Improspectives

Improv skills lead to success

Posts Tagged ‘management

Do You Just Talk About It or Can You Do It?

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I just finished reading Gravity’s Kiss, a new MIT Press book by Harry Collins. Professor Collins is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Cardiff. In his book, he details the process by which researchers detected and documented the presence of gravitational waves. Collins himself is a sociologist, but he has been part of the gravitational wave community for more than 42 years. He’s picked up the language and understands the principles involved in gravitational wave science quite well, but doesn’t have the knowledge and training required to advance the science himself.

Collins is the head of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science, so he can offer keen insights into his role in the scientific community. Specifically, he distinguishes between interactional expertise and contributory expertise. Interactional expertise, as the name implies, allows individuals to converse with experts in a field using specialized vocabulary and accurate knowledge at a reasonably advanced level. Contributory expertise, by contrast, entails sufficient training and experience to further the study of a field through analysis and experiment. It’s the difference between being able to talk about something intelligently and knowing what to do with that knowledge.

I’m in the iMBA program offered by the University of Illinois, which is an online master of business administration program designed for individuals who want to advance to the senior management and executive levels of industry. In that sense, the iMBA program is similar to an EMBA (Executive MBA) program than a traditional program, which I refer to as a “practitioner” MBA. For me, the difference is that students learn a variety of skills in areas such as finance, economics, organizational structure, and marketing. The goal is to provide us with the knowledge to make strategic decisions about a company’s direction and to understand enough of the basics in our focus areas to interact with subordinates in everyday charge of those functions. In other words, we gain a fair bit of practitioner expertise and a lot of interactional expertise.

As the owner of a small business, this level of interactional expertise translates to having more intelligent conversations with my accountant and investment advisers. On the practical level, my studies will help me make better decisions about the projects I take on. As a speaker and author, however, it means I will be relatively fluent in the language of business and have a credential to back it up. Now when I make contacts with individuals around the business world I will have the knowledge from my MBA, interactions with colleagues from industry, and experience as a business owner to draw on. Properly applied, those resources will serve me very well indeed in the coming years.

Unexpected Rewards

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My first lynda.com course went live on August 25, 2009. As of this writing, very early in the morning on February 17, 2017, I have 48 courses available with two more recorded and in editing. As I told a good friend last week, I’m a sucker for round numbers and milestones. For whatever reason, odometers hitting the next thousand mile mark, new decades, and reaching the next ten on my writing projects means a lot to me. I figured I’d get a card or maybe a small plaque when I hit 50 live courses on lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning, but I wouldn’t have been upset if it was just my wife and I raising a toast the night number 50 went live.

Late last month, a couple of weeks after course number 48 was released, I received a package from a company I didn’t recognize. The package contained a lovely portable game set with chess pieces that looked like real pieces, checkers, dice, and a pack of playing cards, all enclosed in a good-sized box with a two-sided chess/backgammon board that hinged in the middle and was trimmed with the finest Corinthian leather. The package also contained a card from the LinkedIn Learning crew congratulating me on reaching 50 courses.

No, they hadn’t miscounted. I’d had two other courses published, but one had been retired because the online resource it described changed drastically and the other for a combination of reasons that are both esoteric and boring. Those courses no longer appear on my author page, but they do in the LinkedIn Learning internal database. I was going for 50 live, but the team in Carpinteria cared about 50 total.

Researchers who study motivation make the point that unexpected rewards can have a positive impact on worker satisfaction. I love writing and creating online courses, particularly with the LinkedIn Learning team. Their attention to detail and counting my courses in the most favorable way possible makes their gift that much more special.

Sometimes the Secret is Effort

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I was recently accepted into the University of Illinois’ iMBA program, which offers students the opportunity to earn an accredited MBA degree in a fully online setting. I’m currently in my fifth class, but have supplemented my reading with studies and articles on business topics outside of the required reading. As you might imagine, process measurement and management come up frequently; references to Lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies abound in the literature.

