A natural progression

The MBA year is now over and so with it, I suppose, this blog has come to its natural end. 

Update: Nope. Passing it on to the next set of MBA students Cass students (yup - its school wide now).

I will continue to write somewhere else - although haven't really decided where yet!

Reflections on South Africa

This past week, around 25 of us from the MBA were in South Africa - Johannesburg and Cape Town - to look at South Africa and see how it is evolving. I am still in Cape Town - part holidaying and part finishing up my dissertation - but thought I'd make this blog post while my thoughts are still fresh :-)

South Africa is now routinely mentioned in the same breath as the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China. So much so that in fact the BRIC acronym has been modified to now be BRICS – indicating the confidence economists have in South Africa’s potential for growth.

The week in South Africa included visits to a number of organizations. A number of them seemed to be hard-nosed profit-focused corporations that presented a picture of how they in fact assist sustainability and Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This meeting of ironies – financially driven but appearing to be society friendly – somehow sums up my experience in South Africa.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that the rest of the country or the little one can see of it in 10 days, symbolizes this dual principled mindset. Unsurprisingly, the evidence of earlier apartheid is omnipresent. It is present in every establishment we visited, with blacks and ethnic minorities (Indians, Coloureds) doing the blue-collar jobs while the whites appeared to be doing more responsible roles.

South Africa is presented as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to its people and the rest of the world. Such a description of a country is best accepted with a healthy dose of cynicism. While there is no denying the diversity that South Africa represents, its contours have not yet adapted to symbolize the romantic notion of a rainbow.

With millions still living in poverty, blacks living in townships, Indians living in Durban and whites still owning and starting the majority of businesses in the country, the economic, social and geographical segregation does not offer an image that brings solace or even hope to the ambitious mind. Yes, progress has been made, the colonial policies have been reversed, the apartheid era and the age of open discrimination is over. And yet, a candid conversation with a cab driver suddenly appears to take the fuzziness out of the unease I had felt all week. One of the big stories this past week had been the overthrow of Thabo Mbeki and the crisis in Parliament. And yet, the country seemed like one behind the African National Congress, making it not a one-party state but a one-party dominated state.

The unhappiness of the previously disadvantaged people is apparent, but their nationalism has not yet developed significantly enough for them to also be critical of a party that was the significant force in bringing forth the political changes that brought them forward from obscurity.

In some ways the strength of the African National Congress is also its biggest weakness. South Africa is proud of its open media, its culture and its institutions. Yet, unless dissent is actively present in the African community the culture will remain dominantly un-African (or should I say un-Black?).

Perhaps the change I have witnessed in South Africa has brought my own prejudices forward and exposed me to a reality where the colonists and the colonized appear to be living in harmony. I have struggled to accept this fact and am convinced that what I see must not be true. It cannot be that white corporations that were only 12 years ago active participants in the discrimination culture are now suddenly promoting policies that are completely opposite to what was earlier.

It also seems strange, perhaps, that South Africa as a nation is following a policy of BEE that imposes conditions on its private industry. I am a firm believer in the free market and while reservation-oriented socialist policies had their supporters (and some would argue, even their place) in the 20th century, countries like India that adopted these are now suffering from increased segregation (rather than less) and the continued effects of polarized economic and social classes.

Private enterprise in an emerging economy like South Africa should not be chained down by rules that actively manage employment in the industry. Incentives are the key to economic change and social behavior and in my opinion, BEE is an inadequate policy providing misplaced incentives. Rather than guaranteeing 25% of jobs in a company to previously disadvantaged people, a social incentive scheme incorporating scholarships, entrepreneurship schemes and providing easy access to funding to established SME’s would have been better positioned.

The inadequacy and misjudgment of the BEE policy makers is evident when one examines South Africa’s economy and notices that despite a relatively high growth rate, the economy supports massive unemployment, mostly among the black community.

How can this be? Is South Africa a country that has undergone superficial change but is yet to percolate it down to the masses?

We blame India (oh, and China too!)

Saw a video of Lou Dobbs on CNN last night, talking about the collapse of talks at the WTO. Pretty incisive commentary from him, very opinionated, but in my mind, extremely ignorant as well.

He did make one point though, that the US national media has largely ignored the WTO talks. Even in the UK, its been mentioned in the FT, the Guardian and the Times, but if Susan Schwab, the Us negotiator in Geneva, is correct in saying that "There has never in history been an international negotiation as complex as this one" - then the publicity this has received in at least the UK and US is nowhere near the publicity it deserves.

Thats obviously quite a stark difference from how news coverage has been in India - headline news every day.

Is this a sign that developing countries, perhaps, are becoming more globalised than developed western economies?

In any case, I am disappointed when even people like Richard Lambert, director general of the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), say that "It is particularly disappointing that India was unwilling to compromise, and was a catalyst for the breakdown of the talks . The deal that was on the table offered promise for developing and developed countries alike."

Well if the deal on the table was as good as you say Richard, why was India unwilling to compromise? And you mention India, but China was not willing to compromise either.

For those that do not understand, in a nutshell, India and China together represent about a billion farmers - farming not the large farms like the kind we see in the west, but small holdings, less than an acre and using the same agricultural practices that have been used for thousands of years.

The developed countries on the other hand, subsidise their farmers, so if somebody is farming potatoes and it costs them £2 per kilo to grow them, the government gives them £1 back. This means that these farmers can sell these potatoes to countries like India - where the cost of growing potatoes is £1.20, but the Europeans (and Americans) are able to undercut Indian farmers on price because there's hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies behind them.

Now because of this reason, India does not allow agricultural imports and is unwilling to open up its markets in other areas because it needs its 600 million farmers to not starve. China needs the same.

