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MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Marketing

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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. In this post, I’ll look at the Warton School’s course on marketing.

Course Overview

Businesses can’t survive without marketing, which means companies must establish a strong brand, discover and focus on customer needs, and develop interaction strategies to aid product and brand growth. In their course An Introduction to Marketing, professors Barbara E. Kahn, Peter Fader, and David Bell presented three-week mini-sessions on those broad topics.

Branding

Professor Kahn started with an analysis of branding, from both the perspective of the company and the consumer. I took particular note of her strategies for brand leadership, which measure a brand’s positioning along three axes: product differentiation, operational competence, and customer responsiveness. The goal, she said, is to lead on one axis and offer fair value on the other two. Of course, companies work to mitigate other firms’ advantages, so what represents fair value changes over time.

The remainder of the first unit examined the customer decision-making process, noting in part that too many choices can lead to customer indecision and inaction (a result that also received significant attention in Dan Ariely’s course A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior). This sequence also addressed effective brand communication and repositioning strategies. Professor Kahn’s take on familiar topics such as the brand mantra and elevator speech provided insights well beyond those in the seemingly infinite paraphrases of the same five talking points found online, making Week 3’s hour of video worthwhile within five minutes.

Customer Centricity

Professor Fader’s section addressed customer centricity, which shifts the focus from the firm’s products to customer needs. It’s a subtle shift, but changing to a customer-centric orientation opens firms to meeting and, in many cases, anticipating customer wants and needs. By listening to and observing customers before and during product development, companies can better understand customer motivation and combine their product and market insights with their customers’ insights to create better products.

I also appreciated Professor Fader’s note that you should focus on the lifetime value of your customers rather than just the current sale. If you sell suits and offer discounts to frequent customers, it makes sense to allow customers who are away at an elite MBA program or working abroad to retain their preferred status until they return because of the long-term benefits from their patronage. It also means some clients aren’t worth your time and should be fired.

Go to Market Strategies

The final segment, Go to Market Strategies, examines the process of introducing a product to the public. Professor Bell discusses the role of offline and online interaction, identifying lead users, encouraging the spread of a product or service (“virality”), and targeting one’s message. I thought this part of the course introduced the concepts well, but suffered the most from the time and scope limitations imposed by the MOOC format.

Companies try to establish network effects, by which the value of their product increases as more people adopt it. Facebook would be worthless if the majority of its users stopped sharing information on the site, as has occurred with MySpace. Bell offered excellent background information on finding influential users, targeting messages, and establishing prices, but this general information begged for statistical analysis of social media and other data.

Production Notes

The three professors adopted different presentation modes, which added excellent variety to the course. Professor Kahn presented as if standing at the front of a classroom, but without a podium. With her slides projected behind her on a green screen (or, when appropriate, taking up the full screen), her presentations had a more intimate, seminar-like quality.

Professor Fader appeared in several locations, including a company’s distribution center and a Philadelphia street corner. The editors had B-roll sequences of car and pedestrian traffic to break up the shots, but they re-used the same clips numerous times. After a while I had a side game of counting how many times I’d seen the same guy turn to look at the camera as he walked by.

The final section showed Professor Bell in the classic “talking head” mode, where his upper body or slides filled the screen as appropriate. Bell is a solid presenter, as were his colleagues, so I had no trouble maintaining interest in his material.

Final Thoughts

Every institution balances the desire to share knowledge through MOOCs with the need to preserve the value of their on-campus students’ investment. While I enjoyed An Introduction to Marketing and gained substantial value from the professors’ presentations, I’m left with the feeling that there’s a lot more out there. The good news is that I can apply social network analysis skills I learned from Lada Adamic’s Coursera MOOC of the same name to Facebook and Twitter data. Also, if I look a bit further, I can surely find a textbook on marketing data analysis to further my understanding of that topic.

The Wharton School’s An Introduction to Marketing provides a solid conceptual framework for marketing in the connected economy. I found this course to be the easiest of the four Wharton offerings through Coursera, mainly because the quizzes called for students to recall main points from the lectures and readings rather than perform difficult analysis. Even so, I got a lot out of the course and recommend it without reservation.

