MBA Reflections

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As I attended my MBA convocation this past Friday, I was originally going to write about the cliché bittersweet feeling of completing my degree and how my experience was filled with highs and lows, and then end with the corny acknowledgement of all the great friends that I made. But as I reflected on what I valued most from my MBA experience, I was eventually reminded of what bothers me about traditional education – precisely because my MBA was able to step outside the bounds of traditional education.

So while I did in fact have an enjoyable experience and made plenty of new friends, I’d like to instead focus on what I specifically found valuable about my MBA experience and briefly discuss why, as a result, I believe that education needs to be revisited (as Mark Ecko would agree).

But before I get into the details, it helps to address a few of the many common myths that I feel have given the MBA a bit of a bad rap.

Myth #1: MBA programs are full of cutthroat, egotistical go-getters looking to climb the corporate ladder at any cost. Not true. I used to have this impression of MBA students as well, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Certainly, the students at Schulich are ambitious, but they are also some of the most passionate, collaborative, helpful, funny, kind, and inspiring individuals I’ve ever met.

Myth #2: MBA students don’t add value, they just use meaningless buzz words. As I discuss below, the frameworks that are taught in business school are valuable in a way that is often underestimated in the professional world. “Buzz words” are only meaningless if they’re irrelevant; when used appropriately, they are helpful in critical analysis.

Myth #3: The MBA adds no value to one’s professional career. This depends entirely on the student’s purpose for pursuing an MBA degree. In most cases, it’s not about the technical course content – most of the concepts can be learned from reading books or online materials. But it’s primarily the social and analytical skills developed and the connections built that are most valuable in the MBA.

More specifically, the Schulich MBA had several elements that were crucial to my personal and professional development, and that shaped my overall experience at the school:

Projects: The Schulich MBA program is highlighted by a capstone consulting project known as the “601”, which is an 8-month consulting engagement with a real client to whom students provide a strategic recommendation based on countless hours of research, analysis, and team meetings. I also had the pleasure of taking Negotiations, one of many practical courses that develop soft skills by putting students through various real life simulations. And most courses don’t have a final exam – instead, they have final presentations, reports, assignments, etc, which encourages learning by doing, rather than by regurgitating.

Frameworks: While many business frameworks can be learned on your own, it’s the mindset that students are encouraged to develop that can be taken with them to their future professional roles. They provide a certain perspective that may not otherwise be immediately apparent to someone who only views their organization working from the inside.

Class discussions: These were eye-opening for me as I now understand why most MBA programs require students to have work experience in order to be accepted. Your peers provide such a diverse range of real life experiences that contribute to the content and the quality of discussions. I am also impressed with the quality of faculty members that teach at Schulich. Unlike my experience in my undergrad, I can definitively say that I have loved each and every professor that I’ve had at Schulich because of their extensive backgrounds, their fascinating insights, and their ability to hold engaging discussions.

Extracurricular activities: This was what I missed the most after completing my undergrad and entering the workforce. Going back to school gave me a second chance to get involved with one of my biggest passions in attending and organizing students clubs and events, which I did through my involvement with the Schulich Marketing Association (SMA).

Connections, networks, relationships: Schulich peers, alumni, professors, guest speakers, Career Development Centre employees, etc…they have all played a role in my development and such relationships will last well beyond my time at the school.

Notice that all of these elements of the MBA program have a practical application to the real world. What’s a little concerning for me was that I had to pursue a master’s degree and pay over $30,000 in tuition to earn these experiences – experiences that I did not have in my undergraduate studies. Much of the course content in both my undergrad and my MBA is similar, yet most undergrad programs focuses heavily on measuring student performance via written exams and give minimal attention to other, more practical, methods of learning. If we wish to better prepare students for their professional lives after school, we need to provide them with opportunities for skill development earlier in their careers. And as such, once again, education needs to be revisited.

Notwithstanding my concerns, the MBA was no doubt a worthwhile endeavour and I am grateful for the doors it has opened for me in pursuing my passions and furthering my career goals.

 

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Target Canada: Turnaround or Exit?

As a regular shopper, you may already know of Target’s struggles entering the Canadian market. But you may have yet to see the retailer’s latest attempt at a hopeful turnaround – a YouTube video featuring various employees directly acknowledging the company’s recent problems.

The publishing of this video comes amidst a whirlwind of problems for the retailer since it officially opened its first stores in Canada in March 2013. Such problems included complaints of high prices and poor supply chain management, a massive data breach, creepy privacy issues, and even dismissal of the Target Canada President. As you can expect, followers on social media have been quick to attest to these grievances, and rightfully so. However, as unfortunate as each of these individual mishaps are, I believe there is a much bigger issue that Target needs to address, and it has to do with its brand strategy.

