Cambridge MBA curriculum — Harvard’s moving closer to it

It’s only after experiencing the Cambridge MBA, talking to my professors and doing a little research recently that I really learned exactly how unique the Cambridge MBA curriculum actually is compared to other top schools. It comes down to two simple differentiators: our small-group “soft skills” classes and the projects incorporated into the curriculum. As I’ve read a little more about it, it appears that Harvard Business School is trying to move more towards the Cambridge MBA way of doing things… fancy that!

Soft skills

If you look at Cambridge’s required first-term curriculum you see a rather bland title: Management Practice. But this course is a very in-depth soft skills class, and not very bland at all!

Management Practice is a course that runs from 9am-12:30pm and 2–3:30pm one day each week in the Michaelmas (first) Term. The morning involves a highly interactive lecture/discussion and a group activity/game; a game that’s always highly competitive! The afternoon session reviews what happened in the activity/game, and follows that up with how those principles can be applied to the real-life situations we’ve already experienced and those we will experience in the future. The games, by the way, are always fun and make for interesting learning.

The Cambridge Venture Project (CVP) is also a unique part of the Cambridge MBA. For about four weeks, teams of five students work part-time with small, local entrepreneurial companies on consulting projects. This is far more challenging than it sounds; our class of 150 people come from ~50 different countries and a wide variety of backgrounds. Everyone is very accomplished, and most are highly competitive Type A personalities, but everyone approaches problems from their own perspectives. I mention this now because in the latter weeks of Management Practice, the afternoon session is a small group “therapy” session, where our teams discuss with our instructors on how we’re working in our groups.

Management Practice been described by many Cambridge MBA graduates as one of the main courses they’ve been able to use long after they graduate, no matter what field of work they go into. After last term, I have to say that I completely believe it.

What’s interesting is that Harvard is looking at doing more of this, but they’re having issues because their school is so damn big! (900 new students/year vs. 150–180/year at Cambridge) From the Harvard Business School article:

  • In an increasingly globalized world, deans and recruiters generally believe that business schools have not gotten globalization right. They want students with heightened cultural awareness and a more refined global outlook. [Like 150 students from ~50 countries? — ahem]
  • Notwithstanding mission statements to the contrary, many deans and recruiters complain that MBAs don’t understand the practice of leadership or have sufficient awareness of their impact on others.

and this:

Deans and recruiters told Datar and Garvin that MBAs in general need more soft skills, such as self-awareness and the capacity for introspection and empathy. They also found MBAs lacking in critical and creative thinking, as well as communication skills. “These skills lie much more on the ‘doing’ side of the scale than the ‘knowing’ side,” says Datar.

Such soft-skills development by its very nature involves labor-intensive small groups and requires “high-touch” faculty involvement with students.

[…]

For example, adding small-group, soft-skill development may sound simple, but doing so for some 900 students would have a significant impact on faculty teaching assignments, recruitment, and research, as well as on the School’s facilities.

I’m very happy and encouraged that instead of trying to bolt on key soft-skills classes onto a mature program, the Cambridge MBA has begun their development with them as a core part of the curriculum.

Projects

There are three main projects as part of the Cambridge MBA. They are here (with descriptions from the Cambridge MBA Handbook):

Cambridge Venture Project — For the CVP, you will work in designated teams of 5–6 with a local entrepreneurial company on a real management issue related to marketing.

Global Consulting Project — The Global Consulting Project is the culmination of the core courses and it will allow you to apply the knowledge and skills gained throughout the programme in a real world context. It is undertaken in teams of your choice with 5–6 students and lasts one month.

Individual Project — The Cambridge MBA concludes with an individually supervised project for which a 12,000-word report is submitted. This project allows you to make an in-depth exploration of subjects of specific interest to you, which will typically be of direct relevance to your career objectives.

I would contrast this to Harvard’s programme, where there are no mandatory projects as part of the curriculum, though they note about half the class completes optional projects as electives. Does this really matter? Perhaps not. But I’m trying to take advantage of these projects to get some experience and contacts in fields/industries/companies that I may never work in again, and also those that I might want to try applying to in just a few short months. I’m always a fan of doing new things over learning new things. (Create >> Consume)

Summary

If you’re reading this post in the hope of getting a little more perspective on the Cambridge MBA program, I hope you’ve gotten a little better sense for it. While a one-year versus two-year MBA program is a big decision, top-tier programs like the Cambridge MBA do have some advantages over better known schools like HBS.

Key articles about the current crisis

I haven’t written much here about the current economic crisis, but it’s been affecting everyone for quite a while, now. Part of the problem I’ve seen is that there’s so much day-to-day news and analysis that it’s hard to get the kind of articles that really step back and evaluate the whole situation in context.

Perhaps it’s because 2009 just kicked off, but there have been a few recent articles that I wanted to highlight that could (should?) help everyone understand the broader problems that the economy has been facing.

“The End” — by Michael Lewis. It’s a long but very interesting article that deals with the housing bubble, how it blew up, and the people who warned of the specific dangers long before. Excellent, excellent read.

“Risk Management” — by Joe Nocera. This is an article from Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that goes deeper into the concepts of measuring risk. Specifically it gets into the “Value At Risk”, or VaR, method of measuring risk. While the model is generally good for day-to-day risk measurement, it is far from complete. Using VaR simply can’t tell you how bad it can get… and we’re seeing that how bad it can get now.

The End of the Financial World as We Know It
How to Repair a Broken Financial World — both articles by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn. This is a two-part OpEd (no idea why they split it that way) from the New York Times. While not as good as the first two, it does take some of the lessons learned and ties them to what we can (should?) do going forward.

