Analytics for general managers

While good managers have always been required to be analytical, the level of analytical ability being asked of managers has been going up over the years, with the increase in availability of data.

Now, this post is once again based on that one single and familiar data point – my wife. In fact, if you want me to include more data in my posts, you should talk to me more.

Leaving that aside, my wife works as a mid-level manager for an extremely large global firm. She was recruited straight out of business school for a “MBA track” program. And from our discussions about her work in the first few months, one thing she did lots of was writing SQL queries. And she still spends a lot of her time writing queries and building Excel models.

This isn’t something she was trained for, or was tested on while being recruited. She did her MBA in a famously diverse global business school, the diversity of its student bodies implying the level of maths and quantitative methods being kept rather low. She was recruited as a “general manager”. Yet, in a famously data-driven company, she spends a considerable amount of time on quantitative stuff.

It wasn’t always like this. While analytical ability has what (in my opinion) set apart graduates of elite MBA programs from those of middling MBA programs, the level of quantitative ability expected out of MBAs (apart from maybe those in finance) wasn’t too high. You were expected to know to use spreadsheets. You were expected to know some rudimentary statistics- means and standard deviations and some basic hypothesis testing, maybe. And you were expected to be able to make managerial decisions based on numbers. That’s about it.

Over the years, though, as the corpus of data within (and outside) organisations has grown, and making decisions based on data has become fashionable (a brilliant thing as far as I’m concerned), the requirement from managers has grown as well. Now they are expected to do more with data, and aren’t always trained for that.

Some organisations have responded to this problem by supplying “data analysts” who are attached to mid level managers, so that the latter can outsource the analytical work to the former and spend most of their time on “managerial” stuff. The problem with this is twofold – it is hard to guarantee a good career path to this data analyst (which makes recruitment hard), and this introduces “friction” – the manager needs to tell the analyst what precise data and analysis she needs, and iterating on this can lead to a lot of time lost.

Moreover, as the size of the data has grown, the complexity of the analysis that can be done and the insights that can be produced has become greater as well. And in that sense, managers who have been able to adapt to the volume and complexity of data have a significant competitive advantage over their peers who are less comfortable with data.

So what does all this mean for general managers and their education? First, I would expect the smarter managers to know that data analysis ability is a competitive advantage, and so invest time in building that skill. Second, I know of some business schools that are making their MBA programs less quantitative, as their student body becomes more diverse and the recruitment body becomes less diverse (banks are recruiting far less nowadays). This is a bad move. In fact, business schools need to realise that a quantitative MBA program is more of a competitive advantage nowadays, and tune their programs accordingly, while not compromising on the diversity of the student intake.

Then, there is a generation of managers that got along quite well without getting its hands dirty with data. These managers will now get challenged by younger managers who are more conversant with data. It will be interesting to see how organisations deal with this dynamic.

Finally, organisations need to invest in training programs, to make sure that their general managers are comfortable with data, and analysis, and making use of internal and external data science resources. Interestingly enough (I promise I hadn’t thought of this when I started writing this post), my company offers precisely one such workshop. Get in touch if you’re interested!

A One Year MBA Doesn’t Make Any Sense

Around this time last year, when the wife was applying for B-school, I was clear in my advice to her on one thing – that a one year MBA just doesn’t make sense. From what I recall I wasn’t really clear back then regarding that piece of advice – it was rather intuitive, and based on a few “data points” I know, but as I see her go through her (two year) MBA, I realise why my advice makes sense.

There are two important functions that a business school performs. The first – which is debatable since a lot of people I’ve spoken to, including my classmates from IIMB – is that it changes the fundamental way you think. Exposure to different paradigms of management and case studies and frameworks completely changes the way, in my opinion based on my tenure at IIMB, you think about a lot of things in the world. If I were to summarise my MBA in one sentence, I will say that it taught me, and reinforced in me, the issue of tradeoffs.

