Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Royal Holloway 2012 Cohort - Who we are ?

Royal Holloway Founders building seen through Windsor windows
Once again our MBA course has been highly attractive to students from all over the world. The 2012/13 cohort of 35 (pictured above) has grown 20% on the previous year, in spite of a 30% reduction in applications. Changes to the post study work visa arrangements have seen applications drop off significantly from India, a historically strong market. Early anecdotal evidence shows that Royal Holloway MBA has been successful at attracting more, high caliber students whilst many institutions have seen their programme enrolments reduce.  

The gender balance is fairly even with 54% women and 46% men, wholly appropriate for a College that is proud of its historical origins as a Victorian ladies college. This is an important and unusual feature of the Royal Holloway MBA programme. At other leading UK MBA programmes and as seen with AMBA accredited Universities data the MBA gender breakdown usually sees around a 70% male and 30% female blend, indicating that the MBA is often a more masculine dominated course. AACSB, another global programme accreditation body, shows parity across the sexes when looking at all masters degrees.

Our students' varied business backgrounds

An essential entry requirement is extensive work experience, again the sheer variety evidenced in the MBA work profiles is very impressive. It includes; digital marketing, project management, IT, banking, insurance, finance, accounting, aviation, NGO (United Nations) administrative, entrepreneurial, charities, beverages brand manager and Disneyland.

Royal Holloway is proud of its AMBA accreditation which requires MBA students to have at least three years postgraduate work experience. This experience will come to bear towards the end of their year-long programme when they are required to work in groups as management consultants and recommend a viable solution to a real business problem set by one of our industry partners.

Where do our students come from?

The 35 students hail from 21 different countries; USA, UK, Bermuda, India, Russia, Senegal, South Korea, South Africa, China, Japan, Colombia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Turkey, Latvia, Israel, Canada, and Mexico providing a truly international learning experience. It is believed that this is the first time all of the populated continents of the world have been represented on the full time Royal Holloway MBA.
The Royal Holloway MBA 2012/13 Cohort - Where do they come from ?


National Press coverage of The Royal Holloway MBA

Study Pods in the School of Management Foyer
One of my personal targets for this year was to see if we could get some coverage of the campus MBA programme in the national press.  The distance learning programme had received coverage from both the FT and Telegraph, as the trend towards non-traditional full time study was a popular news theme.  

Sadly, my attempts to generate interest from internal newsletter type pieces had brought no returns.  In my previous corporate existence supplying some reasonable copy (using tactical quotes from the right senior people you wanted profile with) and an appropriate photo always brought results, and the right photo could mean placement on the front or back covers.

Not in the UK national press it seems.  

Once I took a step too far and used an embarrassing photo of a close colleague in a social context (wearing a silly hat) without his permission.  I have learned my lesson here - always, always, ask for permission if you are going to use images of people - we all tend to be a bit particular on how this is done.

The rule on photos was always "no line ups" and this has stayed with me since then - although you will notice in this blog a number of "prohibited" line up photos, most because we all seem to want to have such photos and the editorial guillotine operated on MBADirector  is not as exacting as it might be. 

I must thank Tanya Gubbay and the three featured MBA students for helping make this happen. coverage of three current campus MBA students, which went in the Asian and North American editions of the paper, so truly global.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

"Don't post a silly picture of me on Linked-In, I'll never get a job !"

MBA 2011/12 Graduation

I must say I was slighty sceptical about the re-introduction of winter graduations for post graduate students.  The thought of driving rain and freezing temperatures and not putting the extravagant Picture Gallery and Chapel centre stage as the location made me have some serious reservations.
Gone.  Totally dispelled.  And as our head of school is often keen on impressing, "evidence based decision making is key ! ".  Resulting on the relatively short gap since Royal Holloway MBA students have submitted their dissertations (end of August) there was an impressive 60% attendance at the ceremony today.  With a surprising number flying in especially for graduation, this made for a fantastic group who seemed to have a really fun time together.

Royal Holloway 2011/12 MBA cohort.  Picture: Sigrun M Wagner
The ceremony was described as appropriately formal and smoothly run.  No scrimping on style for the big celebration of successful learning journeys completed.  Trumpetted by bearskin soldiers in their immaculate uniforms the College Principal reinforced the quality of their masters degree, reminding us that Royal Holloway placed 119th out of 6,000 in a recent evaluation of the worlds best universities.  The graduation ceremonies at Royal Holloway (I've done several now as you might imagine) deliver all the right ingredients in just the right measures, pomp, purpose, and lots of preened photo opportunities, using the stunning Founders building as a back drop. 
This years MBA cohort achieved particularly strong results with 3 distinctions (70%+) and 10 merits (60%+) and were the first ever group to have undertaken a week long international study visit (in conjunction with our partner business school institution at Stockholm University).  They were also recognised for the ground breaking off campus business consultancy engagement that was undertaken with senior management from Thorpe Park, one of the 93 business units that comprises the Merlin Group, second only to Disney in the amusements sector.
After all the formality in the Monkeys Forehead (a favourite with students each and every year) the MBA group, packed full of happy, smiling faces, were celebrating their achievements, with a chance to let their hair down a bit and to plan their next reunion !
In the pub, Amir's plea to those taking photos "Please don't post a silly picture of me on Linked-In, I'll never get a job if you do !"  personally, I think it's ok to celebrate the achievement of an MBA....

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Christmas MBA Alumni Event 2012

Royal Holloways unique Victorian art collection in the stunning Picture Gallery


The last day of term saw the Royal Holloway MBA cohort celebrate in some style with a sumptuous luncheon alumni event organised brilliantly by Fiona Redding.