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Operations Management

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An Introduction to Operations Management

I’m lucky that MOOCs (massive open online courses) came along when they did. I’ve had the opportunity to sample content from a wide variety of institutions and topics either for free or, if I wanted to receive a slightly spiffier “signature track” (from Coursera) or “identity verified” (from edX) certificate, a small fee.

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

I started the sequence by taking Professor Christian Terwiesch’s course An Introduction to Operations Management. This course combined analytical techniques from operations research and process management, with specific movies showing students how to identify bottlenecks, evaluate the effects of potential changes to a process, estimate customer wait time, and build production errors and rework loops into our process models.

Terwiesch starts out each module with a conceptual overview of the topics to be covered before moving to detailed analysis in Microsoft Excel. I spend many hours in Excel for my writing and online course development projects, so I had no trouble following him as he worked through the formulas. I assume students of an MBA-level course, even one offered for free, will bring some spreadsheet skills to the table, so I believe anyone approaching the course in a serious manner could follow along easily.

I haven’t seen a syllabus for the full intro to operations management course at Wharton, but the professor noted that he covered about 60% of the material in his book (co-authored with G. P. Cachon) Matching Supply with Demand: An Introduction to Operations Management. The most recent (third) edition runs at least $96 used from Amazon, but the publisher created a custom ebook students could buy for $30. I purchased a previous edition of the book for reference, but I got along just fine with the free materials provided through Coursera.

Production Notes

This course is offered in the MOOC-standard format of switching between a “talking head” single shot of the professor and screen grabs of either Excel or PowerPoint. Professor Terwiesch is an engaging speaker who has tremendous command of this course’s material, so he was able to cover the topics efficiently while explaining concepts and applications clearly.

Material was divided into five main modules, each of which had an associated homework assignment, and a comprehensive final. Each homework was worth 10% (with essentially unlimited attempts) and the final exam 50% (two attempts allowed). The passing threshold was set at 50%, which I thought was too low. It’s hard to strike a balance between enticing students to stay and challenging those who do, but for future sessions the professor might consider raising the bar to 60% so even a student who misses a homework would have to score at least 20% on the final to earn a certificate.

Final Thoughts

As with the other Wharton courses I took through Coursera, I found An Introduction to Operations Management to be engaging and interesting. Professor Terwiesch is a solid presenter who comes across well. Even though his production values didn’t extend beyond good video and audio quality, he held my attention with well-executed movies of appropriate length for each topic.

Wharton has re-run this course through Coursera at least once since I took it, though future sessions haven’t been announced as of this writing. If you work in a manufacturing or customer service-oriented firm where knowing the heartbeat of your operations would help you improve your business, or if you’d like to sample Wharton’s MBA courses, I highly recommend taking An Introduction to Operations Management.

Book Review: MOOCs, by Jonathan Haber

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Title: MOOCs

Author: Jonathan Haber

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52691-3

Length: 227

Price: $13.95

Rating: 90%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, offer free classes to anyone with internet access and a willingness to learn. As author Jonathan Haber notes in his recent MIT Press book MOOCs, this educational innovation is working its way through the hype cycle. First touted as an existential threat to traditional “sage on the stage” lecture-based learning, the media has inevitably turned to highlighting the platform’s flaws. How MOOCs evolve from their freemium model remains to be seen.

Haber is an independent writer and researcher who focuses on education technology. This book is based in part on his attempt to re-create a philosophy undergraduate degree by taking free online courses and, where necessary, reading free online textbooks. In MOOCs, Haber captures the essence of the courses, both through his personal experience as well as his encapsulation of the history, current practice, and impact of MOOCs in the social, educational, and corporate realms.

MOOCs as a Learning Environment

The allure of MOOCs centers around their ability to share knowledge with students who might not be able to attend MIT, Georgetown, Stanford, the University of Edinburgh, or other leading institutions. Students can watch videos on their own schedule and, if they’re not concerned about receiving a Statement of Accomplishment or similar recognition, they don’t have to turn in homework or take quizzes on time or at all.