The US and EU obviously want to protect their own farmers, even though they know that farming in the west is slowly becoming economically inviable.

The current food price crisis, would actually, in my opinion, cease to exist if instead of the west ploughing in money to sustain farming in their countries, would invest in transferring their technology to the developing world where farmers can benefit from it so world food production can go up.

That, obviously, will not happen, for developed countries are not directly interested in uplifting the rest of the world, they clearly, and more so in the case of the US, are more interested in 'preserving' their way of life. A very selfish aproach and one that is probably in for a rude shock sometime not too far in the future.

At the brink of whirlwind 2008-09

By this post I would like to take the pleasure of introducing the Cass business school’s 2008-09 batch. It’s not long before we all will be landing at Heathrow, some are getting the visa done, some are shopping, some studious ones are going through the induction books, and most are already discussing the schedule of parties, trips and hangouts that will happen in London.

Meanwhile Visa is not as easy as I was expecting, lotsa documents to be collected and after so many days I still find myself stuck. London is quite a famous shopping destination but as an international student I would prefer to partially shop at my place to control the budget.

As it is still a little over 1 month to go before the session starts I am impressed by the proactive actions of Cass. I have been contacted by Career service department as they have started filling our diaries with events and corporate receptions. Also the career service department is already in action, connecting MBA students with consultants to prepare an impressive CV even before starting the session. I am sure this will help students hitting the road running.

All the while students are trying to find buddies and classmates through social networking sites such as Facebook, we have groups such as Cass business School 2008-2009 and Cass Business School Investment Management 08/09 for general or specific discussions and now we also have an official fresher’s group by Cass. I must say thanks to all these groups I already know quite a few people going to Cass and it always helps to know that you are not alone.

For sure people are really excited about Cass and London in general and are expecting a great year ahead.

China, China, China

And we've been to China too...

For many of us, who chose the China Symposium as the international elective, this was one of the definitive highlights of the year.

The symposium itself was 5 days long, held between 9th and 13th June in Shanghai, and all sorts of expat and Chinese business professionals and also journalists talked about doing business in China. We had people from Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Siemens Medical, Tomkins, ENO and many others, a really diverse range of fields.

I think we all know, at least to some extent, about the issues in China: the influence of politics is everywhere. The Chinese version of Capitalism is building rapidly and in a way it was very interesting to hear from a banker working for Deutsche Bank about Private Wealth Management i.e. the exponentially growing wealth of a very small group. Pretty much similar as everyone else in the world for the same state of economic development, I'd think, although the scale is different.

What was the most interesting to me and made me think - every once in a while even since then - when the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Shanghai Daily talked about the press in China. Even if he tried to avoid a few areas in his speech, in the Q&A there was no chance to escape. He had to answer straight questions about how they dealt with the non-existing free press and the governmental influence. I was really impressed with him trying to get his message across without explicitly saying 'inappropriate' things. He finished his speech with the following: 'Everything I told you was completely true. But look online and you will see a different China'.

And now to the fun part: a few of us thought that while there, why not go to Hong Kong before Shanghai and to Beijing after? So we did.
Flying 15 hours to arrive in Hong Kong on the 6th June in the middle of the pouring tropical rain and to start discovering the best venues. We spent 2 days in HK and then flew off to Shanghai to the official Cass programme.
Having to attend the sessions every morning didn't stop anyone from going out every night, eating scorpions, haggling and you name it, but the lack of sleep started to catch up on some by the end of the week.

It wasn't over yet though as visiting Beijing was the last leg of our tour. Another 2.5 days on the Great Wall and in the Forbidden City and the last night having dinner in a teppanyaki restaurant which was great - apart from the fact that the Japanese waitresses being in China spoke no English. At all.

It was just amazing. Good days.

Project time

So for a lot of MBAs this is what the course is all about. Putting what we've learnt over the last year into practice (well we've kind of done that already but everyone would agree this time it's more serious).

We've finished our final electives and with any luck have secured placements with companies or finalised a research topic for our projects. To a lot of employers (or at least those who have done an MBA or know of it) know that the individual project really tells them a lot about the candidate. After all, it's the successful application of knowledge gained throughout the course that will prove if we are true MBAs or academics in the making (cheap shot!).

Of course I'm not saying that all academics are failed business folk but there is a very different mindset between an academic who is working on his latest piece of research and the entrepreneur, for example, working on his latest venture.

To be fair Cass Business School has always made an effort not only to employ purely academics but also successful business men and women as well as invite them to give talks and share their experiences. This to me is something unique to a good MBA qualification, not always found in online MBA programs, it really does do its best to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

You won't see many other lecturers in other qualifications with no doctorate but that you do see it on MBAs. I think that acknowledging the inherent business skills and knowledge of an individual without first looking at a checklist of qualifications is a stellar move because business is as much about understanding how success is achieved as it is about achieving that success.

The Entrepreneurship elective

We're getting a lot of press after the £10 million we got for the new entrepreneurship center at Cass. This one is related to an elective I took in May - Innovation Business Project - where we worked for ChangeBase and came up with strategy we thought they should follow.

I'm probably doing an entrepreneurship project this summer and trying to come up with a business proposal - will post some more info when that has progressed a bit.

I must say though, I do not agree with John's comment in this article that entrepreneurs are born. Sure some of us may be born with genes that make us less risk averse, but the zeal, the ambition and the business aptitude, I think that's bred into us - now whether that can happen at a business school is open to debate, but I can certainly see how events that happened when I was a kid, have affected my entrepreneurial spirit.

Entrepreneurs: born or made and if so, how? by -- ARE people born to be entrepreneurs, or can anyone learn how to set up and run a business?

The best-known entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson really stand out from the crowd - often outspoken and flamboyant,...