These frameworks use precise measurements to analyze the defect rate, or the rate at which failures occur. Those defects could be missed deliveries, flights arriving more than fifteen minutes late, or products failing within the standard warranty period. Analysts spend hundreds of hours examining processes in an attempt to squeeze a bit more productivity out of the system, whether by reducing the number of movements autoworkers make when attaching a door to a frame, picking items from warehouse bins, or building algorithms to limit the number of miles traveled by delivery vehicles.

Even though these analytical methods have led to substantial process improvements, there is a lot to be said for the empirical knowledge you gain from working within a system. Long-time workers have often developed their own efficiencies (management-speak for shortcuts) they share with their co-workers out of earshot of their supervisors so they don’t get in trouble for deviating from protocol. One prominent example of applied empirical knowledge is the dabbawalas, or tiffinwalas, who deliver hot lunches in Mumbai, India. Customers who want home-cooked meals at work often can’t bring their own food because the trains are too crowded for the containers or because their water supply isn’t available in time for cooking in the morning. Rather than eat at the company canteen, they order their meals from cooks around town. The meals are picked up and delivered by the dabbawalas through an intricate system of hand-offs that uses trains, buses, carts, bikes, and human muscle to get the aluminum lunch containers (the tiffins) to their destination on time.

The dabbawalas’ marking system uses color and single characters to distinguish district, neighborhood, building, and floor, in part because most of the dabbawalas left school after their eighth year. Transfers happen quickly and with minimal errors. As a testament to the strength of their system, consider that a process is considered Six Sigma certifiable if its defect rate is less than 34 out of 1,000,000 opportunities. The dabbawalas’ miss a delivery target at a rate of 1 out of 6,000,000 opportunities. That’s astonishing. And, yes, the dabbawalas are Six Sigma certified, but they didn’t find out about the award until a couple of years after it happened!

To what may we attribute their success? Their system is amazing and has been the subject of numerous studies, but remember how the tiffins are delivered. Once the containers come off their final train ride, they’re transported by humans on bikes, carts, and the traditional method of grabbing a bunch of lunch pail handles and lugging them up several flights of stairs. And the walas work hard. When you watch one of the YouTube videos showing the process in action, you can’t help but notice the focus, determination, and sheer effort required to move the tiffins on and off trains, sort them accurately, and get them to their destination on time.

Less than 100 years ago, my grandparents worked in a shoe factory without the benefit of union protection. Steelworkers, pipefitters, plumbers, and construction workers work hard and for long hours at difficult jobs today. Along with the tradesmen and women who drive our economy forward, the dabbawalas reinforce the universal truth that the best system is worthless if you’re not willing to make the effort required for success.

Tay, Improv, and Artificial Intelligence

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Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University, wrote a guest article for MIT Technology Review that offered his perspective on how the spectacular public failure of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot could have been avoided. Hammond brings up some good points, but I believe his analysis is incomplete.

What…Happened???

Many of you have probably heard about Tay, the youthful-seeming chatbot Microsoft released into the wilds of Twitter. Within a very short time, malicious users took advantage of the bot’s learning algorithms and caused it to create homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic tweets. In a press release, Microsoft noted that they hadn’t had a problem when they tested a version of Tay in China, but I argue the team should have suspected the cadre of trolls on Twitter would take shots at the bot and try to make it produce offensive tweets. At the very least, the team should have built in a list of banned terms rather than use a strictly naive learning procedure.

Hammond, who is both a computer scientist and improv comedian, argues that using a combination of techniques inspired by Marvin Minsky and improv comedy could have helped avoid the worst effects of malicious targeting. I agree, and believe his notes assessing the difficulty of the AI problem Microsoft tackled are spot on. I do have some significant disagreements with his suggestions for how using improv techniques, specifically regarding show management, would help.

Improvised Doesn’t Mean Unstructured

Improv comedy groups, which rely on audience suggestions to make the show run, must determine how much control they want to grant the audience. Some groups are open to any and all suggestions, regardless of how offensive, and build the best scene they can given the subject matter. Other groups control their subject matter more closely. The trick is finding the right balance to do a show you’re comfortable with and that will attract an audience. But beyond attracting an audience, you must attract the audience you want.