Most videos are 5-10 minutes in length, though some courses that present complex content can have videos that stretch to as long as 45 minutes. Production values range from a professor sitting in their office and facing a camera (often with PowerPoint slides displayed at least part of the time the professor speaks) to videos including animations and location shots that take significant time and budget to produce.

MOOCs offer three general grading policies: quizzes and tests with multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions, computer programs submitted to an automated grader (very common in machine learning courses), and peer grading. There’s no possible way for professors to grade essays or computer programs from thousands of students, so they have to rely on objective mechanisms and peer grading to carry the load. Objective tests are acceptable, but many students dislike peer review even in cases where it’s clearly necessary.

Institutions sponsoring MOOCs go to great length to distinguish students who complete a MOOC from their traditional students. Certificates or Statements of Achievement stress that the holder is not a Wharton/Stanford/MIT student and that the certificate conveys no rights to claim such status. Most MOOCs also use much looser grading standards than traditional courses. For example, students are often allowed multiple attempts at homework or exams and the total grade required to pass a MOOC is often in the 60-70% range. These relaxed requirements make certificates easier to earn and probably increase retention, but the end result is a much less rigorous test of student ability.

Controversies

As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have generated controversy. The first question is whether, despite their huge enrollments (some courses have more than 100,000 students registered), the courses’ equally huge drop-out rates. As an example, consider the following statistics from the September 5, 2014 session of the Wharton School’s course An Introduction to Financial Accounting, created and taught by Professor Brian Bushee (which I passed, though without distinction):

Number of students enrolled: 111,925

Number of students visiting course: 74,599

Number of students watching at least one lecture: 61,130

Number of students submitting at least one homework: 25,078

Number of students posting on a forum: 3,497

Number of signature track signups: 3,953

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment: 7,689

Number of students receiving a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction: 2,788 (included in total receiving SoA)

The ratios that stand out are that only 54.6% of enrolled students watched at least one lecture, 22.4% submitted at least one homework, and 6.87% of students earned a Statement of Accomplishment. That pass rate is fairly typical for these courses. While the percentage seems miniscule, another MOOC professor noted that, even with just 5,000 or so students passing his online course, his 10-week MOOC cohort represented more students than had passed through his classroom in his entire career.

Another concern is who benefits from MOOCs. Students require internet access to view course movies, at least in a way that can be counted by the provider, so there is a significant barrier to entry. Surveys show that the majority of MOOC students are university educated, but there are still large groups from outside the traditional “rich, Western, educated” profile. So, while many students appear to come from richer, Western countries, the courses do overcome barriers to entry.

Finally, MOOCs raise the possibility that courses from “rock star” professors could replace similar offerings taught by professors at other schools. For example, San Jose State University licensed content from a popular Harvard political philosophy course taught on edX with the intention that their own professors would teach to the acquired outline, not their own. The philosophy faculty refused to use the content and wrote an open letter to the Harvard professor complaining about the practice. A similar circumstance led Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier, who created and taught the vastly popular Sociology course offered by Coursera, to decline permission to run his course a second time. Coursera wanted to license his content for sale to other universities, which could save money by mixing video and in-person instruction. Duneier saw this action as a potential excuse to cut states’ higher education funding and pulled his course.

Conclusions

Haber closes the book with a discussion of whether or not he achieved his goal of completing the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree in one year using MOOCs and other free resources. He argues both for and against the claim (demonstrating a fundamental grasp of sound argumentation, at the very least) and describes his capstone experience: a visit to a philosophy conference. His test was whether he could understand and participate meaningfully in sessions and discussions. I’ll leave his conclusions for you to discover in the book.

I found MOOCs to be an interesting read and a useful summary of the developments surrounding this learning platform. That said, I thought the book could have been pared down a bit. Some of the discussions seemed less concise than they might have been and cutting about 20 pages would have brought the book in line with other entries in the Essential Knowledge series. It’s hard to know what to trim away, though, and 199 small-format pages of main text isn’t much of a burden for an interested reader.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Microsoft and Minecraft

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It appears likely that Microsoft will announce it has finalized a deal to acquire Mojang, the Swedish company that created Minecraft. I think it’s a great idea.

