Friday, 4 April 2014

Royal Holloway Ambassadors Reach UBC finals !

Royal Holloway UBC finalists & Dr Donna Brown
Each year more than 300 teams drawn from a wide range of UK universities enter teams in a business competition (UBC) that uses a sophisticated computer simulation package to allow students to role play board room decision making.  

Using cycle based decision rounds to represent trading periods, students have to assess the competitive environment and make carefully thought through decisions on range of key business drivers that includes; pricing, production volume, R&D investment, market research spend, capital expenditure to expand production facilities and benefit from economies of scale as well as human resource and CSR factors.  Key to success, as in the real world, is keeping a careful eye on the competition and trying to anticipate what the future competitive situation will be.

Royal Holloway's lead student ambassador Helena Wilkin stated; 

"The whole UBC was an interesting experience - I underestimated the amount I would learn from the competition, and together we developed a great deal of awareness of how we work individually and as a team.

"We are all highly competitive and would have dearly loved to have won, however to reach the finals was a fantastic achievement.  We will definitely want to be participating again next year !"

Decision making isn't all hard work ?
The team, mentored by MBA Director & second year marketing management module leader Justin O'Brien, enjoyed free flowing conversations about the various decisions they needed to make and what strategy they would look to follow. Justin said "whilst this group clearly enjoyed the challenge they were also seeing how their cross disciplinary management studies were being brought together in a very compelling and realistic manner.  More than doing exceptionally well in the competition, this group got to taste what business decision making can be like."

At the semi-final stages, having seen a data translation error (a dodgy 7 was blamed) the team nearly dropped off a winning position, but luckily an unusual market situation arose that saw them recover any losses and win by an exceptionally high margin.  (Ok - the other competitors all decided to leave the B2B market alone, offering high demand and monopolistic pricing potential)

In deeply philosophical mood Mike Den Harthog summed up his experience thus; "Our UBC success can be described like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  We were thrown obstacles left and right, with some informed gambling here and there we reached the UBC finals, where we truly displayed excellent team work." 

Dr Nana Zhao, who co-ordinates the School of Management teams participating in this competition each year, was 'delighted' that the ambassadors team performed so well this year.  

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Writing to a fixed Word Count

Writing concisely is in my opinion the most challenging task, thus I often look to shorten word counts on assignments where I can.  I recall my days back at British Airways when I was asked to draft briefing notes for my director and once for the Chief Executive.  

Invited to deliver a half pager, I spent all day looking at creative ways of putting across a number of ideas using both numbers and words.  Eventually I managed to get it into a wide and long page, using a smaller font, but was sent away to slice this in half.   Lesson learnt - ensure you deliver to the brief !  Half a page means half a page.  

Students often struggle with the idea of presenting their answers within a specific word count limit.  Often this expectation will have some tolerance (typically +/- 10%).  Whilst perhaps obvious to the experienced student and education professional, it is worth flagging that requiring work to a specific length (be that words or minutes of presentation) helps provide a level playing field, to make it reasonable to assess everyone fairly. 

End of term presentation season has again reminded me that often the best presentations are those that are shorter, tighter and seek to garner an emotional response, not one that is overly focussed on putting across lots of words and blows the permitted time allowance.  Unfortunately we had one person lose a job offer because they over talked their slot and failed to heed clear messages to stop.

I tend to work to a maxim that 'less can be more' and certainly presentations that over run tend to lose my marks for being over time, naturally, but also for lacking sufficiently organised ideas.  Written work with 50% additional text can put across a more comprehensive answer and thus gain a stronger mark, which is not fair on those who abided by the rules, thus not allowed.  Hence the harsh cut off, but it also encourages a polish, review and improve discipline that is often expected in professional practise.

Over the holiday period I re-watched the excellent Richard Curtis (of Notting Hill, Four Weddings and Black Adder fame) directed movie 'Love Actually'.  Seeking insights into the sources of the clever stories (14 were generated, mostly whilst recuperating from a back operation during daily walks on a beach in Bali) that make for a multi-plot, ensemble opus to use as the creative inspiration for a new lecture on inversion and surprise in advertising, I purchased a used copy of the screen play.  It does not have quite the rich and insightful content I was looking for, unfortunately.  

All was not lost, however.....