In corporate strategy we learnt that any strategy you adopt will have its pros and cons, and if a strategy helps you “cover one flank”, it will expose you to the other. In HR, we learnt that life, and all our decisions, are all about making tradeoffs. In finance, we learnt that the very concept of the interest rate reflects the tradeoff between consumption today and consumption tomorrow. And so forth.

This, and a few other concepts that I learnt in my two years at B-school, completely changed the way i look at a lot of things in the world, and that helped broaden my perspective and that alone makes me believe that the time I spent at B-school was time well spent (I managed to get a scholarship so I didn’t spend much money for my education there).

Coming back, the second function that a business school performs is that of an employment exchange. By having a highly selective admission process it signals its students’ quality to prospective employers, and helps people move ahead in their careers by getting jobs they would have otherwise not got, without the MBA. For a lot of people, this is the primary reason to go to B-school (let me confess that this was the case for me, too, 10 years back), and the learning or changing the way they think is a bonus. But having had ones way of thinking changed, one will realise that this change is the more sustainable impact that the B-school has on you.

So what does this have to do with one year MBAs? Ever since my wife started her classes two months ago, she has had to start preparing for summer internships. She worked on her CV, wrote cover letters, attended tonnes of PPTs and networking sessions, even did a short trip to network with some companies and so forth (it was a similar case for me 10 years back). In sum, she has spent a disproportionate amount of her time and energy in dealing with the placements, leaving little time and energy and mind space for her academics.

Now, the point is that this is only for a summer internship, which allows you to make a mistake since you are not permanently committing to a company. If you don’t like your internship, or if the company where you intern doesn’t like you, you always have a second chance during the so-called (in IIMB) “final placements” to make a better choice. Yet, despite knowing that the summer internship is not “final” and gives you a second chance, first year students of two-year MBAs everywhere end up getting quite stressed over it, with the stress not lifting until they know where they are going (which, for some curious reason both in India and abroad happens rather early – in the second “trimester”).

It is only when the summer placements are done are you actually able to concentrate and do justice to your academics, and do some learning, to try and imbibe the first function that a B-school offers. Then you can relax and concentrate on your studies till late in the second year when (if you haven’t “converted” your internship) you will need to find a full-time job. In IIMs, thankfully, this happens towards the very end of the course which gives you sufficient time to actually learn, change the way you think, or do whatever the hell you want.

Now think of what happens in a one-year MBA. Firstly, typically there is no internship, meaning you have only one chance to get your post-MBA “remodelled” career right. Secondly, since “final placements” are less than a year away, you will have to spend a considerable amount of your time and energy and mindspace in Business School to that end – worrying about it, wearing suits, attending PPTs, attending career fairs, networking and all such.

There is very little time that you spend in a one year MBA when you are actually relaxed and know where you are going next, which is a necessary condition for you to learn, and for the business school to “affect” you. And to change the way you think, which is the only lasting impression (apart from the brand) that the business school can have on you!

So unless you want an MBA just for the brand, and just for the change in career, a one year MBA makes absolutely no sense. It is cheaper, for sure (both in terms of time and money), but so much inferior in value, since the main function of a B-school has very little time to actually function!

Business School WAG series – day out with baby bulls

Ten years ago, I was studying in a business school. A few weeks before I joined IIM Bangalore, a friend told me about the concept of a blog. I was told about the existence of blospot and livejournal, and the concept of blogging seemed exciting (I’d just started writing earlier that year and quite enjoyed it). I signed up on blogspot and wrote a post perhaps in June or July 2004 (I’ve deleted the blog, and so have forgotten when). Then I found that most of my IIMB friends were on LiveJournal and I moved my blog to skthewimp.livejournal.com .

My blogging ramped up slowly during my two years at business school – the first increase in momentum was during my summer internship in an investment bank, when my readership improved. A series of fairly controversial posts in the next one year further improved readership. And then the blog did me a lot of good.

