Thursday, 27 June 2013

Life changing ? Plenary Week for Distance Learning students at Royal Holloway

This story will no doubt bring a wee tear to my fellow MBA seminar group member, Nicky, who like many of you is an avid reader - but never makes any comments.  HINT, hint !
It's plenary week starting on Monday - one of the busiest weeks of my year.  But also one of the best.  This year we are welcoming 107 students who are truly amazing.  Why ?  Because not only do most of them have full time career jobs, many are parents, all are high energy individuals - but they choose to invest in their business education by following a University of London MSc or MBA in international management.  Hats off to you all !!  I know just how hard it is to do, having studied both my masters degrees whilst working full time.

Graduation Albert and Elena
Sometimes plenary week is more than just making friends with a group of talented individuals from around the world.  Sometimes you get quite a lot more than you bargained for !
I hand over to Elena (pictured on the left, with Albert) who writes in her own words:

"When the idea of getting a British degree popped into my mind, I only wanted to enhance my academic background. If someone told me that I’d go to the graduation ceremony with a ring on my finger, I’d probably reply“uh-huh, of course”. But this is exactly what I will do in two weeks and my husband will be in the audience."

"I did my MBA in Royal Holloway, University of London. The programme required all international students to come twice to the university grounds for plenary sessions. After months of seeing only books and laptop screens for my education, meeting fellow students from around the world was incomparably great. My first plenary session happened nearly three years ago and I clearly remember one lecture on international strategy: there was a question from the lecturer, I said something and suddenly another guy from the audience spoke up to disagree with me. “How nice of him,” was my sour thought. When his name showed up in my group for the second plenary, when we had a group project, I prepared myself for the worst."

"We had five days to do the group project. On the first day, he turned out to be a great guy with a great sense of humour. On the second day, I had a funny feeling in my stomach when I looked at him. On the third day, the funny feeling changed to goosebumps down my spine when I’d catch his eyes on me. On the fourth day, other people were asking me if anything was going on between me and him. On the fifth day, I felt despaired knowing that our group project was over and we were going back to our homes in different countries. On the sixth day, we were officially together."

Albert and Elena met a distance learning plenary study weeks at Egham

"No other thing but distance shows how serious the two are about each other. You either grow apart, unable and / or unwilling to keep the relationship going, or you understand that you want it so much that you will move the mountains to be together. Especially when the two of you are still the students of Royal Holloway! Then again, my now husband lived in Rome then, so there was a time when we prepared for the exams in his home, with beautiful Italian wines and food. I had the best exam marks afterwards."

"I lost count of how many assignments I wrote on the planes that were taking me to and from him, but I will always remember how I was editing my dissertation on the way to New York - it was our first vacation together: he, being a more organized student, had finished his and was sleeping like nobody’s business, while I was zealously recalculating brand equity parameters in turbulence."

"An MBA with Distinction feels so much better when there’s a beloved person to share the experience with - all the sleepless nights over books and all the nerves before the exams, all the “I can’t take this anymore's”, but also all the joys of seeing the exam marks and all the pride of watching each other wearing a robe for graduation."

"What did I get as a result of my studies? Much more than I wanted when I applied - and it’s my own little family."
Reach for the tissues Nicky !

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Abba Museum Experience

It is not often that you get to visit a brand new museum.  Over recent years the expectations of interactivity and engagement have increased and the tendency for glass fronted cabinets showing vast numbers of objects with hard to decipher labels has waned.
Justin in the ABBA spotlights
As I re-visit institutional museums with my kids, like London's Science and Natural History, I find myself looking at how the ideas are being displayed and how the story telling is being put across.  I was struck at the Imperial War Museums (of the North, in Salford, UK) use of bleak colours, heavily pared back use of cabinets of artifacts and instead investment in actors to run childrens story telling to put across multiple perspective feelings of war, for good and bad, rather than the heroic battling version that I remember.  The black out and circular, moving search lights sought to ape the feeling of the nightly air raids many towns and cities faced.