Not quite the traditional Christmas turkey dinner
The dedicated School of Management Alumni officer role is still relatively new and it is particularly gratifying to see how the heady mix of current MBA students with alumni and industry guests is now building a momentum of its own. 

Current MBA students were feeling a sense of relief (having just handed in their last piece of assessed work for the term, an HR essay) and also tiredness, as the end of term has seen them work particularly hard on a variety of group presentations, individual course work and in class tests.

It was great to hear of plans for candidates to be reunited with their families over the Christmas period.  Many had plans to travel throughout UK and continental Europe.

We were also pleased to see a strong representation from the various business partners we have worked with in the last year.  Several were keen to explore opportunities to offer internships, work placements and full time roles.  With a range of very interesting people present, all with a passion for the College and the MBA programme it was not surprising that there was some extensive networking taking place.

Royal Holloways highly renowned choir performing added a very special feeling to the proceedings

MBA 2012/13 Candidates Huiya Chuang and Eri Yazawa (who kindly allowed her photos to be used in this blog) with Royal Holloway MBA Director Justin O'Brien

Market Research at the Movies

The Hobbit in 3D - market research experience

My wife was pretty annoyed today at being given in a very confusing manner pens and sheets of paper for a market research company looking to evaluate different consumer reactions to the 3D and 2D versions of the new Hobbit movie, released this week.  Because I teach market research at Royal Holloway and use the movie industry as the context for one seminar, I was, naturally, keen to participate and hoped to bring home a blank copy for more detailed analysis.  (Students never far from my thoughts !)

Gollum: The MOST engaging eyes, brilliant CGI
Motivated, encouraged and plain nagged to arrange a family visit by our 10 year older son, we assume a function of peer inspired buzz was behind this behaviour.  Some class mates were going on premier evening after school, we felt this was a bit too much, given the 2:45 run time. 

We could not book opening weekend seats in flat screen mode, generally I do not like 3D because I have to put glasses over my own glasses and mostly because the movement scenes make me feel sick, without moving in my chair it is just the feeling that a roller coaster gives me.  This blog is not a movie review site (check out IMDb if you lust after movie news) so, suffice to say this was a great family movie experience, we all loved it. 

I am always putting my own MBA into action and whilst I completed the first form (I was given a single sided form, the crucial motivator email data capture for free stuff was missing) I found myself in that terribly academic manner tutting at some of the question formulation and several of the response box options did not let me share my opinions effectively. 

New Zealand scenery a prime draw

I felt pity for the coding team (mostly tick box closed responses were required) when trying to analyse the consumers hand written descriptions of the three best scenes.  I was surprised at the numbers of questions that seemed to offer up comments on length of the movie and the action scenes.  (I love the scenery of New Zealand that is an integral part of this film franchise).

Whilst chatting with the market researcher, waiting for toilet formalities to be completed, he gave me permission to take some blank forms (ethically I was in the clear) and he also offered the different colour forms (exactly the same questions, just printed on different coloured paper).  Proof that engaging in conversation with strangers can bring benefits.  It is clear that in addition to the internal bench marking (including questions asking if we would by DVDs and Blue Rays) that would perhaps give an indication of the commercial success of the movie, perhaps the most important research objective was to measure the difference between customer satisfaction across the two and three dimension formats.  The reading I have done on this suggests that the jury is still out on whether 3D is the winning format.  I do not plan on buying a 3D TV any time soon.

Innovative Air New Zealand strenthen beauty visit us credentials
Wellington Airport boasts movie associations
The campus MBAs  are now off on a well earned Christmas break, heads buzzing with ideas for what their dissertation topic might be.

One candidate is going to look at the brand of his country.  I think it is interesting to note how brand New Zealand is being show cased thanks to Kiwi director Peter Jackson's choice of is home country as the back drop to this interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkein's writing. 

Air New Zealand (home market size: 4 million) have a strong record in developing creative advertising concepts that have an enduring appeal that often has traction in the world of social media, for example this video.  Safety video or viral communications asset ?

Country of Origin (CoO) effect is an important brand marketing concept that Royal Holloway MBA students are likely to cover.  A simple image search shows a fully integrated marketing campaign (IMC) in action around this movie, with South Islands main airport (Wellington) investing in three dimensional models of Hobbit characters to clearly identify itself as the gateway to Hobbit country.  Even the Kiwi post office looks likely to cash in on Hobbit mania with its range of promotional stamps featuring key characters.  I applaud brand New Zealand for cleverly exploiting this movie franchise. 

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Guest Speaking at The Royal Marketing Society

Having played a small role in helping the Royal Marketing (student society) form last year, I was delighted and rather honoured to be asked to be a guest speaker at one of the regular society meetings.  I am a keen advocate of a strong marketing society and feel that the committee this year has done an amazing job, especially when you consider that Students Union funding only applies to societies that have been up and running for a year.  (I guess a sensible viability test and filter)

Some of these students are even smiling !

Given that the target audience for the Marketing Society are undergraduates who have typically followed the Marketing Management module I run a regular big lecture slot on (with my marketing colleague Andy Whalley) I was expecting a low turn out for my session.  I braced myself for less than a handful of hardy souls.  In fact, I was doubting the logic in inviting me in the first place.  Can you really have a full time marketing lecturer deliver a guest speaker slot at the marketing society ?  Anyway...