The Food Chain - In Fertile India, Population Has Outstripped Agriculture

The Food Chain - In Fertile India, Population Has Outstripped Agriculture - Series - NYTimes.com

With the right technology and policies, India could help feed the world. Instead, it can barely feed itself. India’s supply of arable land is second only to that of the United States, its economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and its industrial innovation is legendary. But when it comes to agriculture, its output lags far behind potential. For some staples, India must turn to already stretched international markets, exacerbating a global food crisis.
I was discussing this with a classmate a few days ago and we were talking about how, if India could produce more food, it can actually diversify its strengths and become a truly global powerhouse and increase its per capita income much quicker than it has managed so far.

Agriculture in India is still stuck in the socialist mindset - and sometime I think, rightly so - but in order to leverage India's resources, this must change. OVer 60% farmers in India (according to the 1991 census) have an average landholding size of under 1 hectare and less than 5% farmers have a landholding more than 5 hectares (World Bank report). This seriously limits the opportunity to 'industrialise' agriculture on an individual basis and we will probably have to (and already do in some parts) approach agriculture as a collective enterprise, i.e. the government funds a tractor or combine harvestor for a group of farmers rather than each one buying one, which will be impossibly expensive and uneconomical.

On the other hand, farmers can only sell their produce to the government, at pre-decided prices - there is some privatisation but that (to my knowledge) sits with the collection, distribution and payments mechanism rather than with the ownership of the whole process. There are probably a few exceptions, perhaps for coffee, tea or tobacco, but for staple food crops, this seems to be the system generally in place.

Now, unless private players, or rather private capital, can come in and consolidate the agriculture industry, it will be difficult to either increase yields, or help farmers out of poverty.

With Reliance Fresh and the proposed initiative by Bharti (along with Wal-Mart), some of this could change, i.e Indian farmers may now have an alternative market and this could lead to better prices, or at least investment, for many of them. Of course, introducing private players does add to risk, in terms guaranteed payments and that is crucial to the hundreds of millions of farmers. Even a slight disruption, or delay in payments, could render several million homeless and poor and push them to the brink of starvation.

This is certainly one of the major challenges India faces if it is to grow beyond what its traditional industry and services backbone will allow.

This of course, is not helped by the fact that agricultural subsidies remain at high levels in the EU and in the US - and the limitations this places on world food trade, especially with regard to countries like India that continue to block (or highly restrict) food imports. For India, allowing food imports is an eventuality as is the the ultimate reduction and elimination of food subsidies in the west, but challenges will remain unless the agricultural sector itself is reorganised and adapted to withstand fluctuations that free market forces will bring.

Until that happens, unfortunately, I do not think there is going to a clear resolution to the world food crisis that continues.

On your marks, get set...it's the MBA tournament

Training sessions in Regent's Park, London, are not on the MBA curriculum at Cass Business School but there is no doubt how seriously they are taken by the students. The goal is the MBA Tournament, or MBAT for short, and the strategy is total fitness.

"Early on in the year we were visited by members of last year's class, who gave us a presentation about the MBAT," says Nicolas Michaelides, 32, who represented Cass this year. "At the tournament, we stuck together as a team – a few people got injured, but that actually turned into quite a bonding point which brought people together."

Read more in today's Independent newspaper

Are call centers in India slave ships?

There was a report published in late 2005 that compared work in the Indian Business Process Outsourcing industry to Roman slave ships. An article on that report can be found here.

Now I had written a comment on a post the Indian Economy blog that I happened to bump into again today. I was exasperated then that people in India considered call centers to be a good thing and took it as a matter of 'national pride' rather than to look at it objectively.

I incidentally, worked in the Indian software outsourcing industry, with a pretty large Anglo-Dutch software services firm and my experience, even in that company, was that organsational processes were still far behind what the west takes as standard.

My impressions of the Indian software/process outsourcing industry are (adapted from the earlier comment),

The good:
1. They have provided jobs to previously unemployed people
2. They provide better job environments than other industries

These points aside, we must look at the report in an encouraging way. Sure, there have been unqualified comparisons - “slave labour” and working like “coolies”. But lets not argue over the grammar, let us instead look at the basis of the report.

I have read, and I support the findings of this report, especially, with regards to working conditions.

Some of you (those who are in India and support the BPO industry) might dispute the fact that working conditions in Indian BPOs are equivalent (or in some cases even better than) to similar enterprises in the West. While there might be a few exceptions, I disagree that this is a general trend.

For instance, how many of us - who work (or worked) in BPO/IT sectors in India, can say that our Health and Safety is well looked after?

1. Fire - In my FTSE100 office, my building was apparently protected against fire and we had fire marshalls - however, on my floor, there was a fire exit door that was kept locked and none of us were given information about safety or health issues in the orientation week. On top of that, considering that fire departments in India are ill-maintained even where they exist, one would expect the multinational companies who come to hire thousands of staff, to provide for better arrangements than elsewhere - however, these are often much worse.

We had an instance where the global CEO visited our office. I remarked to one of my colleagues that the company had gone so far as to rent (yes, rent) some fire extinguishers especially for that event. Fire extinguishers were rented because before that we had empty placeholders - with no extinguishers in them. Okay, granted, after the CEO visit ended, and some time passed, fire extinguishers were bought and the office was equipped. Still, you would not have a lapse like this in a London office of the same company.

About emergency lighting - the less said the better, these did not exist initially, and were only provided later once perhaps they received budgetary sanction.

2. Disability - The issue of disabled friendly buildings, or offices, is ridiculously enough, a complete non-issue in India. Again, we do not have laws or government mandates in this area, but one would again expect that international organisations, with established practices in the rest of the world, would transmit some of that to developing countries as well. But no, this is not the case.

