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.