Minecraft is huge–players of all ages build creations that demonstrate their creativity and test the limits of the platform. Business analysts have asked why Microsoft would want to buy Mojang. The game is available on the PC but not Windows Phone because of the latter’s 2.5% market share, but it doesn’t seem likely that a single game, even a tremendous hit, would bring $2.5 billion in added revenue to Microsoft.

It’s true that Minecraft won’t make Microsoft a mobile front-runner, but Mojang’s insights into the Minecraft community’s wants, needs, and emergent behavior could be worth much more than the hefty purchase price. Microsoft has made strides toward listening to and acting on user input, such as by altering Windows 8.1 and, if leaked screen shots are to be believed, Windows 9/Threshold to be more in line with user preferences. Bringing in the Mojang team could provide similar insights to teams across Microsoft, allowing the folks in Redmond to incorporate what they learn into future products and giving them a fighting chance of thriving in the mobile world.

Book Review: Cataloging the World

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Title: Cataloging the World

Author: Alex Wright

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-199-93141-5

Length: 360

Price: $27.95

Rating: 93%

 

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

I don’t normally read biographies. Books about the dead are often unnecessarily complimentary or disparaging, while stories about the living (especially individuals under 40) suffer from the same flaw and have to fill pages with irrelevant details and repetition. What’s worse, I find personalities to be the least interesting part of technological development.

I don’t care for a dry recounting of events, either, so it’s refreshing to find a biography that melds personalities, conflict, and interesting technology into a compelling story. Alex Wright’s book Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, does just that.

Library Science and Beyond

I’d never heard of Paul Otlet, but friends who studied library science at the undergraduate and graduate level were familiar with his work. Born in 1868 in the French-influenced part of Belgium, Otlet was educated outside of the traditional school system. His father was a successful businessman, so Otlet and his brother traveled with him and attended lectures and received private tutoring as their father’s travels allowed.

Intellectually advanced but socially unskilled, Otlet suffered when he attended a traditional school starting at age 14. Perhaps taking pity on him, a priest who taught at the school asked Otlet to help in the library, filling student book requests two days a week and reading the rest of the time. The assignment fit the young student’s temperament perfectly and perhaps pushed him onto the path of attempting to coalesce the world’s knowledge into a single, searchable system.

The Mundaneum

Otlet is best known for his struggle to implement his vision for a universal knowledge classification and dissemination system, which after early work in the area was embodied by The Mundaneum. The Mundaneum, a collection of facts gathered from printed literature by volunteers around the world, was intended as a repository that individuals could query to get information they needed for research or on subjects they wished to learn more about. Using individual contributors in what would now be called crowdsourcing occurred in other major projects, such as the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Mundaneum and related efforts to classify information reflected Otlet’s utopian internationalist ideals, which led him to argue that making the world’s information readily available to anyone would lead to world peace. Such idealism, when combined with the struggle to secure public and private support for such a large endeavor, made it a natural base for Wright’s narrative.

The last two chapters of Cataloging the World describe how Otlet’s work at organizing, linking, and sharing information presaged hypertext and the World Wide Web. Many concepts I attributed to Vennevar Bush’s Memex information linking and retrieval system were, in fact, created by or known to Otlet. Wright also points out that Bush was “notoriously stingy” in giving credit to his sources of inspiration.

Conclusions

Cataloging the World brings the work of Paul Otlet from the specialized literature of library scientists to the general public. I enjoyed Wright’s work immensely and am glad he struck a skillful balance among personality, ideas, and events. I recommend Cataloging the World to the general reader, but it would be especially useful to anyone involved in information design, documentation, and presentation.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Jonathan Corum’s Presentation

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We all have different ways of refreshing our perspectives and energies. I’m not a public person and don’t care much for gurus, but I saw the See, Think, Design, Produce seminar, organized by Edward Tufte and presented at the Westin Seattle on August 7, as a terrific opportunity to gain insights into leading professionals’ design thinking patterns.

