Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reforming Links

After a long time I sat down with Alawani sir to talk about his latest trip to IIM-A for a workshop on teaching the subject of Operations Research. I was least expecting to gain some perspective on OR but as it turned out, I got a hell of an insight into the whole purpose of management education.

OR, one of my most favourite subjects last semester, mainly revolves around contraints management. Now what that actually means, is to get used to the fact that I have limited resources & whatever I choose to do, I need to do within those resources. Unfortunately the problems that the university expects me to solve around unrealistic assumptions of contraints, mainly the number of constraints & they also moronically expect me to solve the equation. But the place where a MBA student must fit is not to solve the equation, but to reach the equation. Problem formulation is a lot more important than solving the math. We live in a world built on spreadsheets, & so many tools which await our command to churn that number for us.

Management education according to Sir thus can be summarized as, frustration management. The ability of the problem to frustrate you (read, stimulate you intellectually) is directly proportional to the difficulty of the problem situation, but with the constraint of the student's interest to solve, student's capacity to solve & at the same time the problem's dynamicity (adaptation to the students understanding). It all means that, a student will learn the concepts, yes reading books as fat as my thigh to drill a concept into my head, but how is that concept useful to me in the event of encountering a problem situation. So the whole purpose of concept drilling is not to memorize what the concept says, but to try & look at a problem situation through the lens of that concept.

A case study approach is much appreciated for this process to materialize. A company's predicament say for instance, opening a new outlet in a new location, can be so easily given to the student in the form of a solution which a student can read & discard the moment it is not required anymore. But on the contrary, if this case is broken down into several functional concept heads like, marketing function, finance function, HR function & IT funtion, we can look at the same problem through these different conceptual lenses.

Now it might seem that this pattern of learning is too obvious to pay any further attention to, but its practise varies from student to student. Setting up a new outlet entails tremendous amount of consideration & lots & lots of efforts go into constructing models which might reveal the expected profitability through tinkering with the numbers. But thats just one real world aspect of the job. A management student is supposed to do this when he joins the firm, but how can he develop that tinkering ability is the question most management students must ask themselves. Now from a student's perspective, when a real world 'outlet opening' case is dropped in my lap, I will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of variables I need to consider to successfully start this outlet. But thats the whole point, to get frustrated to the point where no apparent solution lingers on the horizon. The lack of a solution is the fact that the student is not expected to solve it as soon as he gets the case, but to see what the student does when put in a maze.

It sounds sadistic to actually put someone in a maze & see how they try to overcome the problems, but the second step proves it otherwise. The sadism is countered by figuring out what concepts actually go into understanding the case. For instance, to open an outlet, the several funtions listed above, will have micro concepts, like finance will focus on "COST" of setting up, "FUND RAISING" for setting up, "WORKING CAPITAL MANAGEMENT" & so on. Now what the lecture can enable is to direct a student to these precise concepts. A contact session with the professor is just to get leads to concepts & possible help in understanding it better. But the real analysis lies in how the student actually identifies the concept's interrelation with the case at hand & constraints attached to every concept. Thus management is all about constraint management.

Now comes the part where sadism becomes humanity, the professor judging the frustration, removes the constraints & makes the problem a cakewalk. The lowest possible difficulty level required to solve the problem using unlimited resources. When a feasible framework is achieved (which is easy when resources are unlimited, leaving aside exceptions), slowly & steadily constraints are gradually introduced. Now each of these constraints like before is seen from the lens of the underlying concept, thus re-inforcing the concept & at the same time re-inforcing the usability of the concept. This kills the great divide between the uselessness of management theory with current practices. Unless the concept is crystal clear, the appropriate application is next to impossible. So re-introducing the constraints gradually increases the complexity of the problem & which helps the student get a firm grip of every step of the analysis, finally reaching to the same complexity which had earlier frustrated the student.

The main idea of this thought experiment was to drill down this vital piece of the management zig saw, that concepts are learnt with a tangible goal attached to it. The goal was to solve the problem underlying the case. Imagine solving several cases with the same philosophy or process, the kind of insight achievable is remarkable. The management graduate is thus chosen for his knowledge base not in terms of memorizing the concepts but in terms of the knowledge of the processes through which he uses those concepts. So far I was blinded from this obvious fact, since I was trying to piece all the data, I was churning, together into a cohesive structure. There is no cohesive structure unless the concept is bounced against a problem wall to test its applicability.

So for the time already served & the data already churned, it becomes vital to stick the data to a problem pin up board just so as to get my coveted systems view.

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