What do you learn with an MBA?

Daniel Roth has recently published a provocative post on LinkedIn about the perils of doing business with people who have an MBA when he interviewed entrepreneur Barbara Corcoran.


This was brought to my attention by good friend Steve Murray of Green Dog Media in the UK

So why does Barabara make this claim? Is she typical of the green eyed snipers that make a sport of diminishing the value higher education in general and management education in particular? Is she an evangelist from the school of hard knocks? I don’t think so.

As someone who has achieved an MBA myself I think she is making an extremely profound observation.

What do you learn when you embark on an MBA? The off the cuff response might be, ‘how to manage more effectively’. Sure you learn lots of tools and techniques and sure you get insights from interacting with fellow students but the question remains – what do you learn when you do an MBA?

The elephant in the room, the mystery behind the magic is that when you study a typical MBA you are buying into a very particular type of management philosophy.

This philosophy aspires to making management a ‘science’ based on a set of assumptions about how we should understand the world, what we accept as evidence, the nature of causes and effects and how you should take action. The more managing a business becomes ‘objectively scientific’ the better it is an MBA..er will claim.

The disturbing thing however is that the MBA acolyte and subsequently the hordes of MBA neophytes who have this classic MBA experience talk ‘as if’ this way of making sense of management is the only game in town. They talk with the stridency and confidence that only comes with ignorance.

Let’s be clear an MBA is a level of qualification. How that qualification is achieved doesn’t necessarily have to be wedded to a particular managerial outlook although at the moment it typically is. The MBA is over 100 years old and it invariably reflects the quantification and systemisation of management.

Perhaps the most powerful example of this mindset is Robert McNamara US Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam war in the 1960s who stated:

every quantitative measure we have shows we are winning this war’

I believe the explanation for Barabara’s observations lies in this issue. She alludes to problem that MBA..ers believe they are qualified to run a business. This is a mistake. The only thing that qualifies you to run a business is the experience of running a business.

Not only that the ‘management science’ approach and the managerial discourse so beloved of the ‘bullshit bingo’ fans amongst you overlooks one very significant thing. Running an organisation, and doing business is a social phenomena. People aren’t protons. (cf Steven Pinker)

The social perspective of management invites us to consider the meaning making of practioners, the language they use and how our social worlds are constructed by the very people who exist in them. People hold diverse mind sets and assumptions and these guide how they operate in the world. The social perspective of management pays attention to the nature of interactions and how these influence our success or otherwise at work.

Swap the classic management analysis (induction) approach of the typical MBA  for a concern with interpretation and imagination (abduction) and I think we are getting closer to explaining why you might loose money going into business with an MBA..er. If the only thing they know about is the cold, analytical, objectification of the social world of business and the mistaken belief that it is exclusively structures and procedures that lead to organisational success then you get what you pay for.

Barbara I suspect is one of these ‘other’ sorts who sees management differently.

At Sheffield Business School you can embark on full time or part time mba programme of study that invites you to consider classic management approaches to understanding people, organisations and management alongside challenging alternative perspectives.

Do you push your customers around?

An interesting article in Marketing Week on the working relationship between sales and marketing functions got me thinking.

Diageo seek greater sales and marketing unity.

Set in the context of retail marketing the article says the two functions at a major retail supplier are going to work together to push customers to a sale.

I found this use of language interesting (not withstanding the organisational problem of marketing and sales not working together)

What does ‘push’ infer? Sounds to me like customers are seen as resources to be exploited? Isn’t this the ‘sales’ led mentality that is criticised in conventional marketing management theory.

Don’t get me wrong, of course companies need sales and profit, and yes they are under pressure to compete, and for sure customers need compelling reasons to buy.

To be ‘pushed’ to a sale? What is this saying about how this retailer sees ‘you’ the customer? Are you an unthinking dupe who has to be told what to do? Are you incapable of making an informed choice between offers of value?

If the value proposition was any good wouldn’t you see it’s relevance to your needs and your life?

I feel for the marketing function here. Seems probable they are the junior partner and not making their advertising pushy enough for the sales team?

Are we really customers in the eyes of rail company’s?

I had an interesting experience on my rail commute this morning.

Unannounced on the train I was given a demand to ‘see my ticket’ by a plain clothed Department of Transport official – reluctant to explain his purpose I asked ‘compliance and quality?’ – he merely smiled and said ‘yes, you could say that…’

Any clues what this is about peeps? The two chaps were very assertive and seemed very confident of their power and authority. The two plain clothed gentlemen whose only ID was a lapel badge challenged every passenger.

You will notice that I am not using term customer here as it seems that passengers only exist as customers in the rail-co fluff and rhetoric and not really what they sincerely believe.

Otherwise why would I as a paying customer feel unease at the unannounced exercise and reluctance to explain the reason for it. I was made to feel as if I had possibly done something wrong.