Much, if not most, improv is done in bars. This consideration is especially true in the Chicago area, where Hammond works. That consideration means at least a portion of your audience didn’t know they were going to see an improv show, doesn’t want to see an improv show, and are drinking. A lot. Hammond notes that groups can manage their show by choosing which suggestions to ignore (perfectly acceptable) or by pointing out that it’s ridiculously obvious someone making deliberately offensive suggestions just wants to manipulate the show. He further states that a similar technique could work on Twitter:

Nothing neutralizes a bully as well as being called out. My guess is that if Tay pointed out that it knew it was being played in one-on-one interactions and provided attribution for newly learned “facts” when using them in public tweets, the shaming effect would have been enough to shut down even the nastiest attacks.

I believe Hammond is just plain wrong on this point. As Whitney Phillips, now a professor at Penfield College of Mercer University, discussed at length in her book This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, Internet anonymity shields trolls from the consequences of their actions. Trolls do what they do for lulz, laughs at someone else’s expense, and either don’t care or get lulz when their unattributed Twitter posts provoke someone enough to warrant a counterattack. Alcohol provides a similar shield for audience members watching improv shows in bars. The bar makes money off drinks…entertainers are just there to attract audiences and help maintain a steady flow of orders. Many talented performers, whether improv comedians or musicians, have lost gigs because they couldn’t get enough friends to show up and spend money each week.

I also disagree with Hammond’s depiction of the consequences for a drunk twenty-something audience member who “scream[s] out obscene suggestions that she will regret for the next two years”. First: been there, feel your pain. Second: she probably won’t regret what she said because she won’t remember what she said. For individuals such as her (or him), this incident is just one of many similar nights on the town. You just happened to be there when it went down.

Conclusion

The team behind Tay failed to accurately assess the environment into which they released their bot. That said, Microsoft can move forward by using another time-honored improv technique: the Failure Bow. When a scene, song, or on-the-spot pun goes poorly, the performer steps downstage center, faces the audience, says “I failed. Thank you.” and bows. Acknowledging the moment helps everyone move on, most of all the person who failed.

Lessons Learned from the Wharton MOOCs

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I recently completed a four-course sequence from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School that 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.

What did I take away from my four Wharton MOOCs? The courses certainly reinforced that I have strong and weak areas. I’m most effective at managing what I call “semi-formal” systems, where analytical techniques and practical applications overlap. I thought Professor Terwiesch’s operations management course hit that sweet spot nicely—it wasn’t as theoretical as some operations research courses I’d taken and not as practical as on-site management training.

I’ve also thought a bit about the rhetoric of the courses and how their presentation argues for or against on-campus programs, reflect on Wharton as an institution, and my personal growth as a result of my studies.

Do the Wharton MOOCs argue for or against attending the on-campus program?

MOOC critics often raise the concern than providing even part of a curriculum for free reduces the likelihood that students will choose to pay for the on-campus version of the program. I don’t believe this critique holds for the Wharton School or graduate-level programs from institutions such as MIT, Stanford, or the University of Michigan. Anyone who has completed undergraduate training in a field knows who the heavy hitters are at the next level, and Wharton is easily in that group for MBA candidates.

Business careers are built on relationships. Corporate finance, especially, is an unforgiving arena where years of exemplary performance can be undone by a momentary lapse of reason that costs millions of dollars. Sharing knowledge gleaned from one’s successes and failures, not to mention acquiring new jobs after the latter, helps analysts solidify their status within the industry and find new jobs when necessary.

These relationships blossom in business school cohorts. Learners who wonder whether they can handle material at the Wharton MBA level can try the MOOCs on their own and, if reassured, apply to the program. Once at Wharton, earning an MBA becomes a team sport. This approach starts with team-oriented development of marketing programs and continues through self-selected study groups.