Having worked on marking and lesson prep during the day and seen my family arrive home, it felt entirely incongrous to be going to campus to run a 1900 talk.  Campus was surprisingly buzzy, busier than I've seen it during the daylight period.  It was quite exciting.  I was quite nervous.  I did not know quite what to expect.  I was not at all sure what I had prepared would work, as clearly in a voluntary, beyond class setting the rules of the game are very different.  Firmly out of my comfort zone and regretting agreeing to particpate, I wore my favourite green hoody, with plenty of space to hide in if things went pear shaped.  Perhaps it was the stage fright of a stand up comedian I was feeling.  You know the material, you've done the gig scene for ages.  Yet every new audience provides its own particular challenge.  I often liken lecturing to the role of the stand up comedian.  I like to watch the good, the bad and the ugly to understand different approaches and unpick why some don't work as well as others.  I digress.

However, Nathan (founding society president) and the executive committee had done a sterling job in marketing the event (I guess there is a clue in the name !) and they had ensured that there was quite a large group of students in attendance.  Given a very challenging topic that felt it might be dangerously heavy on the dry stuff that doesn't work, I decided to focus my efforts on sharing with the student group (which, pleasingly included four current Royal Holloway MBA students) a light hearted career profile, the global McDonald's story that got me into academia and case study on my own global vs local marketing struggle as British Airways Sales and Marketing Manager for Russia, from back in the day when this was a hot new topic.

Royal Holloway MBA Director, Justin O'Brien
As ever, I used my own particular lecturing style, based as it is on my strongly held belief that engaging the audience is the critical objective.  "Fun Learning" is how I describe it.  I am not funny and really cannot tell jokes - but trying to find different ways to surprise, entertain, amuse and enlighten the group in front of you is always an exciting challenge.  Getting a reaction is crucial to see if it is working.  

My objective is not to (using the European learning metaphor) to fill lots of empty jugs with knowledge, but (UK style) seek to light a fire that will never go out.  I hope to inspire a natural curiosity, to enable others to look at the world in a different way (often using marketing tools and concepts) and give enough to inspire interest to go away and learn more.  I (amusingly appropriate here) remember vaguely research that suggested that 50% of information is forgotten within an hour and by the end of the week most people would be lucky to remember even 10% of any given lecture without using some form of revision.  Thus creating highly memorable 'peaks' of learning, amazing stories or facts, humourous (remember - I don't do funny) anecdotes from which personal learning journeys can commence is the modest objective I set myself.  Feedback suggests this approach generally works quite well.

Gratifyingly, the Royal Marketing session was completed, a few good questions, a few people leaving once the hour slot was done and several thank yous (now that did feel a bit strange).  A quick pint of Guiness in the pub with a hard core and back to reality.

Wonder if I will get invited back to do something next year ?

Monday, 26 November 2012

Thorpe Park: The Royal Holloway MBA business engagement

For a second succssive year, The Royal Holloway MBA group of 34 temporarily left their leafy campus setting and hectic schedule of classes to visit the nearby "Thrills Capital" of the UK.  MBAs, drawn from all over the world, are particularly keen to visit organisations first hand to get a stronger appreciation of how business in the UK works.

Thanks to the generous partnership of Thorpe Park management team, MBA students were able to hear about the challenges of a quite remarkable business, which not only faces the typical challenges of a leisure business, a particularly wet summer, the 2012 Olympics, and competing for share of spend in a slow growing economic context, but one that also includes a  special ecological considerations, operating as it does in a site surrounded by a wetlands wildlife sanctuary. 

Thorpe Park is one of 93 attractions that form the Merlin Group, a global operator that currently lies second only to Disney.  In close proximity to other Merlin Group attractions (Legoland and Chessington) the Thorpe Park mission is carefully targetted at the mercurial 16-24 age group.  The Royal Holloway MBA group were given five real business questions to respond to after having been given the chance to visit the park 'behind the scenes' and fire questions at a panel of Thorpe Parks senior management.

Having worked together in groups to address the set questions the Thorpe Park management team will be hosted on the Royal Holloway campus to hear what the students recommend.  It is hoped the fresh and challenging perspectives, pitched using newly acquired analysis and presentation skills, will provide some genuinely helpfull insights for the Thorpe Park management team. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Not-for-Profit and The Royal Holloway MBA

Over the past couple of years whilst I have been involved in the recruitment of prospective students onto The Royal Holloway MBA I have reasonably often asked about the relevance of this programme for the public and third (not-for-profit and charities).   The stereotypical MBA would be expected to look for a high pressured, well remunerated role in the financial services or consulting sectors. Fortunately, whilst a few do follow this path, the global group of MBA candidates that start each year in September at the iconic Egham campus tend to follow a much broader range of paths on graduation.

Royal Holloway used to offer a wide range of public sector specifc programmes and modules, but as the differences between the three sectors have reduced, these highly specialised options no longer exist in our portfolio with lecturers considering private, public and third stream sectors as a matter of course. Perhaps due to the liberal arts history of the College, Royal Holloway tends to see MBA candidates join from very wide backgrounds that includes representatives from all three sectors.

As part of a regular lunch time speaker session, laid on specifically for the MBA group, Peter Berry came to campus on a foggy, damp, November day, to share insights from his illustrious career, which included rescuing and reinvigorating the not-for-profit Crown Agents organisation, as well as being decorated by both Britian and Japan.  Using an example of change management he described how he had recommended to unpick the civil service pyramid organisation that saw a product led orientation staffed by personal fiefdoms switched to a market facing one that required 30% fewer staff, but resulted in a more efficient and effective organisation.

Peter also regaled a story that challenged the idea of assessing a charities effectiveness by measuring its running costs as a percentage of turnover, preferring to encourage the Royal Holloway MBA group to consider mission effectiveness.  His organisation set up a logistics operation to deliver essential food aid to people isolated by war, in both the former Yugoslavia and then in the African lakes (Rwanda).  The introduction of convoys of well paid ex-soldier driven trucks replacing low cost and heroic locals, protected by guards, whilst more costly to operate, were considerably more effective at completing their missions, and thus saving starving people in great peril. 