In my office of 3500 people, I counted two disabled people. Thats an incredibly low ratio for a job where most of us sit around at a computer and write code all day.

Diversity of staff can still be blamed on demographics, i.e. not a huge number of disabled people qualify as technical experts in India. However, one would expect office bildings to have ramps, to have entrances and exits that allow for the passge of disabled people. The companies that operate in India, go so far as to create new office locations and customised workstations for people without limbs or sight, but in India, these issues are laughed at.

3. Workplace - I had the fortune to get introduced to Dr. Deepak Sharan, a doctor who treats repetitive stress injuries in Bangalore. I myself had suffered from Carpel Tunnel syndrome earlier and my girlfriend was (and still is, unfortunately) suffering from RSI.

Speaking to Dr. Sharan, I realized that he had conducted a survey that found that a majority (over 60% if I remember) of people who worked in the IT/BPO sector in India, suffered from some form of stress injury as a result of badly designed workstations and ignorance of the management.

I tried to counter some of that by arranging for him to come to our office and speak to the staff to make them aware. The response was phenomenal and the thanks I received from the people who had been suffering but had not been aware, made it totally worth it.

However, upon trying to get some feedback from project managers in my company, I was summoned to the HR director's cabin and asked to keep it down as such things 'demotivate' employees. The HR directors point was that the office was ergonomically designed (my opinion: it was not. far from it) and that people do not get injured from tapping on keyboards (ya right).

Anyway, there were only so many causes I could fight for.

There were a number of other instances where the attitude of the management was clearly agitated to any initiative that could, in their opinion, demonize them somehow. The attitude was this cannot be changed because if it is changed then it would appear that I was to blame for the earlier faults.

This is an attitude pervasive in Indian software and BPO companies. Everyone looks towards the bright side but forgets there is another story, one that few of us can see and even fewer talk about.

I had the fortune to work for, what I believe was a 'better' company in terms of its policies and structure. I have heard stories and met people, who were not as lucky as me, and their experiences, were directly affected as a result of the single minded focus on sales/profits and the illusion that Indian human resource could last forever.

Oh and did I mention that in the Indian IT/BPO sector, managers frequently refer to people as resources? Their ridiculously archaic English knowledge and perhaps their insensitivity, means that they frequently, in all staff meetings and reports and the like, mention that they require 20 resources (when they mean people) or that they hired 200 resources the previous month, or even worse, that one resource has left their team but two new resources are on their way in.

The Indian software and BPO industries are on a slave ship and they're so ecstatic that their ships are going to America that they do not see how hard they have to row or how many of us perish on the way.

Image sources:

So why would Madonna live by this map?

Besides the usual MBA stuff we have an elective at Cass called Business Mystery, which is aimed at developing the creative and artistic mind of us MBAs - besides the analytical mind which focuses on finance, strategy and other such stuff.

Its quite unusual, we've been told, for an MBA program to have an elective where the lecture notes are not ditributed in advance and where even the venue where the lecture will take place is kept secret until about a week in advance. Of course, I'm referring to our classes on this elective as 'lectures' but that is not really an appropriate term, as in this class, our professors (and there's three of them leading this one) particpate with us in teams as well.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, we had a class on the theme of 'maps as part of journeys' and I was given this 'assignment' - to figure out why Madonna would live by this map. Its quite interesting and I was quick to spot the analytical part of it, as there is a word on the bottom left part of this map that says 'Kabbalah', but it took me more time to figure out that this is themed on the London Tube map - of course I spotted that but could not immediately link it up to Kaballah and the fact that she lives in London.

Actually, this elective has been so good it has almost independently reinforced my belief that I made the right decision in coming to Cass and not going to Leeds or Cranfield (which were the other two options for me).

In other classes, we've had experiences including walking through a 'catacomb', visiting a museum and a theatre. In about 10 days we have to submit an exhibit on which we will be marked for the 5 credits for this course. Hopefully I will come up with an idea soon but do not want to be limited to drawings, artefacts or videos as the case has been in previous years of this course.

Meanwhile, for a full lowdown on this and other such maps, visit Strange Maps, a wonderful and totally interesting website with a lot of strange maps from all over the world. The last time I visited I was so glued to it I spent 4 hours just looking at all the stuff there!

Cass on the MBAT

Thats us - the Cass MBA team that went to the MBAT at HEC in May (thanks Dee for the photo).

For those of you interested in what the Cass team did at the MBAT, here are two posts - one by Dee and the other by Toby.

My class raises most money for Oxfam!

Instead of selling hot air ballooning and bungee jumping, Oxfam decided to challenge business schools and blue chip companies to show their entrepreneurial skills...

...Apart from Cass, Oxfam Experiences has worked, or is working with, London Business School, Warwick, Tanaka, and Cranfield and, on the corporate front, with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Vodafone, IBM, T-Mobile, Shell and Bodyshop. According to Oxfam, the Cass team raised the most money of any business school.

(and to think this happened in the first two weeks of the MBA...!)

read more | digg story

A look at Tata Nano: The World's Cheapest Car

In the BBC today: "India is fast becoming the centre of a revolution in motoring. A new generation of ultra-cheap cars is about to hit the streets, allowing millions of would-be drivers to dream of personal mobility for themselves and their families. The Tata Nano was unveiled with fanfare in January. Its basic price - about $2,500 - is about half of its rivals." (Read more here)

The video in this article is quite interesting, the Nano does look very sluggish, it seems to take ages just to get up to moving speed, but I guess the target market won't really mind. After all, they're upgrading from a "family bike" or just unpedestrianizing themselves.

I couldn't help noticing though, that while the Tata engineer says this is not reinventing the car, it really is reinventing the car. Okay, this might not be the quickest, or most beautiful thing in the world, but the design innovation in this thing seems incredible. And not just that, the cheap price could only have been made possible as a result of innovation in process and operations management.

