A call for engagement

The Financial Times has just printed an interview with me, along with its view of what we, Cambridge Judge Business School, stand for. I would like to take this opportunity to add a few words of my own.

At the heart of our strategy are excellence, engagement and impact, both in education and in research. I talked about impact in my last blog post. On the education side, we are pushing our programmes further in order to offer a transformational experience to many of our students and participants. On the research side, we want to produce work that is rigorous – which provides theoretical insights that stand up – as well as relevant or impact-generating.

The word “theory” has a bit of a bad reputation out there, because it triggers associations of “complicated stuff that deep down I have never understood”. But theory is necessary to understand what is going on around you; we all theorise in some way. In the words of Luigi Pirandello, “You only see what you are prepared to understand. A fact is like an empty sack – it won’t stand up unless you put something inside it.” Something, that is, like a theory.

The scientist Robin Hogarth, a world authority on decision making and judgement, puts it like this: “There is nothing more practical than good theory, because it helps you to understand why things are happening.”

Experience does not by itself enable someone to teach others. The fact that something that you did in your career worked for you does not mean others should apply it too, because you have not told them all the relevant details of the context in which you achieved your success, and you have not told them about the relevant aspects of your or your followers’ characters.
Think of the mafia boss who says: “I’m a really good motivator. To prove it, consider this: when I put my hand on someone’s shoulder, look him in the eye and convince him to do something, he really goes for it.” But he forgets to tell you that he always has a guard with a machine gun standing behind him, ready to execute anyone who doesn’t accede to his wishes.
The value of applied theory is also evident in the following statement by the CEO of a European food company, for whom I recently wrote a letter of recommendation when he sought (and got) a new position.
This person wrote in his personal statement targeted at a prospective employer: “What surprised me was that I excelled in my managerial performance simply by applying what I had learned in business school (in fields such as accounting and finance, industrial economics, marketing, international business, business policy, corporate planning and organisation theory). Contrary to popular belief, I was living proof of the practical significance of studying in a good business school.”

In other words, impact comes neither from building theories in back rooms (these inevitably remain dry and sterile) nor from touting experience in “war stories” (experience often does not hold up under different circumstances or with a different person). Impact comes from combining both.

Why am I telling you this? Because you can play a significant role: our alumni all work in organisations of some kind, each aligning many individuals behind them to pursue a set of strategic goals (whether they’re concerned with profit, public goods, or public services). Where could we find a better opportunity to generate impact than with our alumni? You know us, and you remember which of us gave you the insights that still influence you now, however many years later.

Here is an email that I received from an alumna a month ago: “My current company has generously supported the entire MPhil in Management class for the module that Jochen Menges was leading. The students presented their work last week and it was very well received. The project lasted for six weeks and was supervised by sponsors here, and it was a great success. The Head of HR is considering four to five applicants from the course that presented to us, and others are applying to one of the 20 offices around the world. The board is so excited that they want to run the initiative again next year.”

But engagement can go deeper than working with students. We have faculty with deep expertise in management issues, and you may want to involve them with your organisation. I don’t mean in consulting, but in getting a perspective from a knowledgeable outsider and possibly engaging in a collaborative study.

David Eyton, Group Vice President, Research and Technology, at BP – a member of our advisory board and sponsor of the scientific centre at the University of Cambridge – states: “The biggest value for BP from the collaboration has not been from the specific problems solved, although those are also important, but from the unexpected perspective-widening insights that our technical people have received from the academics.”

So if you want a specific and well-defined outcome within a few weeks, call a consultant; but if you are willing to learn, engaging with business academics can be very productive. Our advisory board has recognised this, and supports our idea of engaging with businesses in more flexible ways, so that both sides can learn from the experience.

The board has created an initiative to explore fundamental management problems in companies, and through engagement with Cambridge Judge Business School, to examine them and create new solutions. I think it is a fabulous idea, and one that I would like to test out with alumni and their organisations.

I want to work with you, and I am keen to be as accessible as possible to alumni. If you are interested, and willing to collaborate with us – not on a consulting basis but with the aim of developing your talent further and collaboratively exploring your hardest management problems – then please get in touch with me.

9 Responses to A call for engagement

  1. Hi Christoph, I will be attending the MBA course at Judge starting in September this year. Both your interview with the FT and your blog post here are very inspiring. One of the big reasons I chose to come to Judge was the fact that it is part of a larger university – a university which is amongst the best in the world. I look forward to minging with and engaging with academics and students from a range of fields. I believe that it is the diversity of Cambridge which will add a huge amount of value.

  2. I think it is also important for Judge Business School to promote / build up brand recognition within the university itself.

    A lot of Cambridge University students don’t even know that the business school exists.

    • Very true, that is what we often hear too. The business school is working on enhancing its value proposition (research and engagement with potential breakthrough impact) AND on making this value proposition better known within the University and further afield.

  3. Indeed applying theory is the name of the game in business. As an exec coach I find that I coach successful people all of the time who have succeeded by learning to apply the theoretical frameworks and concepts they have learned into the everyday work of their organisationsquite quickly. Those whodon’t take the opportunity to translate theory into practice quite simply don’t transform themselves as leaders or their organisations. Quite simple really.

    • Quite right. Unfortunately, for many people, theory is “tray” because they have never learned how to connect theories to the causal structures that they see in the real world. It must be learned, and that is one of the things that we strive for at Cambridge Judge.

  4. Your article speaks to “balance” and that is indeed the key. A theoretician sitting in his office trying to frame the frenetic activity that his happening all around him in the workplace is as about as useful as the Logistics Manager attempting to chair a department. Again, balance, and appropriateness in the workplace, are key.

  5. I think that experience and research go hand in hand in enabling students to both learn and be ready for ‘real world’ situations. My MBA was earned online and I would say that I missed out on applied experience although my theory applications were correctly aligned with the future business transactions I was involved in. I am a proponent for a sound mix and integration of both concepts.

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