Having operated in many parts of the world where corruption was the norm, Mr Berry talked through how he managed to ensure that his entire organisation understood that moral and ethical behaviour was a fundamental requirement, however elusive the concept was to define.  The value of integrity in doing business was also highlighted, that whilst some significant markets were unaccessible due to the firm stance taken by Peter in his leadership role, this position in itself also opened up other opportunities. 

Growth in non-goverment organisations (NGO's) and charities was identified as an important area for MBAs to consider for their future careers.  Peter rather surprised the group at one point by suggesting that having fun is vitally important, and that you should never consider moving for less than a 20% improvment in your package - but this might not be a financial 20% - but may be entirely for fun.  He flagged that many non-profiteering organisational roles do not pay badly and when interesting work, combines with good training and development and enjoyment of the work (for an outfit that is about doing good for society) - this is a combination that can offer satisfaction that a high salary for work you hate cannot compete with. 

Peter Berry neatly answered one question about the validity of The Royal Holloway MBA in the public and not-for profit sectors by identifyingkey skills of ensuring the mission is delivered as being crucial, and suggesting that the training offered in the MBA programme would give individuals the capabilities that should make them highly desirable and effective managers and leaders in these sectors.

It was also clear from the strong and positive thanks that was given to Peter after his talk, that several students were positively invigorated about the possible opportunities companies like Crown Agents might hold for them going forwards. 

The 10 Commandments

Can you talk the talk and walk the walk ?  The best advice I could ever give a new people manager.


The 10 Commandments 

(for managing people)

1. Recognize peoples' effort

2. Act on poor performance

3. Stop fire fighting - start planning

4. Delegate and stop meddling

5. Make informed decisions

6. Stop controlling - start influencing

7. Communicate more

8. Take more business risks

9. Ask for feedback

10. Be seen to be doing 1-9 above

I have a little card on my desk, it dates from before Y2K (the IT panic concept that saw us all run around undertaking risk assessments and major software/system updates just incase computers thought we had gone back to 1900 not 2000 due to the DD-MM-YY date convention used inside many computer chips.  This, much like my local firework display this year, was a bit of a damp squib).

A learning campus - safe space where MBAs experiment with new leadership styles
It was something my then boss Paul Giblin had us print up for every manager in the BA Germany organisation for our conference that year.  I think it was a pretty snappy management philosophy even back then when my hair was thick and curly.  I keep it on my desk now, even though formally I no longer have anyone reporting to me.  As I have matured and gained more experience I note that the wisdom contained within this ten short paragraphs is more appropriate now that ever before.

Feedback sandwich start & end with positives
'Act on poor performance' is something that I need to keep reminding myself.  (With exceptions) my impression of the civil service is one where many of the great (and some of the awful) commercial managerial practises have really yet to manifest themselves.  When coaching students in groups I often suggest that giving feedback (using the feedback sandwich approach - lots of positive bun with a meaty developmental centre, but start and end on positives) and explaining (using a factual approach) is very helpful.  Most people do not wish to annoy or disappoint others, its unintentional and perhaps because noone has ever told them before.  Take a big breath, find the right moment and give it your best shot (honest and true, but diplomatically, of course.)  Starting the process with "You know what your problem is..." and alike are NOT recommended. 

I need it to remind me that I have a nasty tendency to do everything over email (my wife jokingly suggests that I would even have proposed over email, given half a chance...) and No. 7 "Communicate more" is there to remind me that informal corridor chats are not work denying opportunities but the chance to deepenend and widen my networking, you just never know when someone will be able to thrust an idea or solution into your lap.  In my role supporting the Royal Holloway MBA this week I found myself regretting that I had not done something face-to-face, whilst painfully wordsmithing a series of email tennis communications.

In a blame culture where criticism is rarely in front of the at fault individual, it is often the case that the giving and receiving of honest and meaningful feedback is an approach that is lacking.  We all want to improve, building trust in your colleagues to be able to tell you where you are over stepping the line or have been a bit too much is important.   Looking out for what people are NOT saying is also key, perhaps they do not feel comfortable telling you how they feel. 

Number 10 always makes me smile.  When we came up with this list - the first five were easy, the next four came slowly.  The last one - the all important tenth - that made sense of the 10 commandments title we'd rather irreverently developed - always felt like a filler.  But actually, of course, demonstrating your managerial/leadership philosophy is crucial, perhaps most aptly demonstrated in the "walk-the-talk" expression.  I am proud to have played a small role in support Paul Giblin putting his pocket book management in ten simple bullet points. 

Can implement a few of these ten commandments ?

Justin O'Brien

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The last John Lewis Christmas ad of its kind ?

Gone are the days of 30 million of us sitting down after the queens speech at Christmas to watch a jolly good show together with great auntie Edna snoring on the sofa, our choice restricted to just four or five terrestrial button options.  Sky multi-room, time shift TV hard drives "never miss a minute" and computer based catch up services have put paid to this.  Gone also, I imagine, the power companies headache of predicting the simultaneous kettle spikes of surging electricity demand during the first Bond movie commercial break on Boxing day, premiering to the massess a full five years after its cinematic debut.  Reassuringly though, Coca Cola will still be there with another reinvention of jingle bells, bright red Coke and that Christmas feeling, seeking to carve out its ownership of  this community celebration space that seems to be a core brand value.  But have we seen the last ever John Lewis masterclass in effective emotional branding with this years Christ-tingle making story of the lonely snow man ?

