Teaching Business to MBAs

When I was in school, quite a long time ago, and studying engineering, I was struck by how “out of date” the technology that my school had seemed to be.  My electronics courses were focused on DC motors and vacuum tubes instead of transistors and computers.  But, in defense of my school, NYU, as an engineering student, I was taught that it wasn’t about the specific technology but rather about the methods that an engineer learned to use when approaching problems.

In fact, in my school, engineers weren’t required to declare their major (for example as electrical engineering versus mechanical engineering) until their junior year on the premise that the fundamental mathematics and problem solving methods as well as a basic introduction to every specialty in engineering was required regardless of your eventual field of specialization.  Thus, even though one can think of engineering as a vocation, much like auto repair, my school, tended to focus on the academic qualities of learning and less on the vocational skills that students might acquire.

When I graduated, my first job, and the first week on the job, threw me into a subspecialty for which I was ill prepared, the design (and repair) of one-of-a-kind signal processing computers developed for the government, but, in spite of my lack of exposure while in school to these systems, I seemed to flourish on the job, potentially using my learned scientific methods, or maybe just using my native curiosity and talent.  We’ll never know.

Now I teach at Babson’s MBA program.  And, as an adjunct who has never gone to business school, I am ill equipped to teach with the Socratic methods based upon case studies that I never learned myself.  Like other adjuncts that are described in academic circles as PQ or Professionally Qualified, I bring to my teaching a more vocational or practical understanding of business from the perspective of having done it rather than study it.

The feedback that I get from some of my students often leads me to believe that they enjoy the more practical and less theoretical approach to understanding business.  In their desire to start their own businesses, they seek fundamental rules and methods that they can use now and the hope that my practical experience and history can offer them some insight into finding their own way.

I have spent some time thinking about whether teaching business is more like teaching engineering in that it has both a vocational and theoretical basis of understanding that one can use as an approach to understanding it and problem solving.  I question both the correct balance of these two alternative approaches and as well, the issue of whether a better fundamental rounding in mathematics and the sciences would serve the entrepreneur better in their pursuit of business success.

Defining Entrepreneurship

I was often amused at how many times at Babson I sat and listened to my colleagues attempt to define exactly what “entrepreneurship” is.  At this point we have “big E” entrepreneurship and “little E” entrepreneurship.  I’m so confused that my head is spinning.

When I teach marketing to aspiring entrepreneurs one of the points that I attempt to make is that key to marketing is to understand the concept of “value” but, it’s not about your definition of “value” that’s important, but rather the customer’s definition.  If we apply the same rule to entrepreneurship, then it’s not our definition, but rather the definition of our students.

My students, who of course, are self selected to take my course and as such are either completely lost or, more likely, have an immediate desire to start their own businesses seem to define entrepreneurship education as the pursuit of the set of skills necessary to increase the likelihood that their fledgling businesses will succeed. 

And, we must keep in mind that their businesses are virtually all starting from zero.  Thus the lessons learned that relate to success in larger organizations are potentially irrelevant and at worse distracting to them.  In general, I find that their essential questions are:

·         What should I do first?

·         How do I create a corporation and what kind should I use?

·         How do I survive the first year?

·         How do I increase my likelihood of success?

·         How do I attract and hold good people (how should I use stock options)?

·         How do I find a product to make if I can’t think of one myself?

·         How do I find capital and what should I give away for it?

I tell them all on the first day of my class that their biggest problem is simply conquering their own fear of the unknown.  Millions of small businesses were started without MBA certificates.  I ask them: what it is that they’re really waiting for?  What nugget of information will enable them to finally start?

The role for Vocational Teaching

One of the many questions that I am attempting to better understand is: what is the proper role for the development of practical skills versus theory when attempting to address these initial concerns?

In my 35 years of running small companies, whenever I found the need to have an employee learn a new skill, like a new programming language, I discovered that the best way for them to learn was to throw them into a real project where only the acquisition of the skill would enable them to succeed.  As well, the most successful, would try to learn the least and simply borrow from others what was needed to accomplish the task, all along absorbing the fundamental skills and understanding of the new language.

The acquisition of a new programming skill would therefore teach two fundamental skills, most obviously, the new language, but, of more general value, the technique involved in seeking out the specific answers to immediate questions that are needed to meet the defined goal.