So from gloomy war themed to light and fluffy Swedish pop band museum.  From the profound to banal.  But surely with all that nostalgia and catalogue of chart topping sing-a-long titles, the opening of the Abba museum in Stockholm in 2013 has got to be a good thing ?   And, what better way to mark the successful hosting of the 2013 Eurovision competition (amusing video link showing how self-depreciating the Swedes can be about their culture) than to launch a museum to what must be one of Brand Swedens best assets - Abba.  Volvo, Ericson, IKEA may also spring to mind and possibly Sauna's, Saab and Ace of Base if you are free thinking Swedish brand associations. But also don't forget Spotify and Skype - more contemporary evidence of the innovative side of economic activity. 

The stage costumes were something else....
Thus, with some excitement I walked (well, 'marched' more accurate, thanks to Fiona's pace setting) a full hour in the simpering nearly sunny conditions, battling against the crowds lined up to support Stockholm's annual marathon to find the just opened Abba museum.  In a modern basement, underneath a rather large shop.  Now somethings just surprise you in their obviousness.  Clearly after the huge success of film and stage versions of Abba's stand out musical career, the idea of the bands home supporting a suitable museum is brand mana for heaven for destination Stockholm and an idea whose time is well and truly over due ?

Walk in.   Dance out.
This appeared to be one of the promotional tag lines associated with the museum experience.  I certainly don't remember a song title of the same or similar. 

As you might expect in an innovative, developed city there were a number of interesting differences - it was cashless,  you could only pay by card, paid for audio devices did not have headphones and were easy to recycle, the Abba themed ding on the queue management system was very clever, but annoying after 25 minutes of waiting under it, and the integration of the wider Swedish music scene dubbed the hall of fame. The snake like journey through the basement saw IKEA like, mocked up rooms with vistas - to show how the band members lived and worked were clever, but careful inspection of images highlighted that they weren't original items, but merely replicas in the style of.... which was a little disappointing.  There was clever use of the entrance ticket code to share recordings from karaoke, green screen dancing and Abba themed quiz (70% on the medium quiz, in case you were wondering - so a reasonably serious fan !).   A range of technology based activities that made it more than a maze like journey through a dark basement.
An overtly pro-consumptionist piece of propaganda ?

As I get older, I like the finer things in life (wine that costs more than £7 a bottle) and no longer like to be herded with lots of other people through confined spaces.  The Saturday morning demographic saw me look quite young, and Fiona my twenty something colleague positively youth-like.  I guess the appeal of the museum experience is to those of a certain generation (& I would like to think I was at the back end of this) who listened to Abba whilst growing up.  I have to fess up (=confess in contemporary UK English) my first single was Abba Arrival and I've always loved Abba, even if I was only really getting into music at the end of their illustrious career. 
Having consumed various documentary shows about Abba over the years, I am not sure there was that much I learnt about the band after the museum experience. I most certainly wasn't dancing out.  But I loved the ideas of interactivity - and did the karaoke, skipped the green screen dancing and enjoyed the quiz.  In the round, I was delighted to have been (one of the first & certainly gloated about this visit) and don't doubt the wisdom of picking this as my first Stockholm museum visit - but I think I will make more of an effort to get to the Viking museum next year.  Skol !
Thanks to Fiona for organising the trip and letting me use her photos.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Critical Analysis

I often find that I write student feedback that includes comments along the lines of this "Lacks critical engagement" "Overly descriptive, lacks critical bite" "At this level a fully referenced critical analysis is expected".  Quite a few students will come to visit me during my office hours to ask if I can help explain what this means.    I must come out and confess that I'm a doodler.  I've been drawing this image (my drawing needs to get better..) of a scorpion for a while and think the visual metaphor of a academic writing that has logical progression moving down the segments of the tail until reaching the poison tip.  Harmless if you are prepared, wearing thick leather boots and looking out for them.  But particularly effective at delivering a sharp, painful jab (with potentially lethal consequences if you are caught unawares). 

