Author Archives: Espen

About Espen

For details, see www.espen.com.

Practical business development

I have come to learn that there are no boring industries – one always finds something interesting in what at first may looks fairly mundane. And that is something I am trying to teach my students, as well.

Andrew Camarata is a young man who works for himself with excavators, bulldozers, gravel, stone, earthworks and so on. He lives and runs his business in the Hudson Valley just south of Albany, New York and in the winter he does, among a lot of other things, snow plowing.

In this video, he will tell you almost everything there is to know about how to plow snow commercially in rural United States and make money from it.

The interesting point about this video (and a lot of other videos he has made, he has a great following on Youtube) is that he provides a very thorough understanding of business design: In the video, he talks about acquiring and maintaining resources, understanding customers (some are easy, others difficult, you need to deal with both), administration and budgeting, ethics (when to plow, when not to), and risk reduction (add the most complicated jobs with the greatest risk of destroying equipment last in the job queue, to reduce the consequences of breakdowns).

For a business student, this is not a bad introduction to business, and Camarata is certainly a competent businessman. In fact, I see nothing here that is not applicable in any industry.

When it also comes in a pedagogically and visually excellent package, what’s not to like?

Teaching with cases online

teaching_with_case_onlineCase teaching is not just for the classroom – increasingly, you can (and some schools do) offer discussion-based (or, at least, interaction-courses online.) My buddy Bill Schiano and I wrote a long note on how to do this for Harvard Business Publishing back in 2017 – and I then completely forgot about it.

Recently, I rediscovered it online, published by HBP – so, here goes: Schiano, Bill and Espen Andersen (2017): Teaching with Cases Online, Harvard Business Publishing. Enjoy. (More resources available at the HBP Teaching Center page.)

Incidentally – should you (as a school) consider doing courses this way, beware that this is not a cost reduction strategy. You probably will need to pay the online teachers more than those doing regular classrooms, simply because it is more work and quite a bit more design, at least in the beginning. But it may be an excellent way of reaching student groups you otherwise could not reach, for geographical or timing reasons.

Student cases of digitalization and disruption

I teach a M.Sc. class called “business development and innovation management”, and challenge students to write Harvard-style cases about real companies experiencing issues within these areas. The results are always fun and provide learning opportunities for the students: You may not provide the answer for the company, but you get a chance to really learn about one company or one industry and dive into the complexities and intricacies of their situation. That knowledge, in itself is valuable when you are hitting the job market.

Here is a (fairly anonymized) list of this year’s papers:

  • disruption in the analytics industry: One group is studying SAS Institute and how their closed software and architecture model is being challenged by open-source developments
  • disruption in the consulting industry: One group wants to study a small consulting company and how they should market some newly developed software that allows for automated, low-cost analysis
  • establishing a crypto-currency exchange: One group wants to study strategies for establishing a payment and exchange service for crypto-currencies
  • marketing RPA through a law firm: One group wants to study how a large law firm can market their internal capabilities for RPA (robotics process automation) in an external context
  • fast access to emergency services: One group wants to write a case on Smarthelp and how that service can be spread and marketed in a wider context
  • using technology to manage sports club sponsorship: One group wants to study how to develop strategy for a startup company that helps participation sports clubs with gain corporate sponsorships
  • electronic commerce and innovation in the agricultural equipment sector: One group wants to study how a vendor of farm equipment and supplies can extend their market and increase their innovative capability through ecommerce and other digital initiatives
  • machine learning in Indian banking: One group wants to study how machine learning could be used to detect money laundering in a large Indian bank
  • social media analysis in consumer lending: One group wants to study an Indian startup company that uses digital indicators from users’ online behavior to facilitate consumer financing for online purchases

Al in all, a fairly diverse set of papers – I am looking forward to reading them.

Analytics III: Projects

asm_topTogether with Chandler Johnson and Alessandra Luzzi, I currently teach a course called Analytics for Strategic Management. In this course (now in its third iteration), executive students work on real projects for real companies, applying various forms of machine learning (big data, analytics, whatever you want to call it) to business problems. We have just finished the second of five modules, and the projects are now defined.

