Post mortem: Strategic Advantage

Executive Summary: hard part’s over!

OK, so there are a couple of assignments to do before end March, but the Strategic Advantage exam – two essays, two hours – was a pleasant finish to exam week. Not too rushed, took a five minute holiday in the middle, managed to shoehorn a Porter’s Five Forces diagram and the distinctive assets pyramid in there. Had 10 minutes spare at the end so I thought I’d add an Appendix with the Value Chain! And why not. (Appendices are cool.)

And now the first half of my MBA is over bar the resits, oops, I mean bar the shouting. Today is the last day the 80 of us will be together as a cohort, sharing a core of content: from this day forward, we go our separate ways, into diverse electives and project/dissertations.

In some sense, I’m already missing it.

Hands in pockets against the not-yet-Spring weather, I wander the emptying campus of what I’ve come to know as ‘my’ university.

University House, a beautiful chunk of geometric white angles and a soaring four-storey atrium that’s become one of my favourite places. Coffee in the cafe at the Arts Centre. The card entry gates of the library. The short walk down the curving road, assorted buildings of the university becoming denser like scattered foothills. The humid humanity of the Sports block. The gangrenous 1960s wasteland of Humanities. The soaring new engineering buildings. Somehow, it’s become home.

I continue drifting in the damp gloom. Back to where it all started: the collection of white cubes on Scarman Road.

Silently I walk down the now-hushed corridors of the business school. The coffee nook. The printer corner. The syndicate rooms. The student lounge. Remembering all the moments of the last six months: the frustrations, the late nights, the syrupy fog of breaktime doughnuts and the clacking vooosh of the coffeemaker. The conversations, the headaches, the scribbles on whiteboards. And the laughter. Amid the toil, there was a lot of laughter.

All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to say goodbye.

Post mortem: Modelling & Analysis

Executive Summary: Starting from a poor quality dataset with high STEM, the SD of a 50% probability reduced with a positive effect on the Confidence Interval!

MAM is one of the really hard MBA courses – building and interpreting Excel tools that optimise or maximise KPIs for business – and everyone’s been dreading this one. Oddly, I found it strangely do-able.

In my business ‘modelling’ means making a prop for a photoshoot, so I was expecting performance to be, er, somewhat sub-Distinction level. It’s an ‘open book’ exam (you’re allowed to bring in notes) so last night I formulated a survival strategy: take in some model answers, whip through the 15 essay-type questions doing all the ones similar to my models, and leave the ones I just don’t get (*cough* regression and sensitivity *cough*) to the end. Ultimately, although I know I didn’t max out more than two or three questions markwise, I felt good enough about enough of them to feel pretty sure I’ve passed this one.

But as an aside: do WBS lecturers have informal competitions as to who can put the weirdest businesses in question format? The businesses that’ve appeared on exam papers this week include a chicken-breeding magazine, a maker of bicycles built for four people, a company making tapestries of witches to hang in your kitchen (it had a capacity of 15,000 a year, but who on EARTH would buy such a thing?) and a china tableware company that suddenly decided to go into industrial air filters. Are these guys laughing at us or what?

Post mortem: Marketing Strategy

Executive Summary: FINALLY an easy one. Let’s face it, if I found an exam with ‘marketing’ in the title difficult I’d need to seriously re-evaluate my life.

Two essays from a choice of eight, both with elastic subject matter I can fit a number of possible diagrams to to show I DID listen in class. There’s something for everyone here. One of my essays, though, ends up being based on my personal experience of segmenting history (geographics, demographics, then psychographics) rather than an amalgam of slides presented; I’m unlikely to get a high mark for it but at least the examiner will find it interesting. This is the first exam I know I’ve passed, and in such exams it’s good to have a little fun.

However, one thing’s really annoying me: the way people TALK in the exam hall, before, after, and even during the exam. They just won’t shut up. Mouths are twitching long before all papers have been collected; basically at the first possible moment they think they can get away with it. Why do so many people lack the self-discipline to stay shut up for just TWO FUCKING MINUTES longer?!!!

Post mortem: Management Accounting

Executive Summary: AARGH! Have I crapped out on TWO of the bastard exams? Management Accounting was a nightmare! Maybe I’m just not cut out for this MBA stuff.

What’s worse is the course wasn’t all that bad: lots of numbers, obviously, but unlike Corporate Finance the concepts of budget-flexing and activity-based costing are mainly commonsensical. Yesterday afternoon I concentrated on variances, since it’s the area I was weakest on, and was determined to choose a ‘variances’ question in Section B today. Of course, there was NO BLOODY VARIANCES QUESTION.

