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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

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.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Randall Munroe’s Presentation

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The last of the three STDP2 presentations I’ll review was by Randall Munroe, creator of the online comic xkcd. I’ve read xkcd for years and am constantly amazed at the quality of his work.

Munroe started out by noting that it’s ridiculously easy to get in your own way by trying to automate a process that can be done perfectly well by hand. As an example, consider a chart showing character interactions in the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movies.

movie_narrative_charts

Original source: http://xkcd.com/657/

 

Gandalf’s a plot hack.

                            – Randall Munroe

Munroe said that he tried for ten years, off and on, to develop a tool that could translate a script into a character interaction timeline. Finally, frustrated, he drew the graph for the original Star Wars trilogy by hand in an hour. I imagine the timeline for 12 Angry Men took slightly less time to complete.

Displaying data is easy, Munroe argued, but determining which data to show is tough. That said, some presentation modes are better than others. Once he finds an angle he likes, he looks for other ways he can leverage that approach. Recently, he published a graphic on California droughts that uses the physical shape of the state as its axes. I’d love to see this design metaphor used in other graphics.

california

Original source: http://xkcd.com/1410/

 

He makes his infographics more palatable by adding humor, such as asides about a specific data point or a joke to indicate that, while he takes the analysis seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That approach lets him reveal that the Environmental Protection Agency assigns a human life an economic value of $8.2 million when performing cost-benefit analysis without inciting his readers.

Munroe came across as a soft-spoken, gentle person who is still slightly uncomfortable speaking in public. That said, his resolve strengthened when he discussed his wife’s cancer diagnosis and how he communicated the realities of treatment and survival rates. The image that resulted, “Lanes”, is one of the most powerful infographics I’ve encountered.

lanes

Original source: http://xkcd.com/931/

 

He didn’t want to leave us on such a somber note, so he concluded by showing us a graphic called “Lakes and Oceans” that he thought was interesting but nothing special. It shows the relative depths of  various bodies of water and the ocean floor. He was surprised to discover it was one of the most popular things he published that year.

lakes_and_oceans

Original source: http://xkcd.com/1040/

 

I enjoyed my time in Seattle. The presentations by Jonathan Corum, Maria Popova, and Randall Munroe gave me a burst of energy that have let me approach my own work from a fresh perspective.

See, Think, Design, Produce: Maria Popova’s Presentation

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Maria Popova has produced Brain Pickings since October 23, 2006. What started out as an occasional email newsletter sent to coworkers at one of the four jobs she was working to pay for college has turned into a popular and well-regarded net resource.

Her presentation was substantially different from Jonathan Corum’s. Corum concentrated on his visual design process, but Popova focused on what she calls combinatorial thinking. Her goal is to combine lots of information with a little wisdom to produce an interesting and useful intellectual product that helps readers live reflectively.

Popova’s talk centered on the seven lessons that she learned from the first seven years of producing Brain Pickings. You can find the full post with commentary on her site, but I’ll summarize the points here as she did in her talk:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
  2. Do nothing out of guilt, or for prestige, status, money or approval alone.
  3. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life.
  5. Maya Angelou famously said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them”. But even more importantly, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. As Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. Debbie Millman captures our modern predicament beautifully: “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.”

Popova went into points six and the seven in a bit more detail, offering quotes from Mary Oliver, Tchaikovsky, Chuck Close, and Isabel Allende to support her points. She also shared a link to an interesting visualization summarizing the sleep habits of successful writers. Though the data was necessarily a bit piecemeal and anecdotal, it appears that late risers, meaning those who typically awake around 10 AM or 11 AM, tend to produce more work but win fewer awards. For someone like me, who is firmly in the late riser camp, the good news is that there is no secret hour of awakening that means you will win a Pulitzer Prize.

She also noted that, in many ways, our work ethic fights us. American culture measures us by what we achieve and, while just showing up is important to success in life, she feels we can let ourselves fall into a routine of meaningless productivity without truly living.

Popova’s presentation was substantially different from Corum’s and, at first, I was a little put off by the lack of compelling visuals like those presented by a member of the New York Times media team. Once I realized that her focus was more on internal processes as opposed to audience-focused visualizations, I was able to appreciate her points and ended up getting quite a lot out of her presentation. She also landed me as a new supporter of Brain Pickings, earning her the price of a cup of tea each month.

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.

Reasons for Playing Chess

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Chess is a rewarding but maddening game. You can build up an overwhelming position for the first 40 moves and then make a simple tactical error that lets your opponent back into the game or, in extreme and highly embarrassing cases, even win on the next move.

Interviewer: So, tell me…does throwing away a win hurt?

Curt: Yes. Yes it does.

You see golfers going crazy over their rounds, alternating between self-loathing over the short putts they missed and self-praise for the 150-yard shot that ended up a foot from the hole. I played golf occasionally for a few years and can testify to that effect. Some of my friends play 18 holes just so they can feel the satisfaction of hitting one good shot.

Some days they have to play 36 holes.

A golfer having a bad day still gets in some physical exercise. What about chess players? As with many endeavors, it depends on why you’re playing in the first place. You always get to exercise your brain and look over the consequences of your moves, which keeps you sharp and might fight off the effects of aging, but what else?

If you’re playing with someone who’s about your own strength, you get the benefit of an equal competition and, very likely, enough wins to keep things interesting. Playing someone stronger than you helps you learn and winning every so often helps keep you going. Playing a weaker player lets you win more often and teach the game, even if only indirectly.

What’s often overlooked is that chess can be a social game. If you play blitz chess, where players have to make all of their moves within three or five minutes, you can get in a lot of games and try many different types of positions. Playing a longer game lets you think more deeply, and playing without a clock lets you approach the game more casually.

You can also take time to analyze your game with your opponent. Serious players often try to identify the move where the winner got an advantage and what the loser missed. When done with a spirit of exploration and sharing, post-game analysis can be fun and helpful.