Here is a (mostly anonymised, except for publicly owned companies) list:

  • An IT service company that provides data and analytics wants to predict customer use of their online products, in order to provide better products and tailor them more to the most active customers
  • A gas station chain company wants to predict churn in their business customers, to find ways to keep them (or, if necessary, scale down some of their offerings)
  • A electricity distribution network company wants to identify which of their (recently installed) smart meters are not working properly, to reduce the cost of inspection and increase the quality of
  • A hairdressing chain wants to predict which customers will book a new appointment when they have had their hair done, in order to increase repeat business and build a group of loyal customers
  • A large financial institution wants to identify employees that misuse company information (such as looking at celebrities’ information), in order to increase privacy and data confidentiality
  • NAV IT wants to predict which employees are likely to leave the company, in order to better plan for recruitment and retraining
  • OSL Gardermoen want to find out which airline passengers are more likely to use the taxfree shop, in order to increase sales (and not bother those who will not use the taxfree shop too much)
  • a bank wants to find out which of their younger customers will need a house loan soon, to increase their market share
  • a TV media company wants to find out which customers are likely to cancel their subscription within a certain time frame, to better tailor their program offering and their marketing
  • a provider of managed data centers wants to predict their customers’ energy needs, to increase the precision of their own and their customers’ energy budgets
  • Ruter (the public transportation umbrella company for the Oslo area) wants to build a model to better predict crowding on buses, to, well, avoid overcrowding
  • Barnevernet wants to build a model to better predict which families are most likely to be approved as foster parents, in order to speed up the qualification process
  • an electrical energy production company wants to build a model to better predict electricity usage in their market, in order to plan their production process better

All in all, a fairly typical set of examples of the use of machine learning and analytics in business – and I certainly like to work with practical examples with very clearly defined benefits. Over the next three modules (to be finished in the Spring) we will take these projects closer to fruition, some to a stage of a completed proposal, some probably all the way to a finished model and perhaps even an implementation.

How to write a teaching case

Since I sometimes give classes on how to do case teaching and have written a book on the subject with Bill Schiano, I am sometimes asked how to write a teaching case. The following blog post is a quick tips & tricks collection (essentially an update of this post.)

Why are you writing this case?
First and foremost: Cases are written for a teaching purpose – and to write a teaching case, you need to have a teaching objective in mind. It is not enough to have an interesting company. Even the best company story needs to have a pedagogical point, a theory or dilemma to illustrate. So don’t write a teaching case just because you happen to know someone in a really interesting company – it does need to be a good story, but it also need to have a purpose.

The standard outline
Cases – particularly the standard HBS case – follow an outline that can seem rather trite, but which is very effective. It is something like this:

  • 0.5 page: Intro: The protagonist is introduced, typically pondering a question of some importance. The idea is to tell the students from which perspective the case is written, to set the scene – and that is all there is to it.
  • 1 – 1.5 pages: Description of the company – not the whole history, but the relevant details, explaining what the company is doing, how they make their money. Most companies are to a very large degree formed by their history, so the relevant parts need to be told.
  • 1 page: Industry. Companies exist within a context, and you need to set it. Explain the industry, its evolution, and the company’s position within it. Do it succinctly, but leave more detail in than what is strictly necessary.
  • 1 – 5 pages: Specific issue. This is the meat of the case, the issue at hand, the story to ponder. Make sure you tell it logically and cooly, not leaving anything out, but also conveying the complexity of the situation.
  • 0.5 page: Conclusion, typically with the protagonist wondering what to do, often with some sort of event (board meeting, etc.) where he or she has to present a solution to the problem.

Most cases are just that – one case. You can have a B case and even a C case, but keep them short, since they have to be handed out and read in class. The B case should explain what the company did and perhaps introduce a new problem, the C case, if necessary, should bring some sort of closure, explaining what eventually happened. In my experience, it is very hard to get discussion after a C case – the students become exhausted. As a novice case writer, especially if you are writing about a company with a long history, it can be tempting to create a long string of small cases, but in practice this seldom works well – for one thing, it forces the discussion into a very predictable path.