As an excellent example of this, I recently took on the task of helping one of my former students by designing her website for her.  To do the job I needed to refresh my skills in programming in 4 languages: html, PHP, MYSQL, and Javascript.  While I had some exposure to each, I was nowhere near proficient.  The method that I used to write the needed programs was mostly to use Google to search for help with queries in the form of “javascript calendar popup example.”  With this technique I was able to quickly find snippets of code written by others, and offered up for free on the Internet.  In time, I pasted the snippets together and began to absorb the rules and syntax of each language.

Probably the best example of a vocational skill that would seem misplaced in an intellectual environment would be to learn to use a specific computer software tool such as video editing or to learn to use Ad-Words to build an Internet advertising campaign.  Both represent a fleeting skill that will likely be obsolete quickly.  Yet, becoming skilled with both can provide a framework for understanding that might serve as a bridge to other technologies or future versions of the same technology.  I know from practical experience that students desperately want to acquire these short term skills since they see their desire to start their own businesses as a short term obsession for which tools are needed NOW.

And, in a more practical sense, if we measure our success in training future business leaders, then arming our students with practical skills today may lead to measurable results in leading to earlier business success.

Attempting to Keep Pace with Technology

Ray Kurzweil, in his book “The Singularity” talks about the effect of the ever increasing rate of change of technology.   For my generation, the television slowly took over for my parent’s radio, and color cinemascope with surround-sound replaced their silent movies.  But, the changes occurred over many years and afforded us the opportunity to gradually change our fundamental methods of living and working.  Even so, the generational gap between our parents and us might have been deeper than they had experienced with their own parents for whom the technological change was of less impact. 

Today, there is a technological gap between my MBA students and my undergraduates.  The rate of change of technology is becoming so fast that within a few years, one’s basic constructs are being challenged.  One hundred years ago, to say “I just spoke to Frank” might imply that you were with Frank in person, while today it might imply a text message, or a tweet.  Social structures are changing at a pace never before experienced.

In many cases, business opportunities are born from the changes that technology has on preexisting business structures.  The minicomputer replaced the mainframe, the desktop replaced the mini and today the cell phone replaces the desktop.

Even the adjuncts like me who have been in business for the last 35 years are quickly falling behind the times in understanding the new business models that are emerging as a result of technological change.  It becomes ever more difficult to teach vocational skills if one’s own vocational skills are obsolete. 

This leads therefore to two questions: 

·         How important is it to teach vocational skills? 

·         How does one create an environment where the relevant vocational skills of today are brought into the classroom?

The Case Study Method of Teaching

For many reasons, I am probably the least likely person that one might ask for an opinion on the value of the case study method.  Nonetheless, I have developed certain opinions and biases.  In some ways, the case study method attempts to sidestep the question of technical relevance by assuming that there are fundamental business truths that can be learned from examining prior businesses. 

Most recently, for example, one frequently finds comparisons of the current financial crisis to the great depression or to the Dutch tulip industry collapse as attempts to build an understanding of how to forecast the future based upon the past.  There clearly seem to be cases for which this would be true and thus building an understanding of prior businesses should be helpful in developing the skills needed to find success today.  Nonetheless, I have several problems with case studies.  Allow me to list them:

Problem 1: Relevance.

I feel that the currently popular method of case study teaching seems rooted in an oxymoronic dilemma: The businesses that are willing to display their innermost thoughts and weaknesses are by definition old and irrelevant.  Often their business models are based upon assumptions that are no longer true and their methods for marketing are no longer relevant.  More contemporary businesses seek to more closely hold their private information and are unwilling to become case study targets.

Problem 2: Not Entertaining.

Most of the case studies that I have read, read like cheap novels.  They typically start with some poorly written drivel like: “John was staring out at the fallen leaves and considering his next move on this brusque autumn day.”    Yikes.   Our students are all consumers of media of all forms: TV, movies, books, radio, etc.  And, by their very experience they have become critics of media quality.  If it’s bad it’s bad and it’s not going to hold their attention.

Case writing is storytelling and storytelling can be good or bad.  Unfortunately, most cases are just bad stories.

Problem 3: Missing an Ending.

Cases present the problems but, based upon the Socratic methods, offer no solutions.  There’s an assumption that there is no right and wrong answer.  My experience in business is quite to the contrary and I have stumbled on too many wrong answers to not care.  There must be a role for teaching the right analysis and answer, much as in the basic sciences.