Now, just a couple of days ago I was in Brussels where we were talking about the fact that the EU still has not (can not hope to) meet the objective of the Lisbon Agenda which was to increase R&D spending up to 3% of GDP. The speakers were also lamenting that while things get invented in the EU (MP3 music for instance), they get commercialized in the US. At the same time, according to trends, it appears that China will now actually equal or exceed the EU in total R&D spend by next year - and you thought China could only imitate!

Using Second Life in the MBA

Read news today that the School of Informatics at City University (incidentally also the place where my girlfriend studies), hosted a seminar in Second Life.

Of course I had blogged earlier about having created a group in SL for Cass Business School and now we have 6 members (yay) but my arguments for using Second Life as a platform for delivering MBA education have had their merits counter argued by at least one professor at Cass.

In the interests of open discussion, let me post some bits of my motivation to have Second Life be a greater part of the MBA.

The use of SL for PR and marketing purposes is probably hard to justify, and many universities have failed miserably at it, but there remain several advantages to using virtual worlds for academic research and for educational purposes.

INSEAD, IESE and several British universities have failed miserably in Second Life because their ventures were poorly implemented and minimally linked to their real world work.

INSEAD, for instance, used Second Life for some research that was
(a) not very different from what could be achieved off a website,
(b) static,
(c) uninteresting to SL users.

Other universities have used the Second Life for PR in ways that is not very different from using a website. To me then, there is no surprise that these ventures have been unsuccessful.

My attraction to SL as an MBA student is based on several characteristics that are hard to find elsewhere,
(a) A healthy, well functioning and growing virtual economy (financial markets, buying, selling)
(b) A user base whose demographic is different from what can be found elsewhere
(c) A virtual world in which one can interact in 3 dimensions

These characteristics mean that there are a number of educational opportunities at least within the areas of marketing, entrepreneurship, equity research, investments and product innovation.

For instance, as part of a finance elective or course, I would be excited to do a 'live' coursework within a virtual world that alllows me to set up my own securities exchange, or my own broking company and where reslts are determined by real consumers (albeit in virtual avatars) who I can see and speak to.

Similarly, for product innovation, it would be exciting to build a virtual product that actually sells and see how sales figures can be manipulated using different marketing techniques.

Our MBA class had a Markstrat days in late December - during this session various teams managed virtual companies selling products. The marketing drive and product strategies we came up with determined our sales, profits and therefore the share price.

We did that on a boring, very expensive piece of software (Markstrat). We really could have done that on Second Life and interacted with a whole real market rather than just with each other (now thats a product idea!). That would have been far more interesting for me as a student as we prefer to interact with real people (even as virtual avatars) rather than programmatically with some pre-designed algorithms pretending to be consumers.

There are so many more ideas that can come up for other related subjects that are taught in any MBA.

Yes it is probably true that most of these ideas haven't been attempted, or even thought of yet (and therefore remain unknown). My objective has been to bring some ideas and bridge the technology divide that curently exists between generations. Of course it will take time to develop and fine tune these ideas, but once done they could be implemented within any virtual world and not just be limited to Second Life.

For those who are interested, there are several discussion forums (can be subscribed to via email) for specific subjects where academics from all over the world discuss ideas related to education and how they can be implemented within Second Life. There is even an MBA educators group in SL.

By the way, I was told last week that the typical user of Second Life is 29 and male. So I do fit that demographic pretty well and perhaps that is why I am such a keen proponent of its use :-)

The Interstate so far

So I'm here in Brussels for the Interstate Programme. Its been quite a good 4 days and we have only the afternoon session left after which I travel back to London.

One of the special things about the Interstate is that it introduces a political perspective to MBAs. This time in Brussels, besides me from Cass, we have participants from Wharton, IE, Tuck, UCLA, Leeds, ESSEC and HEC.

A point was made the first day and that in my opinion reflects an interesting characteristic of today's MBAs, which is that while in most world class MBA programmes, we study finance, economics, strategy, consulting and softer subjects like HRM and organizational beaviour, there is little focus on the current and future geopolitical balance (or imbalance) in the world.

Now the Interstate is focused on the relationship European Union has with the Unitred States. However, that dialogue cannot exist without taking in the realities of the growing influence of the emerging economies (BRICS), Russia's specific influence and recent tactics in Ukraine and Georgia, China's increasing influence in Africa and its global ambition. At the same time, the EU is caught in an internal struggle, where it is falling behind its self-imposed targets (the Lisbon Agenda for instance) and where there is continued debate about its future role in the world.

It has been an interesting debate and certainly quite stimulating as opinions of MBAs from all over the world (we are about 40 of us here) interact with those of senior figures in the EU, NATO, the US administration and publications such as the WSJ and the FT.

I'm certainly going to post some of my opinion up here later, when I have more time and am not paying 12 euros an hour for internet access(!).

But yes, if any of you are planning, or are currently pursuing an MBA, then do have a look at the Interstate programme - its one of a kind and has certainly been one of the highlights of my MBA year so far.

In the Times

F got quoted here in an article in The Times.

"Does learning a second language translate into business success?"

I wonder where they got this fact from though - "About 60 per cent of Cass MBA graduates will either work in China or for Chinese companies". Something like "About 60 per cent of Cass MBA graduates will either work in London or for British companies" would've sounded more plausible. We are right on the doorstep of the city after all.

Heading to Cass

Many of you have emailed me to ask what academic life at Cass Business School is all about and I thought that rather than email all of you individually I shall write a blog post about it to answer some common questions.