Let’s just say I now know why the Ops Strategy elective has so many people in it: it’s non-examined…

Anyway, the exam starts badly. The Hall’s warmer than yesterday, in the same way the surface of the sun is warmer than an ice cube, but the atmosphere’s a bit locker-room since there’s only one GIRL around (admittedly the one is a hottie, but I don’t function well in 30:1 male dominated situations.) And the paper is REALLY REALLY DIFFICULT.

WBS to MBAs: Ha ha, thought you were starting to enjoy yourselves, did you?

Five choices per question, and every choice A-E is plausible; there’s no knocking aside of obviously wrong choices to increase your chances of guessing correctly. Every question, EVERY question, needs either a detailed act of memory or copious calculation to get right. I doubt I even got 50% here. The essay-type question is easier (maybe, just maybe, I picked up a few points) but there was still very little opportunity to bullshit.

And what you really need in an exam is bullshittability.

What’s odd is that Management Accounting is a bullshittable subject. It’s a lens created by accountants to present a company’s operations in a certain light: it’s as much a strategic and political tool as a reporting mechanism. That’s its whole reason for being. Set people certain targets, contextualise their department in a certain way, demonstrate the method by which advantage is gained, and you’ve got people gaming the system. If you can get them to game it the way you want, you’re onto a winner. You might even make money.

But when the game gets turned back on the gamer – i.e. in an exam – the bullshittability vanishes. Where Corporate Finance yesterday felt borderline but possibly passable, I’m pretty sure quite a few people (including me) will be getting resit invitations (or worse) in the next month or two. Not good.

Post mortem: Corporate Finance

Executive Summary: Either I failed the exam, or the airline in Section B got a real bargain on leasing its planes!

That’s the central problem with Corporate Finance: you can’t really tell if the numbers emerging from the equations ‘feel right’. A discount factor of .8972 or .7118 – both are on the table, both are plausible, but put the first in Year 0 instead of Year 1 and you’re screwed by multiple tenths of a percent in the final cost-of-capital figure. Of such mistakes are global economic meltdowns made.

There are other bad luck questions: the very first multiple-choice is on mortgage payback periods, the simplest equation in all of Corporate Finance, and it’s NOT ON THE FORMULA SHEET. Bad start, bad start. But even worse, the temperature of the Sports Hall was a fraction of a degree above Absolute Zero. (When people from Siberia say it’s cold, it MUST be true.)

But the basic issue remains: the intractibility of applying Corporate Finance to the real world. I’m a real-world person with an interest in the inchoate; does that explain why the subject interests me, but also why I’m so monumentally crap at it?

The problem with Corporate Finance is that it’s a shared delusion: only real as long as enough people are willing to suspend their disbelief. It’s why the whole subprime mortgage mess – which now threatens to tip the entire world economy into a slump – is happening. Because a rich white guy on Wall Street thought an unemployed guy in a rotting crackhouse on the bum side of Alabama could, properly spun, be an insanely great financial asset. He didn’t think once of how his spreadsheets and sliced-and-diced CDOs applied to the real world.

The CFO of Goldman Sachs – presumably the smartest financial guy at the smartest financial group in the world – explained away such vast errors of judgement as ’25-standard-deviation events, happening several days in a row.’ Look buddy, 25 S.D. events just DON’T HAPPEN. Britain’s recent earthquake – the first in decades – was perhaps a 2 S.D. event, and on the asymptotic scale of the Normal Distribution, 25 S.D’s would’ve happened about once since Ug the Caveman was the man of the moment. For such events to have happened on several consecutive days – well, it’d be less surprising if a herd of Aptosaurii materialised in Hyde Park and started dancing the timewarp.

What happened, but which CFO Vinar didn’t understand, was that his complex financial models were simply wrong. Not even in approximation, but in fundamental assumptions. Just – wrong. Yet to him – and to a thousand other City and Street movers and shakers – they represented reality better than reality itself.

[AAAARGH! I’ve just realised I forgot to add back the initial cost of the planes in both instances, which would have made A2 and B4 planes much closer competitors!!!] (But this illustrates my point: I’m applying my models to the real world. At least when I’m wrong I KNOW I’m wrong.)

I don’t know if I’ve passed or failed Corporate Finance, but if I fail, it’s because of those bloody aircraft. Well, I suppose that’s appropriate given that ‘winging it‘ is the only life philosophy I’ve ever had any success with.