At 90 seconds in length it is certainly making a statement, although of course with the declining trend for embedded simultaneous television audiences, the cost may not be quite as high as we imagine.  In line with contemporary brand building approaches, the John Lewis brand, shop space, and friendly staff are entirely absent from screen and you only get to know it is indeed a JL classic in the closing credits.  Story told, emotional connection firmly made, just a pair of gloves, scarf and hat to show for it !  Entirely the opposite approach is taken by Marks and Spencer's who appear to want to reverse a declining sales trend by using fast changing, high energy dancers, vignettes flicking through their target segments, to show case as much of the new range as possible.  To my mind they are using a genre that is so strongly associated with GAP that it might as well be a GAP ad.  Snatching at too much, too quick, unlikely to be memorable is my firm belief.  Juxtapose the soft, intricate and deliberately slow story telling preferred by Craig Inglis, Marketing Director for the partnership business.

Enter stage right, Gabrielle Aplin, the young twenty something picked out of obsurity to cover a melancolic eighties version of 'The Power of Love' by sometimes contraversial Liverpudlian band Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  (Which of course these days would be referred to as FGTH, naturally.)  Like a well oiled machine, the meticulously executed 21st Century communications package is designed to deliver a mighty emotional punch.  The cheaply exploitable, emerging artist (often the opposite sex to the original artist for an added twist), keen on the exposure and hopeful that the successful middle market department store advertising spend will help break them into the big time, provides a convenient platform of safety in a classic hit, but hope in establishing youthful credentials with the new artists edgy cover.  Nostalgic eighties music for the higher spending 30's and 40's age group deliberately chosen by stealth.  Of course, from a marketing planners perspective using your brand to launch a top ten hit hopefully pays dividends as the carry over of the song can help remind and reinforce the campaign without further payment, perhaps even on channels that do not accept advertising.  (BBC making the news, not just reporting it !)  Just look at what happened in 2010 for Ellie Goulding and her cover of an Elton John classic, based on this it is not unreasonable for Gabrielle to hope for a BRIT award, a chart topper and to break into the USofA in 2014.  Go, Gaby, Go !

Back to the ad: A series of clips show the sad and lonley snowman's journey across stunning landscapes (The Mail suggests this is a Lord of the Rings Froddo like quest, since the stunning scenery and ample snow of New Zealands south island are used as the set) to eventually achieve his quest, reunited with Mrs Snowman at home, perfect gift bestowed and happiness ensues.

Cynically, I am not quite sure what message the audience should take away from this ?  Getting to and from a John Lewis, particularly the car park in Southampton, is an epic journey that will see your devotion fully tested ?  Buy your loved ones warm clothes for outdoors, because the economy is so bad you will welcome the warmth ?  Here I have to fess up to being a big softy on John Lewis, having purchased a 2011 CD of the cover songs used for their advertising campaigns. I even use John Lewis as a cracking case study when I teach marketing on The Royal Holloway MBA.   I guess we know the message is something around 'if you struggle to find the right gift for someone you really care about, go to John Lewis and you will not be disappointed'.  Touchingly sentimental, and where I should probably finish this post. 

However, aside from GAP like M&S, other players like Debenhams have emulated the magic formula used now for several seasons and what in the past saw John Lewis as distinctive and quite different may get lost and the inhibited memorability may see this genre of ads be replaced by a 'different kind of different' that drives a stronger return on investment for the advertising spend.  For the JL creatives, it will surely be a tough call to opt for a different formulation, particularly when the December retail spend plays such a vital role in the years sales performance.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Sharing Cultural Experiences: MBA's learn the power of social networking

Following a suggestion from MBA Director Justin O'Brien during their induction a hardy gang of The Royal Holloway MBA students chose to spend a rare 'off' day from the hectic study schedule to familiarise themselves with some English culture with a visit to Windsor. Organised by Russian born but locally resident Elena Savchenko the group benefited from her knowledge and by all accounts enjoyed a 'fun' day of touristing, eating, shopping and bonding.  Naturally, no visit to Windsor is complete without experiencing the changing of the guard. 

The iconic bear skin busby hats and red tunics worn by the Queens Household troops provide strong associations for Brand Britain around the world.  (Prince Harry's cavalry regiment, Blues and Royals, is assigned to the Windsor barracks when not on active duty overseas in theatres such as Afghanistan.)  MBA candidates will study the country of origin effect on brands, covered in marketing, and look at the benefits and risks associated with linking with a geographic identity.

Quaffing not olde Englishe beer, but cool, contemporary cider
The importance of social networking cannot be understated and the group prioritised a small amount of time on a quirky and traditional English practice of  re-hydrating with a warm, cloudy, frothy liquid served in elongated glass cylinders and referred to as "pints". Joking aside, the power of social and semi-social networking cannot be under valued. Academic studies of General Manager activity have highlighted the high proportion of time spent focused on personal networking/bonding, and the relative limited focus on business issues, suggesting that relationship nurturing was a higher valued activity.  These guys, from the photo evidence here presented, look set for high flying careers !

Thanks to Elena for organising the visit and Mariusz for photos.


10 Top Tips for effective group working - Start with a party ?

Justin O'Brien says "Start with a party: One of the best ways to fast track your high performance team."  Royal Holloway MBA 2012 members comparing notes over a traditional pint."
(1) Texting is not communicating.  It’s cheap, it’s easy.  Low cost suggests limited effort, easy suggests unimportant.  Email can be similar.   Use difficult to avoid communication approaches (a) short telephone calls (not to voice mail) and even better (b) in person meetings as this is the best way to gauge all the non-verbal communication messages that indicate distress/unhappiness/problems/lack of interest. 
If you are angry or frustrated at poorly perceived performance – put it into words and talk it through.  Do you think that shouting at someone along the lines of “where is your input ?” is going to result in anything but a mouthful of abuse and or defensive behaviours.  Remember, often in txt (sic) language across cultures and email the rich two way exchange of communication is lost.