I suspect, but might be wrong in stating, that the team-oriented approach of a Wharton education and business analysis conflicts with the sort of independent learner who is attracted to MOOCs. I personally prefer to work alone when I can, both so I can gain full understanding of the material and to avoid the “free rider” problem where one group member avoids their responsibilities but earns a good grade because other team members pick up the slack. (I still remember you from 1992, Mark L. at George Mason University.)

Going it alone through the Wharton gauntlet seems a daunting proposition. Some classes don’t allow it and others are made easier through cooperative study and the relationships built up in those sessions. The sort of individual who might complete a MOOC, or a series of MOOCs, on their own might not be drawn to the program, but someone who examines the lecture videos and assignments as a way of testing the waters might be more likely to apply. The program cost and opportunity cost of lost earnings while at school are considerable, so potential applicants could test their mettle in a low-stakes environment before making their decision.

In the end, I believe that individuals who understand the context of MOOCs as compared to that of on-campus learning will be more likely to apply to (and accept offers from) the Wharton School than to competing programs that don’t make their offerings accessible through MOOCs. The difference is slight, but at over $250,000 in tuition and fees per student, you can afford to take a risk to improve the quality of your applicant pool.

How do the course presentations and material affect Wharton’s message?

MOOCs don’t generate revenue, except in a limited sense for Coursera or edX when they can sell a verified certificate, so free courses are promotional ventures for the participating institutions. As with all marketing, one must have a message so the offerings can be “on message.”

Each of the four Wharton MOOCs (operations management, marketing, accounting, and corporate finance) adopted different presentational styles. The marketing course was the most accessible in that the quizzes and exam asked students to recall material presented in lectures and readings. Operations management required us to apply concepts from the lectures and practice problems to the homework, which required a bit more practical application than the marketing course.

The financial accounting class required significantly more advanced applications of abstract concepts to practical problems, but the instructor enthusiastically communicated what could have been dry material in an entertaining manner. Professor Bushee said he walked us through about 80% of the material he teaches in his on-campus class, so I feel I received very good value for my time.

I’ve left Professor Allen’s course An Introduction to Corporate Finance for last for good reason: his MOOC was closest to Wharton students’ classroom experience. The lecture videos documented actual classroom presentations, but unless we formed our own study groups we forged our way through the practice problems and assignments alone.

I appreciated Professor Allen’s approach because it demanded we overcome some of the challenges facing his on-campus students. In essence, he said: “You want to be a Wharton MBA student? Right. Here it is, then.” The concordance broke down when we were given multiple attempts at each assignment and didn’t have to use calculators for the exam, of course, but we were asked to receive the material as presented.

To me, this difference doesn’t need to be addressed. Teaching styles differ and, because the finance course isn’t part of the fixed core, students can avoid it if desired. The course’s rigorous requirements alert students to the nature of the challenge they face but shouldn’t dissuade serious candidates from considering the program. Do you really want a Wharton MBA who backs away from difficult situations?

How did I benefit from taking these courses?

At the most prosaic level, I discovered (again) that I should ask for help when I need it. Completing many assignments in the accounting and finance classes would have been easier if I’d been willing to turn to the forums for help. Call it a character flaw.

I plan to use the knowledge I gained from these four MOOCs in my own online courses. I’ll adapt some of the analytical techniques from operations management and corporate finance for use in future projects, with the caveat that I’ll only teach what I truly understand and can apply to examples I create independently. The course examples are the instructors’ intellectual property and, though the underlying recipes and algorithms are up for grabs, their illustrations are not.

I’m overjoyed the Wharton School made these courses available, but I’m fully aware that I didn’t receive the equivalent of a Wharton MBA education. The online versions of the classes lacked the rigor of their live counterparts, but I’m now aware of the Wharton School’s offerings and would set my sights on its program if I wanted to pursue an elite MBA degree.

MOOC Review: Wharton’s An Introduction to Corporate Finance

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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.

I fully expected An Introduction to Corporate Finance, taught by Professor Franklin Allen, to be a challenge. In many ways, MBA-level corporate finance is equivalent to organic chemistry for chemistry and biology majors, dynamics for mechanical engineers, and quantum physics for physics majors. It’s the course that separates students with a firm grasp of foundational material from those who don’t.