The no-nos
No theory. A good case should be a description of an interesting situation, frequently a decision point – and nothing else. This means that there should be no theory and no discussion of the case in the case itself. Save that for the teaching note, or write a separate academic article about it. Not only does this make the case more realistic, it also means it can be used for more purposes than the one initially envisioned. This can be quite challenging for the traditional academic writer – but it is actually good practice to only present the facts (though, of course, which facts you choose to present constitute a discussion of sorts).

No hero, no villain. When teaching students how to analyze a case, I always start by saying that for most business situations, if is useful to begin the analysis with the assumption that people are not stupid and not evil. Consequently, when you write a case, make sure it has no heroes and no villains. If a case has a clear-cut hero or villain, it is a sign that you have not done enough research. Write things so that the students can see the issue from many perspectives.

No judgement. I frequently find, when reading prospective teaching cases, especially if written with the help of the communications department of a company, that judgements tend to be embedded in the text itself, though it is supposed to be as neutral and purely descriptive as possible. Do not write that a company is “leading” – instead, describe what they do, perhaps adding a bit of industry numbers for comparison, and let the decision about how leading the company is be up to the student. Do not write “Smith was a highly accomplished manager, leading a successful technology implementation.” Instead, write “Smith, at 29, was promoted to be the youngest vice president in company history after conceiving and overseeing the introduction of the first machine learning platform in the industry.”

No consultingese. Be very careful of weasel terms – is the company embarking on a strategic alliance or merely collaborating with another company for a specific purpose? (As a friend of mine said: “I buy all my socks at Marks and Spencer. That does not mean I have a strategic alliance with them.”) Avoid terms that are not well defined, and be precise in your language. Remember, a teaching case has the longest legs when it describes a human situation (since humans change slowly) and to not tie the narrative to specifically to a technology or a situation. (See the example of Fabritek below.) I quite often use old technology cases, and when the students complain, ask them to take out a pen and change the dates mentioned to current times, update the technology capabilities accordingly – and see if anything else changes.

Dramatic structure
A really well written case has dramatic structure – there is a beginning, a middle that builds up the story, and a really compelling issue at the end. The best cases are almost like a detective story, where you have to dig deep into the analysis to find surprising and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions. One example of a “detective story” case is Fabritek 1992*, a very old (first published 1969, rewritten by Jan Hammond) case about a quality control issue in a small mechanical workshop. (Hat tip to Robert D. Austin, eminent case teacher, for making me aware of this case and showing me how to teach it.) The case is excellent because it starts with the company (strategic level), proceeds to describe a new situation and a new process (organizational or business logic level) and then introduces the problem (operational level.) Analyzing the operational details leads to one conclusion, which then can be discussed in terms of the organization and its business logic, which can then be placed into a strategic context. The case is excellent because it allows links between these levels – and also teaches the students that the devil indeed resides in the details, and that you as a manager better be very close to how the business you are leading works and makes money.

iPremier-front-pageA second case which shows quality and innovation is iPremier, written by Robert D. Austin and Jeremy C. Short, the first and only graphic novel (cartoon) case I am aware of. The story is about a small online gift company being attacked by hackers, exposing glaring gaps in their security procedures and forcing managers at various levels to make some really hard decisions. The graphic format is excellent in making the various characters real (though they, on average, tend to be way too good-looking for a normal business situation), illustrates technical issues in a way that is very understandable even by non-technology students, and has a cracking good storyline with a B and a C case. I like to introduce a few technical cases in my courses because, well, I don’t think there is enough technology in business schools, and this cases answers very well because it illustrates that certain technical decisions very much require top management attention – ignore (or mindlessly delegate) technology understanding and responsibility at your peril. The graphic format also provides a welcome break from the standard case verbiage, which can be a trifle dour on occasion.