(2) Group work is not easy.  On a per word per student basis often the volume of output is less.  Ever wondered why ?  Because it is expected that setting up a group, learning each others strengths and weaknesses, planning and co-ordinating inputs takes time and effort.  To treat a group assignment as merely a piece of work you split into four (or however big your group is) individual elements that are neatly zipped together at the end, requiring little or no collaboration is entirely missing the point.    If this was the desired way of working it would be described as something like “zipped together individual work”.  It shows to the marker and gets scored down accordingly.

(3) Harness the creative, variety of skills within your group.  It is often easier to work in a group where everyone is like you – you are easily deluded into feeling that because your group is like minded that you are able to go further, faster.  Whilst this might appear to ‘successful’ there is interesting research that suggests that heterogeneous group make up can lead to more innovative (& therefore successful) outcomes.  The trick of course is to put in place mechanisms to ensure the variety of talents are identified within the group and carefully managed together.  And if Billy and Jo really don’t get on – why not construct a process that facilitates this.  Elton John, the legendary British performer never worked in the same room as co-creative Bernie Talpin – it just didn’t work – but they churned out hit after hit for several decades, with Elton putting the words to Bernis tunes. 

(4) Groups really should Form, Storm, Norm, Perform – Tuckman’s theory (undertaken in a mental health institution) that suggests a natural journey that sees groups struggle (Storm phase) before understanding how to work together, norming – which might include a list of principles or rules to ensure harmonious working ensues (Performing).

(5) Define success.  Often in a student group many are going for top marks, whilst others are happy to get a solid 55%.  Understanding this may see more appropriate skills and motivational matching of group work.  You don’t all have to do 25% (for groups of 4) – matching skill sets and particularly motivation appropriately can be very important.  Not everyone is comfortable writing complex prose – but equally, not everyone is great at making a group work and ensuring the group is working well.  Perhaps it is entirely fair and equitable for a ‘just pass’ / low motivation student to do a bit less, or take a less crucial role at the front end of the process.

(6) Identify the different roles required in the group – understand everyone’s natural group working style.  Remember too many cooks spoil the broth – sometimes great leaders know how to follow.  Developing your own personal skill set and capability awareness can come from asking others for feedback – “How can I improve ?”  “Could I have handled that better ?”  (Developmental feedback when you have messed up does not thrust itself upon you). is a useful web resource for team building exercises and a variety of practical management and leadership tools.  You may find personal awareness/style insight tools such as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or Belbin useful in these kinds of situations. 

(7) Give each other feedback regularly.  The feedback sandwich (start and finish on positive/appreciative feedback, fill the sandwich with developmental comments) can help you earn the right to make suggestions for improved performance by winning the trust of group members by complementing and appreciating good performance.  Catching people doing it right is a positive motivational technique – we all like to be told we are doing well and valued.  Make a habit of making positive appraisals of fellow group members performances – they notice when it isn’t there and will want to know why.  Having someone seek out developmental feedback from you is ideal – as they will want to listen to what you have to say.  Machine gunning negative feedback just sees everyone take cover and wait until you have gone away. 

(8) Ask for feedback.
Creating a culture where 360 feedback (up, down and across an organisational hierarchy) can be very powerful.  Asking for feedback on your own performance can give you valuable insights into ‘blind spots’ weaknesses/failings you did not know about.  Quite often people are unaware of things they do that annoy or frustrate their peers and it can be things that are easy to change.  Knowing about your own weaknesses helps develop a strong sense of self-awareness – a question that is very likely to be put to you in every interview you sit. 

(9) Plan. Plan. Plan. 
Assignments often seem to behave like London buses – you wait around a long time to catch one and then three of them turn up all at once – and you just wanted the one !!  The stress caused by poor time management is particularly noticeable in the School of Management during busy end of term hand in events.  Remember a basic law of science, “Your capacity to undertake high quality work does not (usually) increase the closer you are to an assignment deadline.”  To be honest, unless you are super human, with stress and anxiety, your effective productivity will decline.  The best way to focus on a project is to have one project – so why not slice your time into three periods and plan to work on projects back to back – rather than spreading yourself thinly across multiple projects.  The focus should concentrate your efforts and ensure more satisfactory outcomes. 
Work out a time plan, put in a contingency (someone is going to be sick, your hard drive will fail) and work to your own completion deadline – not 1400 in the Moore Building foyer.

(10) Start with a party.  Group work should be fun, start out as you want to – enjoying your work will ensure you put your best in and hopefully so do others.  Play spin the bottle in Medicine, a game of badminton or  go on a tourist trip into London are just three ways a group can spend time together and fast track towards effective team working.  ( has more ideas).  Understanding what makes your team members tick, knowing what else is going on in their lives (getting married, family problems, health issues, relationship issues) really helps understand how to handle unplanned situations.  You never know – you become good friends and enjoy future interactions. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Lights ! Camera ! ACTION ! MBA Thespians ?

At Royal Holloway, University of London the MBA Director is always looking for innovative ways to challenge MBA candidates on their learning journey.  Drawing on the (relatively) recent memory of his own Global MBA programme undertaken around the turn of the Century whilst a full time employee at British Airways, Justin remembers that some of the most poigniant learning was achieved using unconventional learning environments.  This included facing a group of thespians to consider the leadership lessons found in Shakespeare whilst on a World War 2 airfield turned campus at Cranfield.