I’d prefer it if rail organisations were honest instead of drawing from a discourse of customer centricity to present a flawed impression of service reality. Behind the scenes it seems obvious that the rail companies don’t really believe we are customers.

If it is a ‘revenue protection’ exercise why don’t you simply tell us?

Best conspiracy theory gets a biscuit :)

Do Barclays Life Skills Work?

The recent Barclays life skills adverts have got me thinking. Are we able as human beings able to cut past appearance and impression, park it, and make a realistic assessment of the worthiness of another person who we might want to employ? Or are we so hard wired that we depend on shortcuts and inferences for all social judgements?

How soon will it be before these once privileged insights into ‘how to look’ , ‘how to talk’ and where to look’ for best effect during personal interactions become commodity insights that end up making no difference at all because we all do them?

Erm…I wonder what will be offered as the next interpersonal differentiator?

Pinning your hopes on a trick of social psychology I reckon is pretty risky. My research suggests as well as the Barclay tips people have to demonstrate their eligibility and credibility in other ways.

Things such as experience and expertise; technical specialism, an ability to read social situations, knowledge of a market, sector or genre, commercial maturity, pro-social values to name a few.

Trouble is these things don’t make for quick performance tips they are often hard won by experience and investment in learning. So sure, make use of Barclays life skills (…really? skills for life now that’s a big claim) in the knowledge that many other things are stress tested in any interview too.

What is the value of marketing spin?

Isn’t it interesting how we use words for their effect not just the communication of ‘content’

I read today’s BBC business article about Virgin Australia in which the company explained poor results as:

“weak consumer sentiment, overcapacity in the market and carbon tax costs for the loss”

It would be great if Google Translate had a business speak translate option. Weak consumer sentiment?! Our customers don’t like our product. Over capacity?! The sector is too competitive. Carbon Tax?! Our cost base is too high.

No wonder Chris Hackley says marketing has a bad rep’ for being mendacious.

Does your business add value or omit value

I was reading a recent article about the losses Serco prison services had accrued and it got me thinking.

Putting aside any ideological preference you might have for public versus private sector provision of social services there seems be an interesting issue in relation to the language we use to explain what we do as managers and the effect such language has on reality.

The idea of adding value (cf Anderson and Narus) is an everyday business term that is wide open to interpretation and meaning. It is also a rhetorical term used to infer and draw attention to the ‘extra’ things that are provided with a product or service delivery. The term is trotted out as something that is a ‘self evident’ reason for improving solutions.

The problem of course is what we mean by value and this slippery term refers to a range of economic, perceived, experiential and contextually dependent phenomena. One persons value add might result in another persons value omission.

In the case of Serco the provision of an outsourced prison service might have added a lot of economic value through process management efficiencies however other aspects of service value might have been omitted as well.

Value add and value omission are two sides of the same value coin. Communicating the added value is however a persuasive tool used to emphasise the ‘upsides’ and background the ‘downsides’. By focussing attention on adding value the risk for managers is that they develop an unbalanced perspective on value.

Too much economic emphasis and you loose the invisible and experiential aspects of value. In the case of prison service this might be deeply held intuitions about how to successfully navigate the culture of prison life. Too much emphasis on experiential ‘warmth’ factors and being obsessively ‘customer centric’ (cf Gummesson) and you risk blowing the budget and going out of business.

So what if I introduced the idea of ‘Omissioning’ to describe the solution design process that considers both value adding and value omitting? In this way a considered view of all dimensions of value are invited. Instead of outsourcing and the implication that all will be good because ‘we’ll save money’ we think of ‘omissioning’ our services and therefore the consequences for every aspect of the value offer.

One final thought too concerns whose value are we most bothered about? Which stakeholder figures the most in our thinking? The quote by Serco CEO is

“Many challenges remain, and we have a lot of work to do, but I am confident that, in time, we can restore the company’s fortunes.”

Who is the intended audience for this remark? No comment here about providing a prison service that helps to reduce crime in society or provide a safe environment for prisoners and staff, or a reassuring sense of safety for the general public. Do I only hear the echoes of economic value dimensions in this utterance? What value has been omitted?

Plagiarism in higher education: advancing your knowledge or advancing your career

The recent case of the allegation of plagiarism against US senator Joe Walsh reveals the unintended albeit to be expected consequences of smudging together academic with career achievement.

Many organisations are socially constructed to unthinkingly promote ‘competition’ as the mantra for success. This favours the style and ambition of self serving individuals.

In that world plagiarism is ‘just another way of getting on’. Here we have a clash of ‘orders of interaction’ (cf Goffman 1959) where the norms and values of some corporate/political social settings clash with the norms and values expected in higher education.

Leaders might consider how to balance the need to compete with the values of honesty and humility?



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