.  First-years formed approximately 150 teams that were provided impressive resources to launch their start-ups: $5,000 in seed money and help from lawyers (for drafting legal documents) and professional programmers (for app and software development).  Students created their company and pitched their idea to fellow classmates.  Then, those classmates were provided with $100,000 in “monopoly money” to buy and sell shares in the start-ups using a software program developed for the course.  The idea behind this being that the market (in this case, the students) will determine whether a team’s business has the chops to succeed based on how well it is trader by the market.  After the initial trading occurs, teams then revamped their pitches or repositioned their start-ups before presenting one last time to their classmates.

Some of the ideas were hits, and could potentially spin-off into brand new businesses.  Others start-ups that weren’t so successful were relegated to the “failed business track” and their teams analyzed why their ideas didn’t completely pan out.  Everything in the program is a learning experience, according to Professor Alan MacCormack: “The going-to-market track is about selling and going to customers and proving your idea.  And the other is understanding that failure is a very natural outcome of entrepreneurship.”

So how does this course relate to the employer survey mentioned earlier?  This bold revamp of Harvard’s curriculum dramatically addresses the skills employers feel MBA graduates lack when they enter the workforce.  The students must leverage their creative problem-solving abilities and work together as a team to create a business from scratch.  They have little time to waste, and must act using limited information and their experiences each brings to their team.  Interpersonal skills and leadership become extremely important if the students wish to develop an effective team that can implement the group’s vision and business strategy.  Oral and written presentation skills are honed in the pitches to the student “investors.”  And the teams must adjust on the fly to the reactions of the market to ensure their start-up remains viable and competitive.

I personally find this new approach to the MBA curriculum extremely exciting!  I love the idea of taking the information learned in the classroom (P&L statements, marketing strategies, production scheduling, etc.) and augmenting it with the communication and soft skills needed to sell an idea to an investor.  This program gives students the opportunity to fully utilize the skills and knowledge they’ve been taught in their MBA program in order to better experience what the business world is really like.  Now, I realize this program cannot be implemented by every last MBA program – the cost alone is a huge roadblock for most schools.  But the skills these students learn and develop in a program like this will go a long way towards helping them grow into effective MBA graduates.  Creative MBA program modifications like Harvard’s start-up course should dramatically help bring MBA programs graduate students who are skilled and experienced in 21st century business strategies.

What do you think of Harvard’s new start-up course?  Do you think it will help mold MBA graduates into employees that firms will want to hire?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below or tweet me at @orangecountymba.

3 New Case Study Insights I Learned By Not Participating In Class

I’ll admit, last week I wasn’t able to prepare for my management course case study.  Luckily, every student drops his/her two lowest case study grades when the semester ends, so I decided to sit out the case discussion and drop that score.  I wanted to observe the case debate, so I stayed and watched my classmates banter about Cisco.  I observed a few new insights about case studies I hadn’t realized before; things I normally miss when I’m frantically crafting a rebuttal to a classmate’s statement that I only managed to hear half of.  So in no particular order, I present my (newly observed) case study insights:

  1. Not participating allows you to actually listen to the debate.  When I’m normally participating in a case, I divide my attention between listening to whoever is speaking and hurrying to craft a coherent response to any points he or she happened to make.  Therefore, I often only hear bits and pieces of my classmates’ statement(s), and end up crafting my response based on those limited pieces I managed to absorb.  Having had the opportunity to hear the entire case study dialogue helped clue me into the direction the professor was guiding the conversation.  There is a purpose to the questions he asks about the case, and the answers frequently require reference back to the assigned chapter we read.  Sitting back and listening to the case also helped reveal my next insight.
  2. The discussion can often get disjointed, but the professor always reels it back in.  I give our professor a lot of credit during the case studies.  There are some times when a classmate may have an answer to an earlier question in mind and then answers that previous question instead of responding to the professor’s recent query.  Other times, he or she may try to fumble through an answer, when it’s clear little time went into preparing for the case.  Whenever things start to get off track or out of hand, the professor always does a good job of circling the class back to the main discussion topics.  This helps keep everyone focused, and prevents us from spending 40 minutes arguing over trivial details.
  3. Your arguments must be well-crafted.  While observing the discussion, I witnessed the majority of the class disagree with one other student over a question the professor had asked.  The professor wanted to know whether the decisions an executive team made in the case succeeded because of their business skill or because of luck.  The majority of the class thought it was due to the executives’ skills, and they made sure to let their single opponent know how they felt.  The issue I observed wasn’t that the lone student’s argument was incorrect or his points weren’t valid.  His problem was that he didn’t clearly organize his thoughts before (attempted to) convey them to the rest of the class.  As an “outside observer,” I felt the lens through which he viewed the case was very different from the rest of the class.  But this student wasn’t able to recognize that difference between their arguments, tailor his response to illustrate that point, and then successful convey it to his classmates.  The two sides just talked past one another and never managed to get on the same page.  To me, this insight seems especially useful for prospective managers.  A manager cannot assume his or her employees are always aware of the perspective the manager has approached the problem or issue from – people cannot read minds.  Managers need to ensure they clearly convey their ideas, perspectives, and requests, so that everyone is on the same page and can work together to accomplish their goals.