In the world of retail, players generally have four areas in which they can differentiate: price, product selection, convenience, and customer experience. Successful retailers will generally focus on one or two of these areas and do just enough in the other areas to stay afloat. The employees featured in the apology video are well aware of the retailer’s pricing and inventory issues, but these are all a result of a poorly executed brand promise – i.e. failure to focus on the appropriate area of differentiation.

Somewhere along the expansion process, Target got lost with its brand strategy as the retailer got thrown into cutthroat pricing wars with competitors such as Walmart and online giant Amazon, rather than staying true to its identity that proved successful in the US – its focus on the customer experience. By competing on both price and customer experience, Target failed to excel in either strategic component, primarily because retailers like Walmart and Amazon are the gold standard for discount pricing. The only way for Target to stand out is via delivery of an exceptional customer experience (for example, much like IKEA’s store setup for a family outing or Home Hardware’s motto of homeowners helping homeowners). But as a result of Target’s poor execution, Walmart’s motto “Save Money. Live Better.” became a much more compelling promise than Target’s “Expect More. Pay Less.” in Canada over the past fiscal year.

But even if we establish that Target should stick to providing a superior experience to its customers – or “guests” as the company likes to call them – the next question that needs to be answered is whether or not anyone cares for such an experience. That is, is there even a market for upscale retail customer experiences in Canada? Just because this strategy worked in the US does not mean it will translate north of the border for the retailer’s Canadian counterparts. And so far, it clearly hasn’t.

So ultimately, how effective will the apology video be in sparking a turnaround for Target Canada? Despite mixed feelings expressed on social media, I believe it is a good start for the company’s brand because, at the very least, it addresses the problem bluntly and directly. Such transparency is crucial for any brand revival and I would give credit to Target for being upfront and honest about its struggles; we have seen that transparency can work very well as it did with McDonald’s award-winning “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign.

That being said, it is concerning that the video has yet to attract a significant number of views since it was published last week. The company will need to improve its digital strategy to make ground on its competitors, most of whom feature up-to-date product pricing on their websites and actively engage customers on social media.

While Target once again deserves credit for recognizing the problem, my gut tells me that there isn’t a market for upscale retail experiences in Canada because of the poor economic climate. When times are tough, people simply don’t care about experiences when it comes to seeking their basic household needs – they just want to save money.

What do you think will happen next for Target Canada? Will it make a significant turnaround? Or is an exit imminent for the struggling retailer?

The Art of Marketing Conference

It has been a while since my last post. For the last two weeks, I was busy learning a new craft – making stuffed animals, a rather challenging form of art if you want to be creative. I’ll post more details and pictures of my creation later.

I had the opportunity to attend the Art of Marketing Conference a couple of weeks ago. The event featured a variety of brand and marketing experts and a keynote from Malcolm Gladwell. While I hadn’t previously heard of most of the speakers in the room, there was no doubt plenty of insight, innovation, and humour shared throughout the day. Rather than providing a play-by-play of what was said and what I learned, I thought it would be better to list my top 5 key take-aways from the day.

1. QR codes are stupid. Scott Stratten, author of “QR Codes Kill Kittens”, blasted QR codes in a passionate plea filled with wit, humour and examples of some of the most outrageous uses of the technology. The once promising QR codes have become an unintuitive, nonsensical, logistical problem that requires additional and often unnecessary effort from consumers. There are plenty of websites depicting the “fails”  of QR codes: http://wtfqrcodes.com/

2. Immediacy is imperative. Especially in the social and mobile space. When you have customers who can complain about your customer service in real-time, you better respond in real-time. The story of Joshie and the Ritz-Carlton (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-hurn/stuffed-giraffe-shows-wha_b_1524038.html) was referenced several times throughout the day – the hotel’s quick response was key to maintaining its standard of service and brand image, which leads to the next point…

3. Your logo doesn’t matter. It’s the associations that consumers make with your logo that matter. While I don’t fully agree with this statement, it does highlight the importance of actions speaking louder than words (or pictures, symbols, etc), which is why…

4. Brand building starts on the inside. Having had this hammered into my head in most of my b-school courses, this is obviously nothing new. But many companies today could still benefit from this truth.

5. Education needs to be revisited. Not exactly marketing-related, but it came from Mark Ecko, who spoke at length about the type of learning that inspired his work in music and personal branding. I couldn’t agree more with his point that education shouldn’t just consist of a structured formula and a few textbooks churned out by a publishing company; people learn best by doing and our education system needs to follow that.

*Bonus take-away: Canadians are extra polite (apparently). Yes, not only are we known for this, but apparently we love to admit it too.