Sunday, July 24, 2005

ASU Orientation - July 17-21 2005

Okay… This is both extremely long, and will likely be updated several times, both as I refine it, and hopefully get some pictures to add to it. I was advised by a fellow student to just slam all this into one post rather than have multiple separate ones, so … I did!

For those interested in a clean-looking snapshot of the week, you can find one here, though I don't know how long that link will be good.

Day One – July 17

I arrived around noon on the 17th. My first impression of Phoenix: Unnatural. Even standing in the shade waiting for the hotel courtesy shuttle felt like standing in an oven. SO, I can’t say that I’ll miss being there much during the summer! I got checked in, and goofed off until around 3:00 to go down and register with the school (registration ran 2:00 – 4:30). I came downstairs, and sure enough, there were the personnel from the school. I strolled up (in my Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals), gave my name, and they started preparing my materials. Just then, out of nowhere, two cameramen jump up and start going all paparazzi on me! A bit unnerving at first, but I soon learned that they were there giving us that treatment all week, with good reason (to be detailed later).

Around 5:30, most of us gathered for the happy hour at the hotel. There was a good bit of chatting and the like, but nothing of huge consequence. We all proceeded to the opening banquet at 6:30 or so. What followed – in addition to a good meal – was a very nice welcome from the staff of the online program, headed by Dr. Johnny Rungtusanatham. During his remarks, he emphasized the high quality standards they had for admits in the online program. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the average GMAT fell a few more points to 595, but I didn’t really do my part bring that up a whole lot, so I guess I can’t complain. ;-) One of the things that really stuck out in my mind was one remark Johnny made (paraphrased) – “We will make you work. And we will not apologize! So, perhaps a bit ominous sounding, but I really appreciate the fact that they plan on challenging us.

Afterwards, a few of us went down to the hotel bar, and met up with some of the 2nd year students from the online program who were in for their optional orientation. I’ve got to say, I was very impressed by the level of camaraderie these guys had, for being in an online program. You’d have thought they were old high school buddies by the way they were carrying on.

Day 2 – July 18

This was primarily the fabled “team challenge” day. After breakfast at the hotel, we boarded the bus for campus promptly at 8:00 AM. A short drive to campus later, we proceeded to a lecture hall in the business building. We were introduced to the Student Services for the online program. This was really great, because you really got the impression of how many people they have working to support the online students – from various tech support staff to financial aid to the program managers – quite an organization built around it. From there, we headed to the athletic facility on campus for the team challenge. Being as the high that day was 115 ˚F, the activity was understandably indoors. Though some might describe the activities as “lame team building”, they really served their purpose. The first was to get together with your pre-assembled group.

A side-note on our sub-groups or teams – our cohort of 60 people was pre-subdivided into 10 teams of 6 for group work, general support, and the like. I don’t know exactly who put them together, but they did make some effort to balance the groups by background, so you didn’t end up with one group of all engineers, one of accountants, so on and so forth. I think this will really make a big difference in our later understanding and execution of coursework and projects, by necessitating a variety of business backgrounds.

At any rate, back to the first exercise... We assembled in our teams, and our first task was something they dubbed “Monster Medley”, if memory serves – that is, to create a song from one line of each individual team members’ favorite song. Oh, and it had to be choreographed, too. Needless to say, the final products were quite humorous. Most people (myself included) aren’t really the most … umm… skilled of singers, and they know that, and thus usually try to avoid situations in which they actually have to sing. No respite, here – everyone had to get up there, belt it out, and shake it. I think it accomplished the goal of loosening everyone up, and putting everyone on the same level ground by running them all through an embarrassing gauntlet. ;-)

From there we proceeded to an exercise many have done before in various forms – the general them is there’s a balance beam that you as a team have to cross. A hazardous substance (“nuclear peanut butter”, I believe) covered the floor, so if you fell off, you and your partner (who you could not lose touch with) would have to cycle back and attempt to cross again. The catches were that 1) nobody could leave the balance beam until all people were on it, and 2) one pair of people was designated as … I don’t know; ultra-sensitive or something, such that if they fell off, everybody had to go back and attempt to cross again. Naturally, I was one half of that handicapped pair. I really don’t know how it happens to me; it just does. Anyhow, we were allowed 2 or 3 “mermaids”, who could travel freely throughout the hazardous substance to help us out. I’ve got to say – this was the most painful exercise I have been through in a long time. Our team’s strategy was to send the handicapped pair across first, in the event that they fell, minimal effort would be lost. I was a supporter of this strategy, and still think it was the right one. However, I didn’t quite realize that this would mean I would spend 20 minutes or more balancing between a 2x4 (on the narrow end, naturally), and a 4” strip of 4x4. Sure, maybe it sounds easy. Try it. For those that don’t know me, I’m a big boy. I was, naturally, partnered with a lady of smaller stature, so right off the top we were imbalanced. We started off in a ball-room dancing pose, helping each other balance. By the end, we were quite literally embracing each other and a “mermaid”, as our legs were about to give out. But, our team prevailed, even if we might have attempted it the hard way, and that was a really good feeling.