Letter about Madoff to the SEC — This letter was written and sent over three years ago, detailing how and why Madoff’s fund was a Ponzi scheme. No one listened or investigated deeply!

Cambridge MBA and admissions

I’m currently an MBA student at the University of Cambridge, which has a smallish but rapidly growing business school.

There are a huge number of things that impress me about the school, but I wanted to mention just a couple about the admissions process and office:

  • The MBA Admissions office is blogging! So far it’s a mix of school-related posts and some posts on what it’s like living in Cambridge. I highly recommend reading it. I think it’s fantastic to have a bit more transparency in the admissions process, and congratulate James for starting it!
  • It doesn’t cost anything to apply to the Cambridge MBA. This is different from virtually every other business school I’ve come across, but Cambridge is committed to access to the programme no matter your financial circumstances. It doesn’t make the admissions process any easier, but I believe does help add to the diversity of the class.
  • Since the Cambridge MBA is ~150 students (I believe growing by about another 30 students next year) the admissions office and administration truly get to know you. I was astounded on my interview day and on the first day of pre-term just how well everyone knew me! It was clear they hadn’t done a cursory look at my CV and career goals, but had truly studied who I was through my application. This isn’t something you can get from larger schools.

For those of you applying to the Cambridge MBA, good luck! For those of you considering applying, I hope this gives you a little better sense about what Cambridge is all about.

As for me, I’ve got exams this week… hopefully those will turn out okay!

My newest project (tentatively … IdeaGreenhouse)

I believe strongly in transparency when starting a business. While some people try to keep their “secrets” locked up, all it really does is lock those entrepreneurs away from valuable feedback. Business is about execution; if you’re working on something you’re passionate about and actually executing, you have nothing to worry about.

So I’d like to explain the project that I’ve been working on for a while more to you here. In a sentence, it’s a business devoted to helping you collect, develop and most importantly implement great new ideas. Tentatively named IdeaGreenhouse, it’s web-based software and optional advising services for companies, clubs, community groups, interest groups and any other organization to use internally to help them do things better.

What does it do?

This software allows anyone with an idea to submit it into the system. Any other user can comment on it or support it through a voting-type system. Most importantly it lets users create and volunteer for micro-tasks to take the idea forward. Instead of relying on a small group of connected people in the heart of a business or organization to evaluate ideas and implement them, it connects the people in the company that are really interested in the idea and that have the skills to make it happen.

I’ve been thinking about the software and sketching it out for quite a while. Earlier this fall I worked with an outsourced developer to get a prototype established, which is now up and running. I’m taking advantage of my MBA class to help get comments and feedback on the prototype by using it to help find ideas that will improve the Cambridge MBA. It’s at the point now where I can clone that initial site fairly easily for new alpha-testers. If you’re interested in becoming an alpha-tester, please contact me!

Who is it for?

Who is an ideal customer? One example is my rowing club in London. The club has several hundred members, and over a hundred active rowing members at any given time. There’s also a lot of excitement around the club’s 150th anniversary next year. A lot of members have tons of great ideas to raise money, make improvements to the facilities, run the clubhouse and rowing program better, etc. But it’s virtually impossible for one person with an idea to press ahead and make it happen. Right now all the ideas come through a small group of volunteers (all overloaded anyway) for evaluation and implementation. It “doesn’t scale.”

Another use? Potentially as an political interest-group tool. While change.gov is great in that you can submit your questions/ideas to government, what you’re really doing is throwing them over a wall and hoping the people on the other side can see what you see. Instead, a group like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) could establish a site to develop the best policy ideas and marketing ideas to bring about those policy changes. They could connect lawyers, tech stars, business types, video producers and who knows else to work collaboratively to develop the best policies going forward.

The biggest revenue-potential is companies that are looking to constantly improve and innovate. Software like IdeaGreenhouse can connect people across silos in an organization to find solutions to problems, new innovations, or simple better ways of doing things across a business. Instead of relying on approval through a “chain of command,” the people in the company that are passionate about an idea can connect and move it forward themselves.

While the traditional method of “throwing ideas over the wall” for someone else to review and approve is great (it’s not too much work), implementing ideas is about a thousand times better. It’s a heck of a lot harder, but it’s incredibly satisfying when it does. IdeaGreenhouse is a tool that will help get businesses and organizations do that.

Competitors

There are a ton of competitors in the “submit ideas and vote for them” category. Starbucks and Dell have both used SalesForce.com’s ideas application, with lots of publicity. Change.gov uses Google Moderator, and there are more commercial solutions like GetSatisfaction and others.

Where IdeaGreenhouse is different is that it is an internal tool, to use the knowledge and experience of your employees/members/organization. It is NOT a tool to get feedback from your customers. The users don’t just submit ideas, they work to accomplish the ideas, too.

There are some enterprise-level software applications that do this, but they all focus on large companies exclusively. IdeaGreenhouse will scale to work with any size company or organization.

The Team

The team working on this consists of me and Dom Orchard, a PhD student in Computer Science at the University of Cambridge. (Really smart, and a fellow Jesuan.) Dom also drafted the logo above.

Feedback

I’m creating a “landing page” to detail this more soon, and will post that here when I do. I’ve got a few different names I’m going to try out, and will use Google AdWords to hopefully find the best one of the bunch. (See here for more.)

If you have any feedback, please contact me, or submit a comment below. This is what I plan to spend much more time talking about this year, and look forward to any/all of your thoughts.