 A good dictionary will give explain critical or a critique a something that pulls the work apart, examines it and determines if the elements make sense and if the whole comes together.

Or put another, simpler way; deconstruct, evaluate and synthesise.

A critical analysis will use published ideas from experts using reputable sources (that is not the first site you came across in a Google search) to consider the merits of the information being reviewed, but might also bring in other pertinent factual and opinion based arguments.

We tend to be more persuaded by arguments that fully consider the various perspectives and weighs these up to draw an evidence based conclusion.  This objectivity is a fundamental facet of academic writing.  I use this natty fish bone model to try to get students to think about structuring arguments that consider both sides (even where perhaps one side of the argument is weak or strongly against the beliefs of the author) and seeks to integrate key topics into a sequential grouping that may have some logic.

Other elements would include a moderated use of adjectives, the third person, the past tense, the premise that there is unlikely to be a definitive universal truth (therefore the use of the conditional tense and recognition that we operate in shades of grey, not the definitive black and white).

We tend not to attach much (any ?) weight to the authors personal opinions.   I like to be dramatic and say, straight faced, "I don't care what you think !" or "Your opinion gets zero marks" and see what kind of reaction this brings.  It isn't quite true, but a bit of puffery (knowing/implicit exaggeration) to make a point strongly I feel is acceptable.  The criticality (and higher levels of critical analysis) can be reinforced by subtle or careful use of words.  Instead of expressing "Anita Roddick used Body Shop shop windows to put out campaigning messages" which reads as a rather descriptive element a few choice words around the key ideas can make more telling argumentation.

e.g. "Celebrity campaigner, Anita Roddick"  (indicates some personal agenda)
e.g. "Roddick sold out Body Shop to French cosmetic giant L'Oreal in 2006" (sold out/cashed in ?)
e.g. "Whilst in the early days Body Shop was highly innovative with its ethical sourcing and premium positioning model, by the turn of the 21st Century the campaigning was ineffectual, the product offering widely emulated, it was surely inevitable that Body Shop would become just another mainstream brand" (critical time series perspective)

A couple of quotes I borrow from the Amazon website review of Anita Roddick's book

"Business as Unusual has its faults but it makes a thought-provoking read and shows that Anita Roddick has lost none of her passion for change. Her ethics may stink, but it's of peppermint, tangerine and cocoa butter. --Iain Campbell"

“Most CEOs aren’t fit to lick peppermint lotion off Anita’s feet.” The Observer

Campbell uses humour (DANGER, DANGER !*) to undermine in a very effective and very frivolous manner.  He applauds Roddick's campaigning passion, makes out that the book is interesting enough and then puts dagger to the heart by challenging the fundamental ethical viewpoint.  The sensual reference to various ingredients puts across an idea that it was not terribly important, rather frivolous, perhaps. An outstanding soundbite made with extra large gnashers (teeth).

Whilst on the other hand, The Observer alludes to a contorted biblical story of pride and arrogance (where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in an act of humility and supreme point making) and confers to Anita Roddick godlike attributes.  This Sunday newspaper would generally be viewed as having socialist or left leaning political perspectives.  (If I use "loony lefties" here, you can see, it puts me on the right and reduces the power and authority of the argument).  It is possible to undermine or reduce the credibility of a source. e.g. "The socially minded Sunday rag, The Observer" has the effect of clearly intimating the idea 'that they would say that anyway' and also in using a demeaning colloquial term for newspaper to challenge the authoritativeness or worthiness of the opinion.  Take out the word 'rag' and you get a more balanced form of words that critically identifies a likely editorial orientation (or bias perhaps ?) and rather than merely describing what The Observer said, with two key words "socially minded" a powerful seed has been planted.  This is just one example of how an effective critical writing approach might manifest itself, lots of small, yet significant points coming together. 

My English for academic purposes colleague, Karin Whiteside, kindly offered the following example of reporting the Battle of Seattle from her teaching.  Both appear to "just" tell the story.  However, word choice and grammar change the story dramatically. 