The third exercise was kind of like telephone, only with a drawing – we stood back-to-back, and a drawing was given to the person at the end of the line, who traced it on the back of the person in front of him, so on and so forth, until the first person in line drew what they understood the drawing to be. I’m pleased to report that our team leveraged technology to complete the exercise quite successfully. We had the last person text-message the first person what was in the drawing. ;-) Before anyone gripes about ethics, we were told that the only rules were no talking and no looking behind you. So we were all “outside the box”, and all that good stuff.

The fourth exercise is a bit tough to describe – it was to navigate through a maze as a team, but where the actual walls of the maze couldn’t be seen, so we had to trial-and-error through it, using the team to remember the correct path and the like.

All in all, yes, they were lame, warm-fuzzy team building exercises. However, I think everybody (myself included) had a really good time with them, and learned a lot about both people on their sub-team, and the cohort as a whole. This is another important point to me with going online, and the effort ASU has made to make sure that we get that interpersonal experience as much as possible, even though many of us may never meet in person again.

From the team activity, we headed to lunch, on our own (though with $10 lunch cards provided earlier) in the Memorial Union (“Student Center”, “Student Union”, etc) on campus. We then re-assembled for a Team Decision Making exercise, and followed that up with our intro to the website, et al, that we’ll be using for the next two years. Lots and lots of support staff; I was very impressed.

We then had our first faculty presentation on the Organizational Behavior course with Kathryn Jacobson. I did hear some rumor from the 2nd year students the day before that their OB class had been quite … “hellacious”, I think, best sums up what I heard. Between an apparently obscene amount of reading and an instructor who may not have been the best for the online medium, many had some complaints with the course. Apparently, the staff listened, because we do have a different instructor (the now-degreed teaching assistant from the aforementioned class’s course). She seems really nice, into the online medium, and really seems to want to help us succeed. She made no bones about the fact that it would be difficult, that there would be a lot of reading, and so forth, but listed her “contractual obligations” with us, which included checking the forums 2-3 times per day, once per day one the weekend, feedback on cases within 3 days, etc. In short, I think that she seems like a really good instructor, so I’m looking forward to the class.

We then had dinner out at a local restaurant courtesy of the W.P. Carey Alumni Council. This was yet another great time to bond with fellow members of our cohort.

Day 3 – July 19

The agenda had us at the hotel all day, which was nice, because it meant we had an extra 30 minutes in the morning. The agenda was primarily more “meet the faculty” and then playing "The Beer Game" (no, there's no actual beer involved) in the afternoon.

We started off with Dr. Stuart Low, who will be our “Managerial Decision Analysis” (AKA Statistics), which is the first course beginning Monday. This lead into a session taught by the Arandas called “Thinking as a Competitive Advantage”, focusing primarily on … thinking. ;-) Seriously, it was all on thinking creatively, getting outside the box, and all that good stuff. After lunch, we had Managerial Economics with Dr. Hector Chade. We then had our introduction to Supply Chain Management with Dr. Thomas Choi. My impression of all of the faculty was very high. At first glance, you might think a kind of stiff, dry professor. All of them were very personable, with their own unique sense of humor, and seem very committed to helping us master the material. One thing I did notice was that every professor (including Dr. Jacobson from yesterday) made it a point to mention that we would be getting the exact same material and even the exact same evaluations (read: tests) as the full-time and part-time programs. This is a really big thing to me (and I think to most). I did have to wonder, though, if they had been instructed or advised to mention it, since every single one of them did it. Either way, the school is obviously staking their name to the quality of the online program, so I still feel very good about my choice.

During one of the coffee breaks, I chatted with Johnny some about Supply Chain, since it is my current area of work, and I recalled it was his area of expertise from earlier literature. I asked him if he would be teaching any of our supply chain courses, since that was his area and all, and his answer both surprised and impressed me. No, why would I?”, he started, at which point I’m wondering what obvious point I’m apparently missing. How would we resolve conflicts of interest, if somebody had an issue with a grade that I gave them, and I am also the director of the program? Maybe it was off-the-cuff, or maybe it was his standard response – either way, it is yet another point of the degree of professionalism and high standards that was apparent throughout the week of both the staff and the program in general. I continue to be impressed.

From there, we spent the most of the afternoon playing that venerable exercise known as the beer game. This is a great exercise for not just supply chain types, but really anyone in business. You can spend all kinds of time describing the bullwhip effect, and how lead-times affect supply planning and sales, and how important it is to communicate both up and down the supply chain, but you really might not make your point until you demonstrate it with this simple exercise.