I’ve found a client and a couple of other business leads thanks to my blogging. It was also my blogging through which I got to know of the existence of <lj user=”favrito”> eight years ago. Four years ago, I married her, and earlier this year, she decided to go to business school. And I thus became a business school WAG.

My status as a business school WAG was first established two months or so ago when I got an email from “Club – IESE Partners and Families”. These business schools try to take themselves too seriously and sound too politically correct – they could have simply called it the IESE WAG Club (there is merit in the usage of the term WAG (with its origins as “Wives and girlfriends”) as a unisex term). But anyway, I’ve continued to get emails from this club about its various activities. So far none of them have impressed me, but some have freaked me out, such as “day out with kids at the beach”.

My status as IESE WAG was further enhanced earlier this week when I made it to Barcelona, albeit for a short period of time. I visited the school yesterday, where <lj user=”favrito”> introduced me to one and all and sundry, and they eschewed the “three way cheek peck” which is supposedly popular in these parts of Catalunya in favour of the humble handshake. I spent the day in the cafeteria sipping Coke Zero and Dark Hot Chocolate and watching students crib about their performance in placement tests, talk about “arbit CP” that others put in class, and indulge in the kind of nonsense that all business school students indulge in (I surely did ten years ago) which recruiters (mostly business school alumni themselves) pretend doesn’t exist. It was interesting to say the least, but not interesting enough to deserve a blogpost for itself.

I further embellished my credentials as a WAG today, though, as I accompanied <lj user=”favrito”> and some of her classmates on a sort of picnic today. There was a fair number of WAGs at the picnic today, though I suspect I was the only male WAG. And I got introduced to a new “sport” in the course of the picnic today – amateur bullfighting, or as <lj user=”favrito”> described it, “Rajnikanth bullfighting”.

So there is a bullring. And they let a bull into the ring (it was a young bull that was in the arena today). And people can get into the ring by way of a ladder. There are these hiding posts all around the ring, behind which people can stand and be safe from the bull. And more than one human being can be in the ring at that point in time.

And they taunt and tease the bull, inviting him to attack and gore them. The bull is young and his horns aren’t sharp, so it is unlikely that it will cause much damage. But the bull is easily ruffled, and he gives short chases to the humans, who having provoked the bull in the first place try to dodge and evade the bull. Some wusses run to the shelter of one of the hiding posts when the bull is about ten metres away from them. Other wusses (including Yours Truly) don’t even bother entering the bullring, preferring to guzzle on the beer and sangria available and make pertinent observations.

And so it was an unequal battle, with several humans and one bull, though in true Rajnikanth tradition only one human would physically interact with the bull at one point in time (though others would hoot and clap and jeer). I was about to use the word “grapple” in the previous sentence but there was no grappling here – the bull would charge you and try and knock you down, and you would try and evade it. Some people even fell while trying to evade the bull and got hit by it, yet seemed unhurt.

This went on for a short period, and soon there were so many people in the bullring that there was no merit in entering it – the bull would surely get confused. And then we retired to this resort somewhere else in rural Catalunya for lunch and more drinks.

Later in the evening, at this resort, I visited the urinal. It was fairly busy at that point in time, with all stalls occupied. The guy to the left of me and the guy to my right had both brought a beer bottle along – they held the beer bottle in one hand and their penises with the other as they input and output liquids simultaneously.

I had half a mind to indicate to them that they could just eliminate the middleman, but then I thought it wasn’t appropriate for a business school WAG to give such advice, and moved on!

I plan to make a series on life as a business school WAG. Not sure how regular this will be though since I don’t plan to spend too much time in Barcelona. 

Religion and Probability

If only people were better at mathematics in general and probability in particular, we may not have had religion

Last month I was showing my mother-in-law the video of the meteor that fell in Russia causing much havoc, and soon the conversation drifted to why the meteor fell where it did. “It is simple mathematics that the meteor fell in Russia”, I declared, trying to show off my knowledge of geography and probability, arguing that Russia’s large landmass made it the most probable country for the meteor to fall in. My mother-in-law, however, wasn’t convinced. “It’s all god’s choice”, she said.