Richard did offer up the following insights into writing a movie, which is the primary motivation for this post.  With 14 interlaced stories, at one point the script was five hours long.  There are norms or rules of thumb in movies that limit kids stories to just over the hour and adults around 90 minutes. Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchise tales of valour that combine deep character development and generous adventure seem to go over two to two and a half hours, unusually. I find these particularly challenging on the bottom in a theatre, but absolutely needing a pause for a cup of tea at home. Three hour epics are exceptional (e.g. Titanic) and represent a tremendous effort from the director to overcome the instincts of the commercially minded studio executives.  So, working to a finite size is important in the real world too !

The Love Actually script was cut from five to two and a half hours, thanks to efforts that 'aged' editor Emma Freud by five years.  Following the first actor read through, Curtis "realised it wasn't ok at all and changed it again" (Curtis, 2003, pg. 3).   It was changed 'a bit' after the full cast read through.  Having completed the shoot the editing team found they had three and half hours of material "in totally the wrong order with no jokes." (ibid)  Not funny, for a romcom.

I draw solace for my own writing and seek to share Richard Curtis' insights here "A film isn't written once, it's written at least three times - first it's written, then it's rewritten as you direct it and then it's rewritten as you edit it."  (Curtis, 2003, pg. 3)

Key Point: Students should embrace writing long and ensure they plan sufficient time to edit and re-edit their work.

  Impact is everything.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Toilet conundrum ? Which one do you choose ?

Image source:

Intriguing image on the web page recently showed a 'double' toilet.  I use an edgy, but mostly fun, construct of imaging being a toilet brand manager as a universal and ubiquitous example to connect student experience into product attributes, customer unconscious needs and wants and market competition.  It can also spark a cracking conversation that brings out some interesting cross cultural and gender differences.

In the early days of email there was a cracking interactive pop up quiz that invited you to choose the optimal 'trap' or urinal position for doing your business, based on four installations and selection in the context of other user(s).

                        Trap 1         Trap 2         Trap 3        Trap 4

When trap 2 is being used, then the clear choice is trap 4.    When trap 1 and 3 are being used, clearly trap 4 is the best choice because you have a void or wall on one side and are not likely to brush people on either side of you.  I believe these unwritten codes of conduct are little known to women.

My colleague, Dr Alan Bradshaw, has even published in the peer reviewed journal of consumer behaviour academic journal theorising  consumption behaviour in this area.  (with Canniford (2010) Excrement theory development)  

At first you may think 'what a load of poop', but then you begin to discover that there are a range of important issues all spinning around the bowl here.  First up there is gender inequality, unequal availability of facilities result in women often queuing for the loo (except in enlighten situations where toilets are co-ed; think aeroplanes, Sweden and Ally McBeal sitcom).  The cross-cultural norms and culture shock encountered with the 'seat' and 'natural' positions is also intriguing.  

Then consider public health, blocked pipes and different flushing rituals.  You may also ponder (some of us even have time to read a paper whilst on the job after all !) the water wastage, when composting alternatives are available.  Recreational use is fun, colleague Paul pointed out the protest video George Michael made following his arrest in a Californian toilet facility, 'outside'.  

And then the issue of personal safety raises its ugly head, travel blogs are littered with 'worst toilet' experiences and I have noticed women appear to be more aware of their own personal safety when needing to find a facility down dark and dank, twisting, narrow, back passages.  

One company discovered that a popular place for thinking was whilst sitting on the toilet, in our busy lives it is often a rare moment of seculsion, individual space for contemplation and taking a brief time out.  In a tongue in cheek attempt to stimulate more creative thinking it built a thunder box space in the office in the guise of a toilet and invited staff to capture creative ideas whilst in this space, posting a note of their ideas in a little box inside.  A popular and effective innovation until its primary purpose was subverted for other uses.

I've had several weeks worth of conversation with Saturday morning football dad friend Julian, who keeps getting jobs that involve him looking after toilets.  We covered the issues around the ideal colour and make up of toilet paper, the French penchant for pink in public loos being an interesting learning.  We also explored the tunnel blow back problem and what service recovery strategies are used to mop up such high pressure situations and the difficulty in justifying million pound upgrade investments on toilet facilities that just do not drive the customer satisfaction dial.

If this all smells a bit iffy to you, you might be right !  It appears that for many, it is the pong that is the problem, not the facilities themselves.

I've decided this is a rich seem and worthy of mining myself for a paper that looks to combine the service and tourism angles.  Do !, Do ! send me any interesting anecdotes...