For me, the Cass MBA has been much more demanding than a job. The current class started out in September 2007 when we had two weeks of orientation (and where we raised the most money for Oxfam Experiences beating other business schools in the process!). This included an introduction to team working in the MBA, an introductions to management concepts and a focus on leadership and personality skills. These two weeks were then topped off with a weekend on a Royal Navy ship in Portsmouth where we went through the sinking ship simulator exercise (something like this).

Immediately after we got back, we dove into Block 1 that had Quantitative Methods, Accounting and Information Management. We had business skills week following that where we had a sports day, a teaching day and a consultancy day. The teaching day was quite exceptional as all of us 'taught' a subject we knew about to interested classmates - stuff like Second Life (which I did), to DJing to language lessons.

Block 2 followed with Finance, Marketing and Business Economics. Each block is topped off with an 'Integration week' where we merge our knowledge of the 3 courses in the block and do on the spot presentations or do real time simulations. Block 2 integration week had its usual aspects but also ran a 2 day simlation of Markstrat - this was an absolutely fun experience!

Revision week and exams followed, after which we were back to Block 3 and more lectures on Human Resource Management, Organisational Behaviour and Operations Management. The integration week for block 3 was at the KPMG London offices with the task being to present on a KPMG decided question (different for each team) to the top management. My team was tasked with presenting on the 'Lisbon Agenda' and we came up with a video (that I will upload to youtube and place a link here!).

Block 4, the last of the 4 core blocks, was Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance and Strategy.

Since then, we've had exams for Blocks 3 & 4, been to Poland for Emerging Market consultancy week where my team helped come up with a strategy for a Polish company, visited HEC for the annual MBA Tournament (the MBAT) and now are doing electives.

For electives, some of us have chosen to go to a combination of India, China, Thailand and South Africa. The India trip has already happened and the China trip is in 2 weeks.

A small team from Cass, also visited San Diego to present at an Entrepreneurship conference - and next week, I am in Brussels to attend the Interstate program that discusses the transatlantic relationship in an EU context.

Of course, in the middle of all this, we also have to look for a project to do starting June and job hunting has been on now for some time as well!

The electives calendar keeps is busy as well and we're doing things as diverse as Innovation, Strategic Change, Private Equity and Finance.

Hopefully, I'll get intermittent breaks so I can keep posting on this blog. Meanwhile, it helps if you post comments on these posts so I can answer any questions to a more general audience.

Ahmadinejad, the UN and Wal-Mart

Just found some interesting links posted on www.nomadlife.org

Three interesting websites.


Ahmadinejad has a blog.


Wal-Mart has started a, what they say is a largely unsupervised (although doesn't seem like), blog written by its merchants about the products on its shelves. Even the New York times caught this one.



Lastly, and of most relevance to us MBA types, the UN has launched a website with all the world's data. We needed this. I was using OECD statistics so far, but that only gives you the stuff for so many countries. This could be way more useful for the next coursework.


China - Reasons for fear?

A few of my classmates (including F) have just started a Thought Leadership Club that aims to discuss leadership challenges facing the world today. So today, we had the first session and the topic was - "China represents a rapidly increasing economic, political and military power in the world but does China give the rest of the world reasons for fear, in political, economic or social terms?"

The discussion went very well. We had a variety of topics that were discussed but the overall theme seemed to be that very few (if any) of us really understand China. We know the economics and the politics of it, but perhaps China is so difficult to understand because we don't know how to look at it.

Hopefully the China symposium coming up in June, when we all visit Shanghai for a week to meet with business leaders there, will solve some of that mystery, or as is the case with most 'knowledge', perhaps even deepen our belief that we know very little!

A good start!

A WhatQuake?

Bah!!! 5.4? In Lincolnshire of all places, a well timed act of God perhaps? God dislikes northerners also it seems.

But seriously, 5.4 is pretty damn weak, I have experienced a 6.7 and that was pretty insane, I was in a shop at the time when it happened and at first it felt like a big truck going past outside but the rumble grew exponentially and then the ground began to shake, the shop windows moving like Rolf Harris on his wobble board (oh yes, I went there). I remember runnng outside into the middle of the street and seeing pandemonion, traffic stopped, cars perpendicular to the flow of traffic, people getting out of their cars shouting and hey, why not, there were children weeping too... it lasted for about 20 seconds in total.

Now THAT was an earthquake so step up your game Big Man.

Tonight, when this so called earthquake occured I was deep, deep underground in a club so it could have been, that I assumed the Timbaland tune I was listening to had a rather impressive, rumbling, mother of all basslines!!! Whoop whoop!!!

Its official. We hate powerpoint.

Its common perception that MBA programs train you to make better and snazzier presentations so you can talk smooth and use business jargon that impresses your average corporate.

However, most of us know that this kind of presentation just serves to confuse the average listener.

So I was quite happy when in Block 1, back in September, just after we did our first group presentations, the feedback we got was, 'please try and not use powerpoint, quantitative methods is more interesting than that. Use your creativity'.

Since then, we haven't stopped rolling. Sure, we do do the occasional powerpoint, but its always interspersed with roleplay, some videos, or even live singing. For presentations, we've had roleplay themes of time travel, business travel, news programs and live debates.

This of course, is quite unlike most business schools and this is one of the things that makes Cass special. It are things like this, that will go a long way in de-commoditizing the MBA graduate. Rather than being developed into a black suited focused product that other business schools produce to a highly adaptible individual that I hope we are evolving into.

Back in the groove once again

I didn’t realise, until recently, that I liked The Office and in particular the US version. Maybe it’s because I started with that but I think I’ll give Ricky Gervais another chance later. Anyway, I watched an episode the other night where the boss went to a business school to talk about “how business is being done”. Of course he showed once again the not-to’s but what was more interesting, the questions from the students. Well, not how good they were or something but I just thought to myself “oh if you were at Cass you would have nastier questions”.