Fast track a decade and thanks to a positive reaction to a rather unconventional offer, a tactical collaboration between Royal Holloway's Drama team (Embodied by Dr Emma Brodzinski and  Alex Turner, one of the founding members of of non zero one, the drama department's resident theatre company 2012/13) and the School of Management's MBA cohort was born.  The initial creative enterprise that will hopefully yield further exciting learning encounters. 

The idea was to use professional and academic insipired drama techniques to engage the MBA group in the early stages of their programme.  Four half day sessions (two back to back on one day) were envisioned, starting with a common shared experience of a Caryl Churchill play "Love and Information" which was running, to critical and commercial acclaim, at the Royal Court theatre at the head of Sloane Square.  The contemporary production with 57 vignettes or scenes portraying 100 characters by a cast of just 16 was an ideal edgy and challenging play for the MBAs to experience.  The set was a white cube, sub-divided by black grid lines and a variety of bright lighting.  Vignettes used simple but highly effective props to generate a sense of place in an otherwise stark and austere stage, including an amusing upright double bed, cycling machines and a large sofa to feature a family watching TV (the audience).

Pleasingly there is also a strong play and campus link for Royal Holloway MBA students.
Caryl Churchill, whose work spans six decades and has been performed globally, is considered by some to be Britains greatest playwright.  Professor Dan Rebellato, Head of Drama at Royal Holloway, University of London stated that it was entirely fitting to name the soon to be opened £3m new 175 seat campus theatre in recognition of Caryl Churchills work. (BBC,  4 Sep 2012)

The first campus based interaction for the MBA group took place with the two drama professionals Emma and Alex leading.  With convential lines of table and chairs pushed away, replaced with a circle of chairs and a bean back the first session kicked off with more than a little apprehension.

Simen Gudevold, a Norwegian national who has taken a sabbatical from the HR function at the United Nations in New York, said "Although I generally prefer management classes over theater-studies, and feel more comfortable discussing case studies rather than expressing myself through images, I most definitely see the link between management and drama."

Gungzhong Xia stated "The drama workshop was truly refreshing.  The atmosphere in the class became more harmonious after the interaction.  We got closer to each other." 

Jessica Dacchille added "We were happy to have been challenged in a different way."

Simen concluded "I think this session was a great initiate. The lecture made me realize how we communicate through non-verbal expressions and how power and authority is not only expressed through conversation."

Mind the Gender Gap: MBA Parity at Royal Holloway, University of London

The Pareto Effect, the ratio of 80 to 20 has an unusual prevalence in describing customers and revenue share, and often this numerical rule of thumb becomes etched firmly in the minds of many Business School graduates.  However, in the world of gender breakdowns for MBAs the special number appears to be 70:30.   In 2011/12 the AMBA (one of the leading MBA accrediting bodies) statistics for UK MBA programmes suggested a 70% male, 30% female gender breakdown. 

The Economist Which MBA ? survey for 2011/12 full time programmes showed that the majority of leading UK Univeristies had female MBA gender per centage balances in the twenties.  Just three had around a third women and just one with 45%.  AACSB (another global accreditation body for Universities with a strong US base) data shows that overall masters programmes have an even spilt of the sexes, thus pointing at the MBA as being perculiarly more popular with men globally.

Thirty percent seems to be a magic number - with this blog entry flagging that a number of world leading MBA institutions targeting this level, and suggesting that exceeding this level was problematic.

Perhaps because Royal Holloway has a human scale campus or because of its proud Victorian heritage as the UK's second Higher Education institution for women, whatever the reason for a second year running equality very much rules on The Royal Holloway MBA, with both a growth in total numbers and also an increase in the female gender share, with now a small majority (54%) of the MBA class of 2012/13. 

When interviewing prospective MBA candidates the question of gender and nationality split is often raised.  According to Justin O'Brien, MBA Director at Royal Holloway "From my interaction with applicants it seems females, in particular, are perhaps keen not to be be signing up for a year long experience to find themselves in a tiny minority and are often pleasantly surprised to learn of the close to parity gender split on The Royal Holloway MBA." 

Once again the RHUL MBA demonstrates its truly international credentials with a highly diverse cohort of over 35 candidates hailing from 21 different countries.  One of the attractions of this MBA programme is the opportunity to study for the MBA in a truly multi-cultural context, with extensive opportunities to learn about a wide range of global cultures. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Embracing Group Working

The ability to build and retain a network is a crucial life and business skill.  This takes time and can be arrived at through a variety of different avenues – naturally through department, organisation and industry ‘teams’ but also from University alumni groups, shared sporting or music interests, hobbies, career oriented associations or common shared experiences. Perhaps (some way down the track) even other parents at your childrens’ schools.

In some cultures, organisations and roles the ability to work in a variety of both formal and informal groups and to develop deep and wide networks is an essential capability, the lack of this kind of political connectedness resulting often in failure. 

University is a relatively safe place where you are encouraged to take risks and learn from success, failure and anything in between.  It is unusual to see a group that has worked hard failing an assignment, thus the cost of failure is very low.  The chance therefore exists to take risks and learn from them. 


There is great social value attached to the group based skills of being able to pull favours, ask for help, get special consideration comes from (often) enduring relationships built up over a long time and multiple interactions across a wide network. 

Think of building and maintaining long term relationships with every opportunity. Spend time strategically when working in groups getting to know one another, do not mistake group work as tactical, functional activity of low importance.

Possible perceived problems with group working

  • Nothing to learn from others  (good luck on your desert island !)
  • Hard to co-ordinate (yes – they can be)
  • Risk of plagiarism (not everyone understands this fully)
  • Risk of low mark (but also the potential for a higher mark)
  • Being put in groups (anxiety of working with unknown entities, challenge of getting everyone together sufficiently)
  • Self-selecting groups – making ‘safe choices’ rather than looking to experiment (and have a richer learning experience)
  • Personality conflicts (we don’t get on, we worked together previously – they didn’t add much value/turn up/pull their weight)

Friday, 12 October 2012

Why do we have group work ?