I’ve also tended to find that the entrepreneurs who have experienced problems and either been conquered by them, or conquered them, have strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t and they need to have a voice in the case study process.

Opportunity

There is an opportunity in my opinion bring the case study method up to date.  I would suggest that we merge the documentary video storytelling style with case study goals.  I would also suggest that we focus on Babson spinoffs exclusively since we would have a higher likelihood of having a “peek” at their innermost workings.

My preference would be to create a new course which would have around 30 students all interested in creating documentary video case studies as a group.  This group would shoot raw footage during most of the semester.  Some would be saved for future classes and some would be assembled into coherent “stories” from the footage.  I believe that the storyline for any one company wouldn’t even be obvious until after one collected lots of footage and saw how the company progressed.

Internet Learning

One of my former students said to me that “education is really driven by two different objectives:  Certification and knowledge.”  Certification is useful for getting a better job, while knowledge may be useful for reaching another objective entirely especially within the context of entrepreneurship.

There are thousands of online courses available on every imaginable topic.  Universities are videotaping many of their popular courses and placing them online for free.  ItunesU is a good example of the depth of what is available.  Recently I developed an interest in Quantum mechanics (remember that I am an engineer) and started auditing a course taught at Stanford and offered for free online.  Clearly, my objectives are not to receive a certificate but rather, simply the knowledge.  But, it’s interesting to note that I intentionally chose a “FREE” course as opposed to paying for one.

Yet, while Internet learning would seem to offer many advantages in time management and convenience for the consumer, it also seems that its success is limited in comparison to more conventional forms of education. 

This can be seen as both a problem and an opportunity.  If, for example, the loss of human interaction with teachers and other students is part of the barrier for its success, it would seem that technology could eventually of some solutions to these shortcomings.  It would also seem that there is an opportunity for a school to attempt to lead in this field and develop intellectual property that puts it at a commercial advantage with other schools.

The Value of Brand Certification

That same former student and I discussed the concept of “where certification value comes from?”  Is it possible to simply create one’s own certifications?  There does appear to be a generally accepted methodology to the concept of creating a certification.  First, a committee of “wise men” is assembled.  They are recognized as leaders in the field.  Then, they, quite arbitrarily create a “standard” of proficiency and an exam that tests to that level.  Finally, they print some certificates with the obligatory unreadable signature.  The value of the certificate is associated with the credibility of the brand which can either be “borrowed” from a respectable brand that already exists (for a fee) or can be developed over time.

The ability to create unique and new certifications

This leads to the general question from a marketing perspective of “what is it that people want to buy in the way of continuing education?”  If for example, there are a large pool of potential customers for whom a certification, albeit a new one, with lesser value than an MBA, along with a lower cost, lower investment of time that might be consistent with Internet Learning then there might be an opportunity for Babson, with its established brand (especially in entrepreneurship) to exploit that market.

Imagine, for example, a family of courses that were aimed at specific entrepreneurial challenges that were low cost, Internet delivered and also resulted in mini-business certifications that could be used to enhance one’s longer term employment goals (outside of entrepreneurial challenges in the short term).

In most cases, specific vocational training can be found on the Internet already.  For example, training on the use of a specific software tool is often offered by the manufacturer as well as by other firms.  Nonetheless, there is an opportunity for Babson to associate its own brand and quality with a subset of these learning tools.  As well, there is an opportunity through consolidated marketing of this brand to bring customers that are otherwise unreachable.

As well, there are many specific topics for which there are not easily findable online teaching tools, for example, business acquisition, financing, marketing, management and even the most fundamental “how to incorporate” which can be of interest and value in the market.  Many of these can be developed directly from the intellectual property already managed under the Babson brand.

There is also a need to offer these in a variety of languages throughout the world.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that there are not intended to be actual conclusions, but rather a basis for further discussion.  However, I can summarize certain statements with the following:

1.       One needs to establish a clearer role for vocational and tool training as part of the educational process for entrepreneurs.

2.       Case study methods should be brought up to date and there is an opportunity for Babson to lead the market in the creation of video documentary style case studies.

3.       There is an opportunity to develop new Internet tools for enhancing the value of Internet teaching

4.       There is an opportunity to create new, lower cost, certifications and matching programs that are tailored to small company development.

5.       There is an opportunity to aggregate preexisting Internet training  from other vendors under the Babson brand.