Recently I realized the fallacy in my argument. While it was probabilistically most likely that the meteor would fall in Russia than in any other country, there was no good scientific reason to explain why it fell at the exact place it did. It could have just as likely fallen in any other place. It was just a matter of chance that it fell where it did.

Falling meteors are not the only events in life that happen with a certain degree of randomness. There are way too many things that are beyond our control which happen when they happen and the way they happen for no good reason. And the kicker is that it all just doesn’t average out. Think about the meteor itself for example. A meteor falling is such a rare event that it is unlikely to happen (at least with this kind of impact) again in most people’s lifetimes. This can be quite confounding for most people.

Every time I’ve studied probability (be it in school or engineering college or business school), I’ve noticed that most people have much trouble understanding it. I might be generalizing based on my cohort but I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that probability is not the easiest of subjects to grasp for most people. Which is a real tragedy given the amount of randomness that is a fixture in everyone’s lives.

Because of the randomness inherent in everyone’s lives, and because most of these random events don’t really average out in people’s lifetimes, people find the need to call upon an external entity to explain these events. And once the existence of one such entity is established, it is only natural to attribute every random event to the actions of this entity.

And then there is the oldest mistake in statistics – assuming that if two events happen simultaneously or one after another, one of the events is the cause for the other. (I’m writing this post while watching football) Back in 2008-09, the last time Liverpool FC presented a good challenge for the English Premier League, I noticed a pattern over a month where Liverpool won all the games that I happened to watch live (on TV) and either drew or lost the others. Being rather superstitious, I immediately came to the conclusion that my watching a game actually led to a Liverpool victory. And every time that didn’t happen (that 2-2 draw at Hull comes to mind) I would try to rationalize that by attributing it to a factor I had hitherto left out of “my model” (like I was seated on the wrong chair or that my phone was ringing when a goal went in or something).

So you have a number of events which happen the way they happen randomly, and for no particular reason. Then, you have pairs of events that for random reasons happen in conjunction with one another, and the human mind that doesn’t like un-explainable events quickly draws a conclusion that one led to the other. And then when the pattern breaks, the model gets extended in random directions.

Randomness leads you to believe in an external entity who is possibly choreographing the world. When enough of you believe in one such entity, you come up with a name for the entity, for example “God”. Then people come up with their own ways of appeasing this “God”, in the hope that it will lead to “God” choreographing events in their favour. Certain ways of appeasement happen simultaneously with events favourable to the people who appeased. These ways of appeasement are then recognized as legitimate methods to appease “God”. And everyone starts following them.

Of course, the experiment is not repeatable – for the results were purely random. So people carry out activities to appease “God” and yet experience events that are unfavourable to them. This is where model extension kicks in. Over time, certain ways of model extension have proved to be more convincing than others, the most common one (at least in India) being ‘”God” is doing this to me because he/she wants to test me”. Sometimes these model extensions also fail to convince. However, the person has so much faith in the model (it has after all been handed over to him/her by his/her ancestors, and a wrong model could definitely not have propagated?) that he/she is not willing to question the model, and tries instead to further extend it in another random direction.

In different parts of the world, different methods of appeasement to “God” happened in conjunction with events favourable to the appeasers, and so this led to different religions. Some people whose appeasements were correlated with favourable events had greater political power (or negotiation skills) than others, so the methods of appeasement favoured by the former grew dominant in that particular society. Over time, mostly due to political and military superiority, some of these methods of appeasement grew disproportionately, and others lost their way. And we had what are now known as “major religions”. I don’t need to continue this story.

So going back, it all once again boils down to the median man’s poor understanding of concepts of probability and randomness, and the desire to explain all possible events. Had human understanding of probability and randomness been superior, it is possible that religion didn’t exist at all!