Thinking back to my MBA

August 17, 2010

DSCN0222.JPG To Middlesex University today for a startup meeting on the use of SenseMaker® to understand student experience. The idea is to capture micro-narratives from students before they join about their expectations. Then through the first year to allow not only research and reporting how their experience of education, but also to create fast feed back loops so that minor problems can be handled before they become major, and opportunities are seized and used as soon as they become visible. The other big idea here is to allow students access to the raw narrative. its much easier to solve problems if you have access to the stories of other people like you and how they handle them. Todays session with a group of students and staff confirmed something I have long known, namely that people don’t talk about problems and solutions in different categories and at different times. Rather they jumble them up, often coming up with the solution as they talk about the problem. The capture system will reflect this messy coherence. It is going to be an interesting project which will start in a few weeks time before the new term and will report back as it develops and as I am allowed!

It was a bit of a sentimental trip for me. I went into one building a few years ago to deliver a lecture, but the last time I spent anytime was the graduation ceremony for my MBA back in the 80s. For three years I had turned up every Tuesday and Thursday evening (well to be honest sometimes by proxy) for three years. I was working in Sunbury-on Thames and living in St Albans so the walk up to the college from Hendon station was too familiar (I had a 1.75 hour commute in those days). My specialization was Financial Management, it may surprise some of you but I was on a career track to be Financial Director at the time and had already made it to the level below. As Development Accountant I was responsible for statutory accounting, treasury and computer systems (and in those days computer systems were real computer systems especially when I was gradually replacing a manual ledger system).

One thing the MBA did was to broaden my horizons, so when I started to see the early signs of failure (there are many advantages to being in Finance, for one thing, when you stop or delay payments to key suppliers you realise things are going wrong) I went out into the world a a trained accountant with computer skills – in the early 1980s that was a rare combination. That got me into Decision Support Systems, then Logistics followed by Strategic Marketing and finally the quasi-research role within IBM after they took over the company.

Now the building itself has changed. If you look at the picture you see that the old square in the main building which used to be grass with a sundial or fountain (I can’t remember which) in the middle, is now a glassed in auditorium and a social hub.. I paraded there in my masters gown many years ago. The family appreciated that, they didn’t get the chance when I got my first degree as at the time of the ceremony I was still expelled for revolutionary activity as one of the Lancaster 25, but that is a story for another day. Its not only the building which has changed. Back when I started it was the first part time MBA in the country and a pioneering one. There were few if any cases. We did the basics of commercial law, accounting, marketing, statistcs and strategy in year one. Then for the next two years we did our specialist subject (I can still work the capital asset pricing model in my sleep, but it is now a nightmare) and in parallel wrote a full thesis. Mine was on decision support systems and at the time I was one of the very few people in the country who actually knew what they were! It gave me a great advantage over my supervisor and a great excuse to avoid any survey type analysis instead I combined phronesis and sohia, I reflected on the work I was doing and positioned it with a theoretical framework.

The other great thing was the work group we formed to cover lectures, help each other out with essays and generally provide support. Russell, Gill, Stavros and myself were a great team – we won the management game on the two week residential in year two. Also for several years afterwards we got together every year. We all came from very different backgrounds and challenged each other in the right way. Together we worked with the University to get the MBA accredited by the AMBA and were the first University to get that. In most of the lectures one of us generally knew more about the subject than the lecturer which is always healthy at post-graduate level.

I look at modern MBAs in a poor light given this experience. They are too expensive, too structured and too me to which is silly. A small University will always find it difficult to compete with the big players by doing the same thing, you compete by doing things differently. Middlesex did that back in the 80s, it would be nice if our project helped them do the same thing again in the future.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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