In setting group assignments Royal Holloway module leaders expect friction within groups.  It expected that the work will be demanding and challenging and require students to develop effective team working skills in addition to academic learning. Tuckman’s group evolution model which can be summarised as “Form, Storm, Norm, Perform” anticipates in the idea of ‘storming’ where disagreements manifest themselves.  Norming, where through effective communication and mediation groups begin to agree and accept new ways of working effectively together, is the essential step before the group moves on to the final ‘perform’ stage.

Group work can be a roller coaster experience !

Remember that sometimes fellow students are struggling with a problem (money, family, health, relationship) that they do not feel comfortable sharing with you, yet may have a significant impact on their ability to deliver to your group work.  As a line manager (and some would say merely as a fellow human being) you would have a personal responsibility to understand such circumstances.  Important: Remember the College has a wide range of professional advisors available to help if it goes beyond just having a bad day. 

So, rather than waste emotional energy worrying about group working, embrace the challenge.  Look out for the tell tale signs of social loafing, poor communications, bad planning and a lack of common shared goals.  Rather than looking to punish and exclude group members who may be perceived to be under or non-performing, use it as an opportunity to practise (in a safe environment) a range of managerial approaches.  A real example of leadership that addresses an interview question along the lines of “Think of a time when you were working in a poor performing group ?”  is worth having, particularly if you tried four approaches that failed before the fourth delivered.  Remember “I always worked brilliantly in groups” is not believable.

In the work place, particularly with cross-functional or multi-organisational groups it is unlikely that individuals in a group will have a hand in choosing the group membership.  You are selected or nominated to participate, often resulting in more work, but the same time to deliver in.  Nobody wants to be associated with a failing group.  Nobody wants to tell tales on others to their line manager.  This kind of failure often results in the tarnish being shared all around the group.  Groups then make the best of what they have and seek to address their own issues, including non-participation, low motivation, limited skill sets and alike. 

MBA 2011/12 International Study Visit to Sweden "Profound team building experience"
Academic staff acting as module leaders may choose to put in place a group peer review process that allows individual grading and to flex the group grade in accordance with this feedback.  This often requires a combination of written comments and points scoring.  Ideally, groups should complete these forms (if they are required by the module leader) together and discuss the gradings and comments before they are submitted.  Whilst this process can see some small mark differences awarded, in extreme cases it is unlikely to fully reflect under or over performance and are unlikely to fully resolve broken group issues.  The recommendation is therefore that it is much better for the group to take personal responsibility to address and manage these issues from the outset.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Olympic Sponsorship reflections during BT Tower visit for Royal Holloway MBA's


Royal Holloway MBA candidates treated to a contemporary reflection of BT's highly successful involvement in the London 2012 Olympic games. 

Rob Thomas, Director of Cost Transformation, BT Wholesale hosted an International MBA seminar exclusively for the Royal Holloway MBA 2012/13 group in October 2012.  The timing and theme selected could not have been better, as the highly successful Para and Olympic games has just drawn to a close, giving a number of senior BT business leaders a chance to reflect on their organisations involvement.

The Royal Holloway MBA 2012/13 cohort and academic staff at the BT Tower

The seminar took place at BT’s premises in London - the iconic BT Tower.  In addition to Rob Thomas, other key BT speakers included; Mick Wayman, BT Managing Director, London 2012 Programme, Lee Hamill, BT Brand/CSR, Marketing Lead and Mark Wilson-Dunn, Global Sales and Marketing Director, BT Media & Broadcast.  The invitation to host a group of MBA students was extra-ordinary, the BT Tower is closed to the public and usually reserved for hosting important customers and hosting the ocassional high profile charity event.

Presentations given covered BT’s involvement in the Olympic & Paralympic games providing key insights into the company’s role as a key service provider in delivering the most connected games ever - responsible for carrying every call and every TV picture transmitted.  Thanks to BT, London 2012 was the most connected Olympic games ever, with 27 live streamed web channels. 

 A special lunch was provided in the restaurant at the top of the BT tower providing spectacular views over the whole of London, along with the exclusive opportunity for our MBA’s to network with the key speakers.  Students spent time orienting themselves, spotting the gerkin in City, the shard at London Bridge, Canary Wharf, the Emirates, Wembley and the Olympic park, of course were also visible, thanks to a reasonably cloudless day.  The University of London's main campus and iconic Senate house building were close by and easy to view.

Several areas key to the MBA syllabus were covered during the highly engaging and interactive sessions, including; operations, marketing, HR and strategy, providing our MBA’s with highly valuable insights from BT. The dedication and commitment shown by all BT staff throughout the games was made evident and served to inspire our own MBA’s as to how to lead and motivate people that they may manage in their future roles.
Each seminar ended with ‘Lesson for the future’ and a highly engaging Q&A session between the speakers and our MBA’s. The event was deemed highly successful by both parties.  Justin O'Brien, MBA Director at Royal Holloway, stated "This was a brilliant opportunity for our international group of MBA students to engage with one of UK's leading companies and to focus on their successful involvement with a highly current and enormously impactful Olympic games."
Interesting fact: The BT Tower was completed in 1964, though until 1993 the building was officially a secret and did not even feature on official maps. Public access to the building ceased in 1981 and the building was awarded Grade II listed building status in 2003.  It is one of the seven largest global television hubs and place a crucial role in distributing audiovisual programming worldwide.
Special thanks to:  Sonya Murrell for text copy and Rix Cao for the images.