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Pharrell Williams - Happy (RHUL)

Spring is very much in the air - after a dull, long and wet winter - the warming rays of spring weather have seen some of the undergraduates express themselves.  Happy ?  Hell Yeah !  I just got promoted !

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Cirque du Soleil: a magical blend of wonder

I have just been to see Quidam at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  It turns out that I've seen the show once before - but I have been so blown away by the performances that I must say I just can't remember.  Sounds a bit silly ?   I find the shows so uber stimulating with often three interesting things going on on stage at the same time that I find the experience totally absorbing and totally enthralling.  After two showings and benefitting from after the event summaries of party members own interpretations, I'm still none the wiser.  And, you know what ?   I don't care.  

You get amazingly colourful, weird and exaggerated costumes.  A buzz of Frenchish music, that is more about tempo, passion and intensity.  You get delightful changes of pace, deliberately slow juxtaposed with quick movements, but never average or normal.  Multi-individual poses that singularly are nothing, but carried out in concert are immensely powerful and deliberate.  You eventually sense the familiar introduction, performance and withdrawal of the circus acts.  But all around are clowns, actors, dancers, performers providing enduring, stimulating and intriguing peripheral activity that means you eye is in constant motion to see what is going to happen ? where ? next ?  A performer stands perfectly still in costume, over sized brown trousers, braces, characterised boots and a battered leather suitcase.  You look once.  You look over again, still motionless.  Then you are drawn by the movement of another actor who bumps into the static figure, who then performs a jelly wobble exaggerated reaction and becomes still, to find the leather case pops open (as if by its own accord) and out floats a small, spherical and bright red helium ballon that bobbles into the lighting set.  

My friend and agent provocateur, Peter, an avid reader of this blog, led to our discovery of 'Cirque' as we call it.  He recalls "Stumbling across the show at The Mirage that time was so fortuitous. Imagine what we'd have missed out on over the proceeding years had Siegfried or Roy been well, or not on holiday, or whatever it was that meant they were dark."  We had just arrived in Treasure Island at the head of the new Las Vegas strip, in sight of some of the old hotels (the Dunes, now blown up) that effectively founded this area of barren desert as the de facto entertainment capital of USA.  This was back before the days of direct flights from Europe to Nevada's gaming centre.  The newish MGM Grand was one of the first mega hotels, with an incredible 1,000 rooms and opposite was the pyramid shaped Luxor.  Awesome, tacky, amazing.  We had flown in over Los Angeles (best transited, I find) and suffering serious jet lag several of our party were keen to crash.  Party animal Peter wanted to hit the shows and max out every opportunity.  I was extremely dubious about the camply Teutonic White Tiger show at Caesars Palace that appeared to the the 'must see' show.  I felt major league cheese of flailing arms and bravado around risky human interactions with tortured 300kg jungle beasts.  Lucky for us the show was 'dark', we couldn't quite tell what this really meant, but Peter was determined to expose us to theatrical culture and thus we blindly went into Cirque du Soleil's Mystere.  "Like a circus, but no animals.  It's cool".  At least the seats were big, padded and there was icy air conditioning to keep us awake.

Being unexpected, and sensational, it was an amazing $65 show, one we eulogised to many of our friends about.  Since this first mid-1990's encounter I've been to as many shows as I can, including venues in Zurich, Hong Kong, Frankfurt, Orlando, four in Las Vegas itself, as part of my stag weekend in Washington DC and now London.  We nearly made it to Iris in Hollywood, but the show closed days before we arrived. We have watched as this French-Canadian franchised reinvention of the circus business model, rather emasculated by societal views on watching performing animals, just grow and grow. 

A story I want to tell more of.....

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Shrenik Shah Royal Holloway MBA profile

My work experience in brief

Shrenik Shah (right)

My last job was at an automotive parts manufacturing company and my role saw me responsible for product costing and driving cost improvements. I was also aligned with a sister company in the IT industry and my role there was a more traditional accounting and finance manager. 

My education

After graduating with a Bachelors in India, I decided to study full time for the Management Accounting professional qualification CIMA in London. I successfully passed the Advanced Diploma and returned to India. I started working full time whilst completing the final CIMA papers, achieving full charter status in early 2013. 

Having worked in the accounting, finance and costing area for more than three years, I felt I wanted to change direction and grow faster, and so I decided  to study for an MBA, and headed back to London.

Why did you chose the Royal Holloway University of London MBA ? 

