What I learnt at business school was...

30 November 2021

The very essence of learning is to change your current view or understanding of how something works. This has happened more or less continuously since I joined Warwick Business School as a Full-time MBA student one year ago.

In this blog I have captured the top five ‘ideas’ - a smorgasbord of theories, world-views and reflections - that I will be taking away from this (very) intense course. 

With thanks to my Professors for their inspirational teaching! 

Idea one: Know thyself 

I’m still not convinced that you can reduce complex human personalities to the colours, codes, or labels produced by online tests. I am convinced that being more self-aware can make you a better person and leader though, regardless of how this is achieved. Having a preference for introversion, I am now more comfortable asking others for quiet thinking time, which satisfies my own needs and means I can contribute more when I’m with a team.

Further readingWhat makes a leader? by Daniel Goleman (1998) and Quiet by Susan Cain (2013)

Idea two: Strategy isn’t one thing

Strategy is an area of business that receives a huge amount of attention; it has almost gained dark art status. The discipline has produced a number of management luminaries and is seen as the pinnacle for many MBAs aiming for a job in consulting. Henry Mintzberg, however, argues that all employees engage in strategising whenever they choose to do one thing over another, such as stocking a particular product. Mintzberg’s theory of emergent strategy also has parallels with the idea that culture is something that simply exists everywhere within a business, rather than it being something that companies can own and control. 

Further reading: Strategy safari by Mintzberg et al. (2009) and Concepts of Culture and Organizational Analysis (paywall) by Linda Smircich (1982) 

Idea three: Balancing acts

We’ve all experienced the moment when your favourite band or solo artist releases a new album that sounds nothing like their previous work and is, in your opinion, rubbish. At the same time, most would agree that musicians need to evolve their sound, otherwise they risk becoming repetitive. Companies face the same dilemma; they have to exploit their popular products and services whilst exploring new ones in which they have little experience. In other words, they have to be ‘ambidextrous’. It’s a useful way of thinking about many different strategic and innovation-related challenges, and the appropriate solutions are still regularly debated. 

Further reading: Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning by James March (1991) and Ambidextrous organizations: managing evolutionary change by Michael Tushman and Charles O’Reilly (1996). 

Idea four: Context, context, context

There‘s a lot to learn from other successful companies and no shortage of books and articles offering insights on different flavours of their ‘secret sauce’. However, trying to imitate the likes of Amazon or Apple without considering your company’s make-up, industry, and environment is unlikely to lead to success and could even be harmful. This also reminds us that the best strategies are developed through a combination of inward and outward perspectives. 

Further reading: Contemporary strategy analysis by Robert Grant (2015).

Idea fiveWe still need academia 

This sounds like an obvious point coming from a Masters student, but it’s not. Enter any MBA classroom and you’re likely to hear grumbling about having to write essays and the lack of C-suite experience of certain Professors. I have a couple of reflections on this. The first is that we should stop pigeon-holing activity as either ‘practical’ or ‘academic’. Second, researchers can offer just as many insights as any CEO, especially since they have the opportunity to gather even more data points over a longer period of time. We need a symbiosis between managers and academics, where they support each other’s goals, and I hope I can support this in the future. 

Thanks for reading; I hope this stimulated some thinking along the way.

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