So any Michael Scotts and Ricky Gervais’s out there, we're back in the office.

A great B-school website

A study was conducted on what makes a good B-school website and is reported in brief here.

Naturally, Cass was in the top 2 for UK Business School websites :-)

The EIU makes a mention of it on their Which MBA blog.

Corporate Social Networking, HRM and Performance Measurement

In India specifically, the demand for people, especially in the IT industry, is so great that most HR departments end up focusing almost entirely on recruitment. In such a scenario, their success is often, at the end of the year or quarter, measured by the number of people they were able to bring in. My ex-company, for instance, went from hiring about 20 people a month, to 200 a month over the course of 3 years. So as such, the management were happy that HR were doing a good job.

At the same time, I could see that the quality of the people hired was going down and it was difficult to find anybody suitable for projects within the company resource pool.

Surely, there are organizations where the performance of HR, or hiring managers, is part measured by the performance of the people they hire? So if a hiring manager recruits 10 people that perform very well, then his own performance must be seen to be higher than the norm.

At the same time, I have seen that project managers with a higher level of interaction with HR departments, usually end up gaining a lot more that project managers that do not interact with the HR department so much.

For instance, if two department heads in a company, need to hire 10 guys each, then the probability that the department head, who has more 'friends' or connections in the HR department, would get his/her needs satisfied earlier and with better quality. This is probably a sweeping generalisation even for an Indian scenario but is probably true as HR managers, by virtue of their role, are more people-oriented and therefore thrive working in interactive environments.

At the same time, if, going back to my original point of measuring HR's performance partly by the performance of their hires, the line managers are well connected to the Hiring (HR) managers, then there is probably a good chance that they will rate their hires higher than they would rate others.

In a social networking context (this is where my idea comes in), it could be very beneficial for organisations (especially large ones) to build a virtual social network of all its employees. A platform where employees can share fun, gossip and even do work would mean that organisations are able to 'monitor' the number and strength of their employee webs. Companies , however, do not need to provide a social networking platform in order to get this data. A simple network web, created by data from who calls whom, or who emails who, can be created by data thats already tracked and stored in many large organisations.

Not sure if my idea was delivered very eloquently, but what I am really suggesting are two things,
(a) That performance of HR managers be part-measured by the performance of their hires
(b) That corporate social networking implementations, have a number of benefits for companies but most of all for HR.

People Management: Feedback Mechanisms

I've always wondered why line managers prefer to appreciate or rebuke their reportees in private. In organizations and countries where I have worked, I found it peculiar that some line managers preferred to say nice things in public, but harsher ones in private, perhaps in a meeting room. I dislike this practice of discriminating between positive and negative feedback and since most people in modern organizations work in teams, see no reason to withold information about a person's performance from the rest of the team. When I was line manager, having 3 different teams reporting in to me, I always preferred to be open and frank and discuss everything out in public. I found that many of my reportees preferred this as it meant not having to 'suffer' through the agonizing process of booking a room, going in at a pre-designated time and spending more than a required length of time on something that could have mentioned in passing.

The responses from my own line managers however, were usually unsupportive. What I had begun doing seemed to them to be incorrect and improper. While they understood over time where I was headed or why I prefered to give 360 manager feedback in a more open way, I do not think they supported me in this endeavour through my time working with them.

I do not think I know of any organizations, or managers, that prefer to act in this way, and if there is a specific reason why this is so unpopular?


This blog was started by me in late 2007 and is now run by a small group of Full Time and Executive MBA students & alumni. This blog is a platform where we talk about random stuff from all over and hopefully give some of you an introduction to life at Cass Business School as well.

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Cass Business School is one of Europe's leading providers of business and management education, consultancy and research. The Cass Full Time MBA program is ranked #41 in the world by the Financial Times (UK) and #38 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (USA).

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Heart of the city

I don't think I knew the significance of this before I joined Cass. That we are at the doorstep of the City of London, the financial center, says it all I think.

This is an image from Google Earth. The red marker is Cass. I've highlighted youtube links and got 3d buildings up.

The Heat is On...

I can’t believe we are already about to start the third week of block 3. Time has passed so quickly and deadlines that once seemed out of reach are now well within view. Assignments are at a critical stage right about now and next week will decide whether or not we triumph as a group or crash in a ball of flames.

I could go on about how success in these instances is best achieved through effective teamwork, communication and the desire to excel, but I won’t. What’s the point? We all know it’s true and I don’t intend for this blog to be a diatribe on what makes a perfect MBA student because there is no such thing. Everyone brings something different to the MBA and takes away an experience unique to them . Ok, this blog is getting way too cheesy, I need to stop this faux empowering crap, I’m not sure I believe it anyway despite being an idealist. So, let’s start again vile scum of the Earth... Different subject... Next time.

First Week Back (will it be Two Thousand and Great?!)

I guess I was looking forward to a couple of weeks off. Lots of food (turkey sandwiches for at least three days post Christmas Day) and general mental stagnation. I haven’t had the chance to switch off mentally for as long as I remember, so when the exams finished and the Christmas holidays stretched before me I was giddy with excitement. However, one thing I’ve realised is that for as long as I can remember I don’t think I’ve ever switched off. Those of you who have seen me dosing in 9am lectures are forgiven for thinking this is not the case but the fact is that I’m awake half the night with my mind racing. Perhaps I should buy one of those hypnosis CDs, Paul McKenna’a dulcet tones easing me into the land of nod, maybe sounds of the jungle or the sound of a stream flowing through a dewy meadow. It all sounds very relaxing, though the latter is likely to induce urination.