The day’s program featured four speakers: Jonathan Corum from the New York Times; Maria Popova, curator of Brain Pickings; Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd online comic; and Edward Tufte, the design and communication guru. I got a lot out of the day — three of the four sessions were well worth my time and the other, unfortunately, reinforced criticism I’d heard from attendees of other events.

Jonathan Corum designs information visualizations for the New York Times. His work runs the gamut from seemingly simple graphics to full-on productions incorporating video and interactive web programming. He was first attracted to design work when he was quite young, when he used his pattern matching skills to see and recognize a person in the distance after a glance even though he couldn’t see that individual’s face. This event, as simple as it seems, eventually led him to see the possibilities of communicating by designing effective visualizations.

As an example, he showed illustrations from an Audubon Society book on bumblebees. The book’s graphics showed the pattern, variation, time, and location of numerous bumblebee species. The graphics were compact, easy to understand, and contained a lot of information. Corum moved onto thinking about visualizations, which in his case means sketching possible designs to communicate a concept, underlying data, or both. He emphasized that sketches are not commitments and showed a New York Times visualization that had gone through 265 iterations. “You try different things,” he said, “so that you can find something your brain recognizes, remember that aha moment, and communicate your understanding.”

Regarding design, he begged us to do more than collect and visualize trivia — whatever we display should add up to something and show meaningful patterns. As a data journalist (my term, not his), he emphasized that visualization does not equal explanation. We have to add an extra layer of explanation to be sure that our intended message gets across. When it comes time to produce a visualization, you have to learn to embrace the limitations of your medium and, in some cases, design the content to meet those restrictions.

Because video recordings of Olympic events are owned by the International Olympic Committee, for example, the New York Times had to display images of half-pipe snowboarders and downhill slalom skiers using a series of overlaid still photographs. Embracing that limitation resulted in a compelling composite image complete with callouts indicating the physical techniques the competitors used to execute a maneuver and set up for the next one.

Corum’s role as a journalist requires him to think of a broader audience, rather than just designing for an audience of one. It all comes down, he stated, to having respect for the reader or viewer, and to remember what it’s like to encounter a topic for the first time when you design a visualization.

Chess and Motivation

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To paraphrase the Great Oz, “I’m a good man, but a very bad chess player.” I can beat almost any non-serious player in a casual game, but I’m in the lower half of  those of us who pay to play on the Internet Chess Server.

And yet, even though I lose a lot more than I’d like to, I enjoy the game immensely. In some sense, I like the idea of being a chess player…there’s a certain nerdy caché to the game that fits my personality. I also enjoy my occasional successes (I wouldn’t call them brilliancies) where I’ve seen just a bit farther or evaluated a position more accurately than my opponent.

My rating, the number that indicates my relative strength as compared to my fellow competitors, swings up and down within a range that runs from kind of impressive to “maybe I should go back to Candyland.” Sometimes I feel strong, like I’m concentrating well and see the outcomes of move sequences, while at other times I make the first move I see and hope I get lucky. I’m not sure why my concentration varies so much, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.

So why, if I’m not a very good serious (or even semi-serious) player, do I keep playing? What are the psychic benefits I get from banging my head against 32 pieces and 64 squares? Sure, the game’s fun in and of itself, but what specifically keeps me coming back?

I’ll address these questions in more detail in my forthcoming series of posts, but I’ll start out with a note on what my motivation is not. A friend once said, when I was furious at myself for a series of embarrassing losses, “It would be a shame for you to give up the game after you’ve put so much into it.”

She was right in a way, but her statement is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that the investment (of money, or time, or whatever) you’ve made in an endeavor should affect future decisions. In fact, if you have no way of reclaiming the money or time you’ve invested in something, those “expenses” should in no way affect your future decisions. All you should care about is whether future investments are worth the cost.

I keep playing, so I obviously must think it’s worth my effort to continue. Chess is a rich game, after all, one that rewards its players for their efforts beyond rating points or games won. I look forward to examining it more closely.