That’s not to say that someone who wants to be a marketer isn’t qualified if they don’t ace corporate finance, but anyone who wants to be taken seriously as an elite-level financial analyst must do well in this course and its successors.

Course Overview

This six-week MOOC took participants through the mid-term exam of the on-campus course FNCE 611. There were five problem sets worth a total of 25% of the grade, a business case worth 25%, and a final exam worth 50%. MOOC students had to earn 60% of available points to receive a certificate, based on our best results from three attempts on each problem set, the case, and final. At least, that’s the way things ended up (more on that later).

Each week added skills to our analytical toolbox, starting with determining the object function for corporations, calculating present values, valuing stocks and bonds, using net present value to analyze cash flows, measuring risk, pricing assets, and applying the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM).

I’m familiar with net present value and bond calculations from my work with Excel, but I gained a deeper understanding of the mathematical mechanisms underlying those basic methods from Professor Allen’s explanations. I must admit that I struggle with geometric explanations of indifference curves, production, possibility curves, and other concepts. I knew the course would start with those topics, so I buckled down and did my best with them. The rest of the material came…I won’t say easily, but the insights I gained from that first week helped quite a bit.

Production Notes

One of the alleged benefits of MOOCs is that it allows instructors to move away from the “sage on the stage” paradigm, where the professor lectures from a podium, often with the help of visual aids. In An Introduction to Corporate Finance, Professor Allen allowed the University of Pennsylvania to record his classroom lectures. The reason for this choice is quite simple: his lectures consist of meticulously prepared and explained motivational examples that he works through in detail. I’m not certain how he could have provided the same content without essentially rerecording his lectures in a different format.

As I mentioned earlier, we had to earn 60% of the available points to pass and had multiple, untimed attempts at the weekly assignments, case, and final exam. When the course launched, those terms were 70% or more to pass and a single attempt at each graded activity. I don’t mind admitting that my eyes started crossing and uncrossing when I realized what I expected to be the e-learning equivalent of a harder-than-normal Wednesday New York Times crossword puzzle had turned into a serious academic endeavor. I imagine a significant push-back against these requirements led to their relaxation, but it did water down what might have been a significantly more rigorous test of our abilities.

My commentary might make it sound like Professor Allen is a demanding, unfriendly presenter, but that’s not the case. He adopted a matter-of-fact delivery with an emphasis on clarity, but whenever a student raised a hand or asked a question, he looked at them, smiled, nodded his head, and said “Yes?” His manner indicated the query was welcome because, as he noted in the first lecture, it was likely the questioner wasn’t the only person in the room who needed a point clarified.

He also shone when discussing student life and the history of the Wharton School. In particular, his eyes lit up when discussing the Wharton Olympics, a now-discontinued competition where student teams, each with a faculty participant, ran relay races, threw paper balls into trash cans, and performed other bits of office-related skill in a day that must have been a welcome break from the rigors of the coursework.

I’ve no doubt Professor Allen demands great work from his pupils, but I’m equally certain he wants them to succeed.

Conclusions

Based on my experience in An Introduction to Corporate Finance, I’m not sure I have the skill set and temperament to do this sort of work on a high level. Perhaps I’ve psyched myself out after a poor showing in my undergraduate microeconomics class at Syracuse, but some concepts just haven’t stuck. That’s not to say I didn’t benefit greatly from Professor Allen’s course. I certainly did, and believe I could make a solid run at passing the on-campus version of this class. I’ll go into more depth on why that’s the case in my final, summary post on the Wharton MOOCs.

In the end, An Introduction to Corporate Finance turned out to be a highly challenging and eminently rewarding course. To my knowledge it hasn’t been offered since I took it in Fall/Winter 2013, but I hope it will be soon.

I’ll wrap up my discussion of the Wharton MOOCs with a final post on my overall impressions of the courses and how they represent the school in the online learning milieu.

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