The class only has two case studies remaining, and I’m excited for both of them.  Our discussions have recently started turning into engaging debates, with a lot of vigorous back-and-forth dialogue.  I’m hoping these last couple case studies provide as much useful insight as the previous six have, and those insights can be incorporated into my future managerial roles.

Here are some articles I found interesting this week:

“Wealth or Waste? Rethinking the Value of a Business Major” – Educators, universities, and even some businesses are beginning to question the effectiveness and value of business degrees.  If you’ve earned a business degree (undergraduate or graduate) do you feel your experiences have adequately prepared you to work and contribute in the business world?  Share you perspective in the comments section below.

“Microsoft’s Master Plan to Beat Apple and Google” – I love business strategy.  And it seems like it’s been a while since the marketplace had heard any significant positive news coming from Microsoft.  So I found this article about their strategies for overtaking Apple and Google absolutely fascinating.  Whether or not the strategies work, I’m impressed with the vision the company is exhibiting and the dramatic shift it’s taking with its products.

MBA Events, Mental Traps, and a Little Manliness

When I originally drafted this blog post, I intended to write about one of my major complaints with the CSUF MBA program.  After researching my complaint a bit though, my vision for this post changed.  I want to share the insights that led to my change of heart.

I receive emails almost daily from CSUF reminding me of upcoming MBA events and activities.  I opened an email Wednesday morning titled “Attend the 2-Hour Job Search Workshop!”  Intrigued, I read the email about the upcoming event but was disappointed to see it was scheduled for a Friday at 2:30pm.  Considering I work during the week, I realized I couldn’t possibly make it to the event and deleted the email from my inbox.

Frustrated that I couldn’t attend the event, my mind started stewing over the following thought: “CSUF always seems to schedule events during my work hours.”  And the more I stewed over the though, the more frustrated I became.  I enrolled in the MBA program with every intention of getting the most I could from my experience.  To me that meant attending workshops, learning from my professors and peers, making new contacts, and developing new skills.  My mind began stewing over the following question: “How was I supposed to do that when every event was scheduled during my work hours?”

So I decided my post this week would target CSUF’s poor scheduling.  I started going through my emails and write down the times for all the past couple months’ MBA events.  I was convinced that I remembered most of those events were scheduled during my work hours.  I couldn’t help but wonder, “What kind of a business school, with lots of part-time students who work 40+ hours per week, would schedule events during work hours?  How do they expect students to be able to attend?”

My brilliant plan backfired though the instant I began reviewing the events – of the 12 I reviewed from March and April, only 5 were scheduled during work hours.  I was stunned.  I could have attended 7 of those events!  Why had I thought so many of them had been scheduled during work hours?  I came to realize I had fallen victim to a common mental bias called the “availability heuristic.”

What is the availability heuristic? I guess the best definition comes from a post I read 2 days ago from one of my favorite blogs, The Art of Manliness:

“…we tend to believe that the easier it is to pull something from our memory (the more available it is to us), the larger the category and the more frequently the thing happens.”

The above quote is describing the availability heuristic.  In plainer terms, we tend to fall into the trap of believing that things at the “forefront of our minds” occur more often than they actually do.  And I fell right into this mental trap.  I assumed that because the last few events I received emails about were doing work hours, all of them must have been scheduled during work hours.  I was obviously proven wrong by my brief email experiment.

So now the obvious question is, how does my email experiment and the availability heuristic fit into this MBA blog post?  I think awareness of the availability heuristic is extremely important for managers.  The mental trap is easy to fall into (as illustrated by my poor line of reasoning), and managers have a responsibility to be as fair and unbiased as they can towards the people they manage.  For example, it may be tempting to think that because an employee recently made some mistakes on a report that he or she frequently makes those mistakes.  But as was illustrated by my experiment, those assumptions can often lead to incorrect conclusions.

It is important therefore, that managers avoid making these potentially costly assumptions.  I believe one way to do so is for managers to keep track the accomplishments of the employees they lead.  A written record or tracking sheet summarizing employees’ accomplishments (and mistakes) will provide the manager with (ideally) objective information about their employees’ activities.  Managers cannot let traps like the availability heuristic cloud their decision-making.  I know I would be mortified if I allowed such a simple mental trap trick me into not granting an employee a raise, for example.  This, and similar mental tricks, are extremely important for managers to be aware of, and they need to work diligently to avoid falling into these traps.

How would you recommend managers deal with the availability heuristic?  Leave your suggestions in the comment section below.

As for my interesting reading this week, I highly recommend the Art of Manliness blog.  This blog has provided me with endless informative and entertaining posts since I started reading it last year.  And it’s definitely not just for guys either.  The blog is written and maintained by the husband and wife team of Brett and Kate McKay, and I sincerely believe anyone can a post or 2 to their liking on the site.  I think you’ll find yourself going back to the blog over and over again for new posts and manly information.