Report 1
   ‘The Seattle protesters made a motley crowd.’
         (Lechner, 2009, p268)
         ‘… this impressive crowd represented more than 700 organizations and groups.’
         (Steger, 2009, p117)

Report 2
        ‘While the battle gained a “global” aura in the retelling, most participants were from North America, and among them were union members, brought in by the AFL-CIO, whose main demand for limits on trade agreements could have been mistaken by workers elsewhere for a form of self serving protectionism rather than an expression of global solidarity.’ (Lechner, 2009, p268)

       ‘In spite of the predominance of North American participants, there was also a significant international presence.’ (Steger, 2009, p116)

Karin currently supports the MBA group with a number of tailored interactive sessions to help students understand what is expected from their academic writing for assignments, exams and the dissertation.  

In the academic world you may come across the following kinds of ideas; 

 'based on a small sample that has yet to be replicated' (question the integrity of the research, no one else has found this) 

'Whilst X appears to have made some interesting findings, the majority of researchers in this field have drawn alternative conclusions' (most people think this is wrong) 

'Research suggests Y and is substantiated by a rigorous methodology and a large sample size, befitting from substantial funding from partial body Z'. (Perhaps a suggestion that they have been paid to provide evidence to back up a position e.g. smoking is not harmful to health)  

Wide research of experts publications may reveal strongly held beliefs and/or partisan positions, which may be sufficiently important to identify for core theory.  (However, a short biography of each cited author  should not be included in text).  Examples; Porter's Five Forces and Hofstede's cultural stereotype models (seminal ?) have attracted a significant critical tail since publication (now decades old). 

The examples above also act as an illustration of how ideas can be interpreted and re-interpreted with relative ease.  Consideration of detailed nuances and the way ideas are expressed in themselves can provide ample material to work with.  But content is key, and where students tend to go wrong is not generating enough base material to work with (referenced notes).  High level critical analysis REQUIRES extensive notes on a wide range of relevant materials.  That's about putting in the research time in the library and using the elibrary electronic journals such as EBSCO, Emerald and Science Direct. 

*  Humour that is funny and clever and most importantly that WORKS is fine.  In many politically oppressed nations, the satirists and comedians can play a crucial role in putting across critical counter authority perspectives using the under the radar disguise of humour.  It can be both very powerful and highly memorable.  Unfortunately, often, assessed writing is not at all funny and can fall very flat.  Therefore the use of humour should be considered as a high risk strategy and generally I would advise students away from using this approach in formal university assessments.  Save it for social media - it will stay there for ever - but hardly anyone will read it and no one will care. (much - but take great care not to slander or break the law when writing publicly).  

This post is getting a bit long, but there are a couple of things I wanted to also bring to your attention.

This post has looked at unpacking ideas of criticality.  I have tried, via the use of a variety of examples illuminate what I understand as being critical.  It is already too long, but I could give more.

"Yes, Yes Justin" I hear you say but "What do you mean by analysis ?"

I think this needs another post.

I rather left the scorpion metaphor hanging.  You may know the story, in which case the impact is rather lost, but what if I finished by saying that by 2006 Dame Anita Roddick had given away her £50m+ fortune to charities she supported when she died from Hepatitis, a disease she contracted from a blood donation related to giving birth to her daughter in 1971, in the pre-HIV blood screening days.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

James Wang Production House brings you Royal Holloway MBA International Study Visit Sweden 2013

A great production job from MBA candidate James Wang in pulling together a substantive visual representation of the Royal Holloway MBA International Study Visit 2013 to Sweden.  Thank you James - a huge task, creatively presented.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Inspiration for a Disstertation Topic

Finding the "right" topic for a dissertation can be quite challenging.  At Royal Holloway School of Management, provided the topic encompasses management (with is in itself pretty large) anything goes. 