Presentation skills and group working feature highly

I chose the Royal Holloway MBA because of its focus on International Management not the typical Finance, Marketing or HRM. So, studying for a masters degree with a strong international management perspective will give me the chance to broaden my horizons and deepen my understanding of multinational/globalised businesses.  

Where you hope to end up after the MBA - what skills & experience will it bring ? 

After MBA I am looking forward to work in a multinational enterprise where I hope to be able to  use my international Management MBA learning. I have had a wonderful learning experience so far and experienced some excellent networking opportunities. 

What were the MBA highlights for you ?

The programme offers opportunities to engage with a range of small, medium and large companies through visits and guest speaker sessions, for example; both dimensions of the brewing industry with craft outfit Hogs Back (how small brewer compete with large enterprises) and Peroni's owner FTSE10 ranked SAB Miller (even though being on the top does not come everything easily there are several issues to look after), Thorpe Park (how to be innovative and creative as a stand alone SBU), and US mobile giant Verizon who offered us the opportunity to undertake real, in-company business problems as the basis for our dissertations. 

The experience of living in UK

Although studying and living in the UK is not new for me, living on campus was.  It has been wonderful so far, I have had the best time being in close, regular contact with the other MBA students.    I have also made a number of good friends with students following other study programmes and learning about a wide range of cultures and countries has been amazing, especially students from EU countries. 

Working in multi-cultural groups

Drama class

 Before the MBA I rarely worked in a multi-cultural environment.  I found that things can develop very unexpectedly and sometimes it is hard to work with people from different cultural and professional backgrounds. Most of us found it challenging to work in groups as everyone seems to have different perspectives and motivations to study.  Differences here have created some conflicts at times, often because the workload is very demanding, but we all have learnt how to manage new approaches to these challenges, bringing valuable experience to our   management and leadership skills. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

MBA Profile: Scholarship candidate Amy Sharath

1. Why you decided to study for an MBA (including your work experience background) ?

Amy Sharath: Presenting 

in the Picture Gallery

My name is Amy Sharath and I come from Bangalore city, which is situated in the southern part of India. Soon after I graduated, I joined a start-up organization called R2 International. Although I had no formal work experience, the company gave me an opportunity to set up a new business division that focussed supplying IT consultants with knowledge in SAP (German software) to some of the largest companies in the world. Although initially I faced my own share of hurdles, within one year, the SAP division was the highest revenue and profit generating unit within the company. The business was successful and I moved up the corporate ladder within the company and got hugely recognized. Nonetheless I felt a need to add more skills to my profile.  Interacting with CEOs, Directors and Board members of Fortune #500 companies on a daily basis made me realize that although I have expertise in my field of headhunting and recruitment, I need to expand my overall knowledge of businesses and I believed that an MBA would guide me through the next milestones I plan to achieve.

2. What attracted you to Royal Holloway ?

Royal Holloway was attractive to me due to a lot of reasons:

* It is a part of the University of London (which is very prestigious to have a degree from).
* It is listed as one of the top 40 universities in the UK
* It is close to London and well connected with the train service
* The beautiful Founder’s building

There were a few more reasons why I chose Royal Holloway: I had a very positive impression about the school of management. Justin O’Brien, the MBA Director, his transparency, real world business experience and candour made Royal Holloway more attractive. It was a particularly tough decision to make, since my company was very keen on offering me a promotion to work in our headquarters in our London office (but I finally chose Royal Holloway)

3. How the scholarship has helped you ?

The scholarship from Royal Holloway was a great blessing for me. It lifted a huge financial burden from me, at a time where Indian currency was at an all-time low against Sterling.  Winning the scholarship also filled me with more confidence in my decision to do my MBA. The fact that the University was ready to invest in me made me want to excel at my course.

Amy meets Principal 

Professor Paul Layzell

4. How you have found your course so far ?

To say that the course is intense would be an understatement. We barely get any sleep and have course work through weekends.  It has been 5 months into the course and I firmly believe it is one of the best decisions I have ever made and am going through one of the happiest and most exciting phases in my life. The course has already given me significant amounts of ROI, i.e. return on Investment.  Meeting people from all over the world and understanding their cultures and opinions has been a thoroughly enriching experience.  The cohort has become very close and as much as we study, we party really hard; hence we aptly term MBA “Master of the Balancing Act”.

Link here to the Royal Holloway scholarship page