Anyway, as a result of the messed up sleeping patterns I nurtured during Christmas and New Years, in addition to my usual sleeplessness , I’ve struggled all of this week to get back into the flow of things, but I don’t seem to be alone. Others (who I shan’t mention by name) have expressed a similar inability to get into the rhythm this term. Hopefully things will begin to right themselves this coming week.

For most of us 2008 means job hunting, (ugh the heavy burden of reality) and personally it is something I am very worried about. My choice to change career as opposed to furthering my current one may prove problematic, even with an MBA under my belt its effectiveness of is yet to be tested in the big bad world. I should be having a one on one careers session in the next couple of weeks that should clear things up a little. Overall this block should be very interesting and hopefully less intense than the ones last term as I find that being too pressed for time usually prohibits my absorbsion of the material to a degree.

As part of Organisational Behaviour this week the whole intake filled out Myles-Briggs personality test and a questionnaire that aims to uncover our different learning styles. Apparently my learning style is "activist-theorist" and after doing a little digging I found this description on the web:

“Activist-Theorists, on the other hand, although they still have lots of questions, generally do not have the time or inclination to sort or process all the information thus obtained. They excel at brainstorming, insofar as they generate new ideas; each new idea acting as a catalyst for the spontaneous eruption of further progeny. Unfortunately they rarely stop to consider the implications of their ideas – preferring to rely on friendly passing Reflectors to take on that role. The Activist-Theorist is technically known as a “SCATTERBRAIN”.”

Ahem!!!! Me, a scatterbrain? Well I guess that is partially true, I have been known to forget things on occasion. Just ask an ex-girlfriend!

Cass group on Second Life

I have created a group on Second Life for Cass Business School students, staff and alumni. If you log on to SL please search for the keyword Cass and it should come up. A couple of people have already signed up.

I have meanwhile, been researching the kind of presence other business schools have in SL, including IESE and INSEAD. If you are interested in talking about topics such as these please message me - 'Pranay Munro' in Second life.

American TV is better: Or why British TV sucks...

There's nothing like Christmas television to remind us that all is not well in this country when it comes to our programming. Perhaps it's just one "Only Fools and Horses" Christmas special too many or another Dickens novel massacred by B-list British actors, either way the target audience for this crap is diminishing year by year. The image of a family stuffed with turkey huddled around the box watching a turkey of their very own no longer exists in mass.

Of course some of the major soaps do well every year (ratings-wise at least). Plot arcs climax (conveniently) during the festive season, believability and good taste are pushed to their absolute limits in the hopes of stealing viewers from other channels and we are left with a bitter taste in our mouths. Again we succumb, in spite of our better judgement, to over-hyped exploitative television.

The British aren't alone here, I've never experienced US Christmas TV but I'm sure it's more or less the same because the motivations are for all intents and purposes the same. Ratings.

I'm afriad ladies and gentlemen that the death of originality may finally be upon us and as much as I long to believe that the writers strike in America will make the major networks wake up and realise what they have lost, for the moment this seems far off. They have fallen back on repeats and reality television that essentially costs next to nothing to make. As long as the American public remain content to suck on Simon Cowell's American Idol teat then I'm not sure we'll see a return to TV as we know it. It won't be long until all the prewritten episodes of our favourite quality shows are all aired and all that is left to fill the empty air is exploitative crap.

I guess it sounds like I've contradicted myself, I've listed a lot of reasons why American TV is heading down the drain but up until now there has been some class A programming. On the major networks shows like Lost & Prison Break have captured the imaginations of British viewers. Invariably the bigger audiences in the States mean bigger budgets and in turn the ability to get away with bigger risks. At the end of the day there is just more TV to make and greater variability of content within the frame of television. Cable channels like HBO can actually turn a profit making what is essentially cult television (though I guess it’s difficult to call something like The Sopranos cult.)

What Britain has always done best is 1) Documentaries - the BBC's budget for which is diminishing significantly in 2008 (no doubt the focus will be on Strictly Come Planting, a show where celebrities pair up with professional landscapers to create the best garden) & 2) Comedies - the export market for which is resting almost entirely on Ricky Gervais' back along with repeats of Fawlty Towers. We are in trouble guys, the time has come to take a risk and stop relying on reality TV (Channel 4- your reputation for being a thinking person's channel disappeared with 'Wife Swap').

Who knows what the future holds. One thing is for sure, it's looked better...

So I volunteered...

So when Pranay approached me to contribute to this blog I was somewhat hesitant, I had blogged before and usually I ended up stopping as things around me got too hectic. And hectic is most certainly one way to describe the Cass MBA. It's a one year course and it is very intense and understandably some things get left by the wayside when the work and the day to day crap piles up. Saying that, I will make a concerted effort- this time.

The title says this blog is about what makes us special but to be honest I think the last person to call me special was either my mother (cut to: heart-warming mother to son landmark childhood talk) or one of my friends. In one or both cases sarcasm was involved.

This blog won't be about what makes me special, in fact it is more likely to cement the idea that I am in fact, ordinary.

The first thing I said to Pranay when I agreed to do this is that it wouldn't be about the MBA or business in general unless I find it particularly noteworthy. What you will get here is my opinion on a plethora of subjects, you may agree with some or all of them or you may vehemently disagree. Argument and debate are cool. Full stop (or "period" for you Americans, unfortunately I am reminded of menstruation when that term is used so it won't be used here).

It's now officially 2008, the year of the rat according to the Chinese, a year of hard work, activity and renewal. I think this bodes well for the MBA graduating class of 2008, a lot of us are here to start a new career and 'renewal' is what this course is all about for us (and I’m still not talking about menstruation- let’s hope this doesn't become a running theme!)

That's all from me for now, tune in next time boys and girls (there will be one I promise).