It is dissertation season so I have been having lots of conversations recently with students trying to find the "ideal" topic and asking for advice evaluating between option 1, option 2 and even option 3.  If there are still five or more options on the table I get a little bit worried about lack of focus.

Usually for me the key building blocks of a good research project are twofold:  (1) a management context and (2) an area of management theory.  Taking the last first...

Strong papers include a theoretical focus, be that knowledge management, CRM, culture, consumer behaviour or behavioural economics.  This might be a topic you have already studied in some detail and you want to take it further.  You might be tactical and identify learning that will stretch you into a new area that has not been covered or covered lightly in your study programme, but that you believe might have relevance for your future career.   Some have half an eye on a potential PhD thesis.   I have seen strong dissertation grades and relevant titles used as discussion lures on CVs.  Getting the top grade, or a distinction/first class grade on your dissertation might be something worth gloating about ?

MSc Entrepreneurship students in discussions

Students with access to a real business context (and particularly those students following a distance learning programme) often choose to pick a real business problem and use the dissertation as a deep and sustained way at looking for key insights and hopefully realisable solutions.
Whilst this is something that I strongly encourage with students I supervise, this approach can result in additional work.  Often business engagement leads to a request to deliver a presentation (GREAT !  because this means the business thinks you have something of worth to say)   or perhaps a written report that needs to more closely adhere to concise business writing conventions.  Sometimes this can lead to offers of employment.  I am sure a real business question helps in the job finding process.  However, at Royal Holloway you can equally well address a more theoretical topic, and many students do very well following this path.

Once you have reached this point the next steps are to spend considerable time (more time that you would like to, and then multiply this by five) engaging with academic journals (taking detailed and copious notes, whilst simultaneously filling out each and every reference in full Harvard style in your shell dissertation document).

Of course, of paramount importance is picking a subject that is of genuine interest.  Students following longer programmes often find themselves pretty exhausted (and a little stressed, as their end grade is overwhelmingly important and the idea of a long, hard, deep, meandering learning journey that makes your head spin is not always that attractive !) and struggle to find the sparkle to stimulate higher levels of motivation.  Without a really keen interest in the topic, the tipping point (move from a challenging, exciting endeavour to a chore that must be finished) is reached much earlier.  Super XL levels of focus and discipline are then required to succeed when this is the case.

Thus mathematically the solution is expressed quite simply;


(AREA OF THEORY + QUESTION CONTEXT ) x 5 lots of academic research = STRONG TOPIC

"Doing the Posnan" - MBA study tour to Sweden May 2013

Royal Holloway MBA 2013 "Posnan" Hoodie celebration at SUBS
Hopefully the first of a few posts on the recent MBA international study tour to Sweden. 

The Posnan is a rather strange group celebration adopted by Manchester City fans after a visit to Poland that sees the fans put their backs to the field, link arms and jump up an down.  Most often seen after a goal has been scored.

The MBA group are seen here coming together outside the Stockholm University School of Business main entrance.

Accelerate your career !
 The second study visit to Sweden saw some finessing of a formula that worked particularly well in its inaugural manifestation.  Students attended a stimulating range of academic lectures, engaging company visits and a rich sociocultural programme. 

Having just completed a grueling month long exam period, students were very keen to enjoy a learning experience that did not end with a challenging written exam.   The programme was designed to provide a Swedish take on modern business, combined with the opportunity to develop an understanding of Swedish culture and history. 

The visit was only made possible by a highly effective partnership with the Stockholm University Business School (SUBS) who co-ordinated three excellent lectures and provided extensive advice on suitable restaurants and cultural activities.  It is hoped that Royal Holloway and SUBS will develop a long term strategic partnership over time, the MBA study tour is the first tangible evidence of this co-operation. 

University staff members could not have been more friendly, even local bus drivers and alike seemed keen to engage with and interact with our group.  Flawlessly in English, of course.  Absolut. 

SUBS offer an executive MBA programme which runs fortnightly on a Friday, whilst the Royal Holloway offering is either a full time year long or distance propositions.