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Management and Motivation

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I’ve recently investigated online courses at the MBA level, including taking a managerial accounting course through the University of Illinois. My work and other obligations piled up after I took that course, so I’ve held off taking further for-credit classes until at least January.

To supplement my work through Illinois, I bought a DVD series from The Great Courses entitled Critical Business Skills for Success. The series combines 12-lecture segments on operations, marketing, strategy, organizational behavior, and finance and accounting. The material is presented as an overview of each broad subject, with specific lectures focusing on topics such as the time value of money, rightsizing inventory, and evaluating mergers and acquisitions. There’s very little math and no homework, so the lessons are nowhere near as rigorous as the managerial accounting course, but it’s a great introduction to material I’ll study in depth later.

I’m watching the organizational behavior section now, presented by Clinton O. Longenecker of the University of Toledo. In his lecture “The Motivation-Performance Connection”, he offers some surprising results from a survey of corporate managers. His research found:

  • 85% of managers believe an employee’s motivation has a significant impact on performance
  • 79% believe that motivating employees is one of the most important leadership functions
  • 94% believe workforce motivation is important for overall operational success
  • 82% believe management behavior has a significant impact on employee motivation
  • 68% believe it is getting tougher to motivate employees

The numbers seem reasonable enough, so where’s the surprise? The surprise is that the first four items aren’t 100% (OK, 98% to account for the 2% lunatic fringe). It’s especially troubling to see the 9% gap between responses indicating belief that motivation impacts individual performance and that overall motivation is necessary for operational success.

I suspect there is a connection between those results and the final figure, that 68% of managers believe it is getting tougher to motivate employees. The economic downturn in 2008 led to significant layoffs and delayed retirements, which artificially flooded the job market with experienced workers who where either seeking employment or couldn’t afford to retire. Now that employment levels have returned to pre-2008 levels and the stock market has restored portfolio values, the labor market has started to tighten considerably, especially for highly skilled workers. When you add easy online communication about employment practices, increased expectations for good treatment, and labor mobility you have an environment where the privilege of coming to work tomorrow morning is no longer sufficient motivation for your employees.

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Financial Accounting

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which included courses on operations management, marketing, financial accounting, and corporate finance. I’m happy to say the courses were fulfilling and have provided substantial support to my professional career.

Course Overview

Professor Brian Bushee note that his goal in creating his course, An Introduction to Financial Accounting, was to give students the ability to understand information provided in company financial statements. Accounting is a complex and at times arcane practice area, but I thought Professor Bushee did a great job of breaking the topics into manageable chunks and providing detailed explanations of each segment.

Bushee starts out with the standard statement that debits go on the left and credits on the right, but of course it’s much more complicated than that. Some accounts have their balances increased by credits, some by debits, and how some intermediate accounts serve as bridges to relieve the tensions inherent in double-entry bookkeeping. As the course progressed, he described the tools accountants use to document corporate operations for managers, financial analysts, and tax authorities. It might not surprise you that these various audiences don’t always desire the same information.

Each week’s lectures ended with a tour of 3M’s annual report, allowing the professor to demonstrate how the document’s contents reflected the accounting practices taught during the week. I thought these segments provided useful context for the material and helped me get a better handle on concepts I didn’t grasp during the initial presentation.

Production Notes

Professor Bushee spent most of his time switching between a “talking head” single shot of the professor and screen grabs of either Excel or PowerPoint, but he also used computer-animated “students” to be the voice of the viewer. He had his virtual students ask questions that were alternatively probing, wondering, insightful, and (occasionally) stupid. At first I thought the virtual students would be hokey and horrible, but they grew on me quickly. Each virtual student had a distinct personality with likes, dislikes, and preferences based on their background. The students ranged from a grumpy old man to a surfer dude to international students from Hong Kong and the U.K., which allowed the professor to address the differences between accounting practices in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Their interactions also developed along an internal narrative, which pleased my inner storyteller.

Material was divided into eight main modules, each of which had an associated quiz, plus two exams covering the first and last halves of the class, respectively. We could drop our two lowest quiz scores, which made reaching the passing threshold of 60% much easier. Professor Bushee also offered a certificate “with distinction”, which could be earned by scoring over 90%. I appreciated the possibility of earning a more prestigious credential, but I fell just short of that mark.

I laughed a bit to myself when the professor said that the material on the time value of money would be the hardest because it involved math beyond addition and subtraction. I actually found this material to be the easiest to grasp, both because of my extensive use of Excel and relative unfamiliarity with accounting principles. Accounting is a formal language that is no doubt comfortable to individuals who have spent their adult lives mastering it, but I felt safest when able to retreat to my NPV formulas.

Final Thoughts

Professor Bushee is, like his colleagues who taught the other Coursera MOOCs, an engaging presenter. He also revealed some details about the production process in his 20-minute goodbye video and posted detailed statistics about the course participants’ demographics and engagement levels. I think this kind of information adds substantial value to students who complete a MOOC. Knowing that I was part of the 6% of students who signed up for the course to successfully complete it is worth almost as much as the certificate.

I just finished An Introduction to Financial Accounting, so Wharton hasn’t had the opportunity to offer it again as of this writing. Professor Bushee indicated that he planned to rerun the course in the future, so it should be available to anyone looking to improve their financial knowledge and gain a better understanding of the accounting practices that help us document our businesses.

Written by curtisfrye

December 5, 2014 at 10:00 am