Day 4 - July 20

Today we headed back to campus. We had been advised ahead that today would be a long one, and those advisements were indeed correct. The primary task to today was the case study. We started off the morning with a few more faculty introductions, for both Financial and Managerial Accounting, from Dr. Steve Golen and Dr. Stacey Whitecotton, respectively. As before, both professors were extremely personable, and seemed very supportive of the online medium.

Dr. Tom Keller then took over to prep us for the case study. Of all the faculty we’d seen, I thought that he seemed the “closest” to business, having started several companies and the like, so he was a great instructor for the case competition. He went over strategies to approach case studies in general, which was quite helpful. We then received the case (reg req'd) to begin reviewing at lunch. After lunch (a sandwich, chips, and a cookie - a bit light for me, but it was a good sandwich) and reading the case some, we headed to conference rooms with our respective teams to begin working in earnest. I won’t detail our approach or our solution or any of the like – I will say that it was a great exercise, both to begin thinking on that broader business sense, and as yet another team building exercise. You can imagine that as the hours ticked by and the rooms got hotter, things got a bit tense at times, a trend that I think held for just about every team. However, it was really invaluable to spend that time working and discussing with these people, who your only contact with over the next year will be virtual.

The brought in dinner (pizza and salad – some had a gripe with that; I thought it was quite good) around 6:30. We finally wrapped at about 10:30, with the presentation complete, slides printed, and executive summary written. Almost 11 hours, which on the one hand, was a very long time, and on the other, was just not long enough. Interestingly, the case that we analyzed was the same one analyzed for the 2005 PAC 10 Case Competition – and they had 24 hours. Still, a great exercise.

Day 5 – July 21

Today was “D-Day” – presentation of our cases to judges. Most of us slept quite well, I think, at least for the few hours that we slept. I stayed up rehearsing my part of the presentation for a bit, and I don’t think I was alone. My team elected to meet early before the buses departed for campus, to get at least one dry-run in. After arriving on campus, we had our cohort photo taken, on the library steps. We then headed into the business building to wait for our presentation to the judges. The nice part, at least for my time, was a 11:00 presentation time, so we had almost two hours to rehearse. We must have ran through it 5 or 6 times, and every time we got better. When H-Hour arrived, we made our pitch to the judges, who were local executives and such. Our presentation went fairly well, I think – We weren’t the most flamboyant group, but we got our point across professionally, and handled the questions well.

Upon completion, we headed back to have our team and individual photos taken. We had about an hour until lunch, so I headed down to the bookstore for a bit. I’ve got to say – that was probably the hottest walk I have ever taken, and I had already ditched my coat and tie. At 12:30 we reassembled for lunch, and had the judges sat out our tables so we could have some good casual conversation with them, which was really neat. We then had some feedback from the judges, and they announced one winner per room of judges (there were three). Regretfully, our team was not one of those, but so it goes. Overall, I still think we were very pleased with our performance, and how we’d come together to tackle the task at hand.

We then had the opportunity to chat with the judges individually over the next hour or so, and the bus headed back to campus around 3:45 or so. I arrived back, and then took a much-needed nap, until about 5:00. I hopped in the shower, and then went downstairs for the happy hour to hang out with the crew before we went to the closing banquet at 6:30.

I can’t speak for others, but I thought the banquet was a blast. After everyone had eaten and such, Johnny began a presentation of some of the better candid moments caught by the aforementioned paparazzi. They must have taken literally thousands of pictures over the week, and somehow they had managed to pick through them all for some of the most … err … “choice moments”.

In summation

I’ve got to say, all in all, it was a great experience. I was impressed by the caliber of most everyone that I met, and also by the caliber of the faculty and staff of the school. They really put a lot of effort into the program, from what I’ve seen so far. The teamwork aspect really seems to play a huge role – this is a very big positive to me. Some folks might note that online students miss out on the whole networking thing. While it will definitely be a bit different, my impression is that we will indeed have a very tight bond with members of our cohort – if nothing else, this is evidenced by the interactions I witnessed of the 2nd year cohort.

It was an absolutely packed week, and I was bone-tired by the time I arrived home. My only critiques would be to build in a little more structured bonding time – though there was lots during the day, many folks would just disappear at night. While I certainly respect their prerogative to do so (hey, who doesn’t have some work e-mail to catch up on?), I would have liked to have seen more people out and getting to know each other "after hours".

Touching again on the customer service aspect, I appreciate that the accomodations and meals (save one) were completely taken care of, and bundled in the cost of attendance.