Details, details, details!
Research cases – the kind that is published in refereed journals – tend to be written from a very specific viewpoint, and only facts pertaining to that perspective is included, often in a very abstract format. A teaching case is the direct opposite: It needs lots of details, frequently made available as exhibits (graphs, pictures, documents, tables, etc.) placed at the end, after the main text. A teaching case writer, when visiting a company to write about it, needs to notice the small details, much like a really good journalist does. I tell my students that they should prepare each case so well that they feel like they have worked in the case company – and to allow them to do that, you need to provide the operational details necessary. (Incidentally, having more details than strictly necessary has the added benefit of making the case realistic – in the real world, you have to decide what is important and what is not.)

Doing it – and reading about it.
grandongillI am not aware of many books about how to write a good teaching case, with one exception: Grandon Gill (pictured), professor at University of South Florida and an excellent case teacher, has written a book called Informing with the case method, which is available for free download in PDF, MOBI and EPUB format from his web site. It has lots of details, tips and tricks, not just about case writing, but also about case teaching and course planning. (For the latter, of course, I am duty bound to recommend Bill Schiano’s and my book Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide.)

Last but definitely not least: Don’t underestimate how much work writing a proper business case is. Getting the details right, describing the dramatis personae, and making the storyline compelling is quite a challenge, in many dimensions different from the traditional academic article. On the other hand, should you get it right, you will have a very effective teaching tool for many years to come.

Good luck!

Peter as the bionic man

Peter Scott-Morgan, former colleague of mine and a mercurial mind in so many dimensions, was relatively recently diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND or, more popularly known as  ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Steven Hawking had a slow-moving version of this disease. Charlie Osborne, a friend and fellow doctoral student of mine, died from it.) A devastating blow to anyone, Peter has, not unexpectedly, turned this into an opportunity to explore technology as a way of staying connected with his surroundings.

MND gradually shuts down the communication system between your body and your brain, and can leave you trapped with a fully functioning brain locked inside a body you cannot control. Peter, who has a Ph.D. in robotics and energy enough for a platoon, aims to do whatever he can to stay not just alive, but communicating and functioning, as long as possible. To do this, he has had several operations to facilitate technology access to his body and continued functioning (you eventually lose control of the smooth (involuntary) muscles as well as the regular ones) after his brain stops communicating naturally.

Dr Peter Scott-Morgan on Vimeo.

In order to install and to a large extent develop this technology, he needs help finding people with expertise and interest in developing new technology using him as the experimental subject and development partner. Peter is no stranger to being a pioneer – him and his spouse Francis Scott-Morgan were the first gay couple to be married in a full ceremony in the UK in 2005.

So – anyone with knowledge of medical technology and interest in this project – please get in touch with Peter! (And incidentally, there is already going to be a documentary about his quest.)

Anne-Cath Vestly on where children come from

anne-cath-_vestlyAnne-Cath Vestly (1920 – 2008) was a much loved Norwegian author of children’s books, who challenged many of the prejudices of her time by writing about non-stereotypical families where the mother worked and the father was home, children who lived in high-rises rather than in saccarine little houses, etc.

In 1953 she was reading a story on the radio program “Barnetimen” (The Children’s Hour) about the little boy Ole Aleksander whose mother was going to have a baby. Telling children how babies came to be was considered shocking at the time, so this created an uproar, even death threats. As she said, it seemed to be the grown-ups that were bothered – the children wrote her letters telling her not to feel sad.

She also did radio programs for grown-ups, so her response was to write a short story about a little boy who is going to have a sibling, and how he found out about it. And just the other day, I met a little American boy who was very confused about how someone could have a baby without being married (apparently, he thought it was the marriage ceremony that produced the offspring), so I decided that a translation into English of Anne-Cath’s story was in order. Totally unauthorised, of course, errors are all mine, but very much in her spirit. (And you can find some of her books in English – at astonishing prices – at Amazon.)

A Children’s Hour for Grown-Ups

Anne-Cath Vestly, 1953

Once there was a small boy named Anton. He lived in a small house in a small town with his father and mother. One day, just before dinner, his mother was knitting a small jumpsuit. Perhaps you know what that is?

Anton was sitting and looking at the knitting – for a long time. Then he said:

— That is way too small for me, Mum.