In short, I hope that other online MBA programs have similar orientations for their students, because I think it will prove to be an absolutely invaluable part of the whole experience.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Business Experiment

Rob, from over at BusinessPundit, has a really neat idea he blogged about, now called The Business Experiment. In short, it's going to be an experiment in an "Open Source business model". Being an Open Source Software nerd, of course I find it interesting!

Monday, July 11, 2005

University of Florida

I had a request for my opinion on the Internet MBA program through the Warrington College of Business at the University of Florida. First and foremost, it's well to note that they were one of the first - if not the first - to offer an AACSB-accredited MBA online. This should mean, in theory, they've had lots of time to work out the kinks, so to speak. Additionally, they offer two versions - a two year, and for those with an undergrad in Business, a one year option. Personally, I think I would opt for the two-year program - Sure, it's nice to get things over with quickly, but I just think that trying to cram everything into one year - even assuming an undergrad in business - will result in much of the information being lost on you, or quickly forgotten. That is, however, just my opinion.

Let's see how it stacks up against the "main criteria" first:
  • AACSB Accreditation - Yup.
  • Ranking/Reuptation - Warrington is is ranked #42 by USNWR in 2006. It is unranked by BusinessWeek (2004) and the FinancialTimes (2005). They are well ranked in several sub-categories (regional, public schools, E-MBA, concentrations, etc); they toot their own horn here.
  • Degree Differentiation - They do not differentiate full-time/part-time/online. This is a Good ThingTM - They take their online programs seriously enough to equate the final product to that of their full-time offering.
  • Interaction - A mix of synchronous and asynchronous, and moderate to high in-residence time for an online program, with an intial orientation plus 7 weekend visits.
  • Specialization - As best I can tell, the Internet MBA is General Management only.
Pretty good, if you ask me! It's not ranked by BusinessWeek or the Financial Times, but I think it still offers good "big-name" brick-and-mortar value, along with an excellent Top 50 ranking by US News & World Report. The cost is $37,000, which includes everything but travel and hotel stays for the residencies (though, they will coordinate hotel arrangements on your behalf). Do recall, that's 8 weekend trips to Gainesville, FL, so that may or may not be a big impact on your budget, depending on your location.

Two things that are included that are a bit unusual to me are a) a laptop, and b) all the "core content" lecture materials - both lectures andPowerPoint - on DVD (Source: The 19.5 MB flash presentation on their web page). Some (myself included) might find the inclusion of $2,550 of institution-chosen computer hardware and software to be a bit annoying; thinking that they could find one for less. Without knowing exactly what software is included, though, it's hard to tell how much better you could do on your own. For the busy or those that just don't want to fool with it, I'd imagine it'd be pretty nice to just get a laptop with all the software you'll need for school pre-installed. I would also imagine it would make tech support through them all the easier, since the techs and users can have a standard configuration to work from. The inclusion of "core content" on DVD is a really neat concept to me - to have something of a lecture reference library of your entire MBA would have to be handy! For the road warriors out there, I think having the ability to watch lectures while in-flight, or otherwise un-connected to the 'net, would be a big plus.

The classes are 2-3 at a time per 4 month session (trimester, I guess, technically). Looking at their course schedule, it does look like they make some attempt to balance it out with (in general) two 3 credit hour classes, and one 1 credit hour class. Personally, I think I'm still partial to the courses in series rather than parallel, but your mileage may vary.

Since this blog is ... well ... my blog, and I want to do more than just aggregate information, I'm going to try and compare to my experiences thus far. Primary differences are some rankings - ASU is ranked 31 by USNWR (2006); Top 30-50 BusinessWeek (2004), and #66 globally by the FinancialTimes (2005). However, those in the south-east US might get more mileage out of UF's name than they might ASU's. The other prime difference is the amount of in-residence required - 2 weeks max for ASU and IU; 8 weekends for UF. As far as "online-friendly", from what I've seen so far (which is only things available publicly on the respective school's sites), I'd put ASU and UF at the top, followed by IU. I'd really like to see UF offer some sort of "test drive" of their system (proprietary, developed in-house), since they seem to be quite proud of it - that could possibly put them at the top, but I can't make that call without seeing it. There is a "demo", but it's just a video of the system being used, you don't get to play with the actual system. The resolution wasn't great, but it looks comparable to BlackBoard and the like.

Key questions or concerns I'd ask myself before attending UF (roughly in order of priority)?
  1. Is the 8 week-end trips to Gainesville, FL, something I want (or really don't want)?
  2. Am I happy with the ranking and reputation?
  3. Is the one-year or two-year program right for me?
All in all, I think the Internet MBA at UF looks like a great option. All my experience is simply from browsing the site - so take all this with however many grains of salt that you need to. That said, I really think you can get a feel for how seriously they take their online program, and how online students are valued, just poking around their site, and we all know how I feel about customer service to the online student.