— So you think it is for you?, said Mum, and her face looked a bit peculiar.

— Isn’t it?, said Anton.

— No, this for a little baby, said Mum. Would you like it if we had a little baby?

— Oh yes, could we? said Anton. But, Mum — how can we get a baby?

Mum was quiet for a little bit, and then she started to knit very fast. Then she said: Those babies … we buy them in the country.

— In the country they sure have many things, said Anton. I wish we lived in the country, because then we could go and look at those babies every day.

— Yes, said Mum.

— But Mum, when we were in the country this summer, do you remember that lady in the red house? She went to the city, and when she came back she had a baby?

— Oh yes, said Mum, those who live in the country go to the city to buy their babies!

— Oh, said Anton. So I was bought in the country?

— Yes, said Mum.

— Was I expensive??? asked Anton.

— Oh, not too bad, said Mum.

— When are we going to go and buy that baby? asked Anton, and now he was really excited.

— Not too long now, said Mum, but, you see, you cannot come with us.

— Why not? said Anton. I bet I could pick the best baby for you!

— Now, you should not ask so many questions, said Mum. You were really cute when you were smaller. You didn’t ask so many questions then…

— Couldn’t I talk then? asked Anton.

Right then, they heard Dad coming home, and Mum ran out to the hallway and whispered to him: Now I have finally told him about the baby!

— Great! said Dad, coming in. Hello, my boy! I guess you are really excited about whether it will be a girl or a boy the stork will bring?

— The stork? said Anton.

— Yes, don’t you know that it is the stork that brings the small babies? It flies all the way from the Nile with the little baby in its blanket, and then it flies over all the houses and drops the little baby right down to us.

— Well, um, said Mum, I just told Anton that we buy the small babies out in the country.

— Oh, said Dad. Well, I, at least, came with the stork. I remember it distinctly.

— Come and have dinner, said Mum.

After dinner, Mum and Dad wanted to rest for a while, and Dad said: Con you sit in the living room and mind the house for a while, Anton?

— Yes, said Anton.

In a little while, there was a knock on the door. Anton opened, and there was old Aunt Agnete.

— Is you mother home? she asked.

— Yes, she is home, but she is so very tired, so she is resting.

— Is she now, said Aunt Agnete. Can’t be too long now, she murmured to herself.

On the table was Mum’s knitting. Anton looked at it and said: Aunt Agnete, you know what? We are going to buy a baby!

— So you know? said Aunt Agnete. Her face turned very peculiar for a while, then she cleared her throat and made her voice almost normal and said: But you are not going to buy one, little friend. Don’t you know that the little babies lie in a large pond, up in heaven above the skies. There they swim around all the time until they find that they want to come down to us, and then they glide down one quiet night and snuggle into their bed under the duvet. And when you wake up next morning, there is a baby there!

— Where you born that way? said Anton.

— Yes, said Aunt Agnete.

— Can you swim? said Anton.

— No, I can’t, said Aunt Agnete. She taught it was a bit odd that Anton was not more interested in the babies she talked about, but she was mistaken.

— Have you forgotten how, then? said Anton. You knew how to swim when you were crawling around that pond…

— How you talk, said Aunt Agnete. Imagine, crawling…

— Maybe you were just swimming the breaststroke, said Anton.

— What a naughty boy you have become, said Aunt Agnete. Why don’t you go out and play for a while, I’ll mind the house in the meantime.

Anton went out, where he met old Martin who used to sweep the streets in the little town.

— Martin, said Anton. How were you born?

— I, said Martin, came sailing down the river on a board.

That night Anton lay awake thinking for a long time before he fell asleep. When he woke up the next morning, Mum had indeed gone, and Anton went out to play with a little boy named Lars.

— Mum has gone to the country to buy a baby, he said proudly.

— That’s not how it works, said Lars. Don’t you know that little babies are inside their mother’s tummy, and when they come out they are all finished with eyes and a nose and everything. Isn’t that great?

— Yes, said Anton. That is really great.

Then he sighed and said to himself: If only it had been that simple…