Masters of Business Awareness

So now I’m two thirds of the way through my MBA, not counting the dissertation. Have I learned anything? Yes, I have. I wrote previously about how useful I found the class on statistical analyses, but I’ve also now got a good appreciation of accounting and finance. By way of a benchmark, I didn’t even know the difference between accounting and finance before, nor sales and marketing for that matter. Now I probably haven’t learned much more than the basics, but it nevertheless allows me to look at companies quite differently. I also understand a lot more of the terminology which gets used in financial reporting.

I’ve also completed a good class on strategy, something I didn’t think I’d find very useful for some daft reason. I found the difference between commodities and other goods interesting, as well as the different strategies companies pursue in attempting to gain competitive advantage. We did a lot about competitive advantage, and how some companies do well and others fail. Underpinning all of this was a Capsim strategy simulation we played over the term which involved selling electronic sensors while balancing R&D, sales and marketing, production, and financing. I was skeptical at first but once I’d figured out how it worked I got stuck right in, and I came out the other end knowing an awful lot more about competitive advantage and how commercial enterprises work at the strategic level. Alas my team didn’t win the competition; we had in our class a young Ukrainian who was extremely gifted at figuring this stuff out and he left us for dust, but we easily came second.

What this has shown me is how unusual the oil industry is. For a start, there’s just so much money kicking around. I’m studying cases regarding the financing of investments of around $5-10m, which in Exploration & Production represents the money wasted because a manager didn’t want to change a wrong decision because he’d look bad in front of his boss. The first big oil project I was involved in, Sakhalin II, started off with an $8bn budget, it rose to $12bn and eventually came in around $20bn. Nobody really knows. I don’t know what the original budget of Kashagan was, but the main dispute now is whether the final price was $50bn or $80bn. Again, nobody really knows. If any other industry outside of government spent money this way, they’d go bankrupt within weeks.

The oil industry is also unusual in that the main players are partners as well as competitors. In any oil and gas development there is one operator and several partner companies. In the North Sea ExxonMobil often had an equal share of a development alongside Shell, who would operate the thing. This is done to reduce risk and make raising capital easier, but it’s equivalent to Boeing and Airbus teaming up to develop a new fighter for the US Air Force. When we studied flat and tall corporate structures and the characteristics of each, it was obvious which category my former employers fell into. I knew this already of course, but I didn’t realise quite how hierarchical oil companies are compared to other major corporations (one or two readers might find it interesting that the companies most often used to compare tall versus flat organisations were IBM and Intel).

The other thing which struck me about the oil industry is how unbelievably slow and bureaucratic the decision-making process is. In my previous place of work, decisions would take months and sometimes years, involving endless meetings up, down, and across the organisation. There may be good reasons for this, but most commercial operations don’t have this sort of time to waste. During one of the seminars I spoke to a chap who worked for a big pharmaceutical company in Switzerland, and he showed me the app he uses for processing and submitting his expense claims. He scans the receipts, clicks send, and it’s automatically approved within hours. Hotel bookings, flights, and ground transport work much the same way. If someone brought that into an oil company they’d summon witchdoctors to cast out the demons within. Booking tickets and processing expenses in my last place of work involved dozens of people, umpteen signatures, and half a forest for each trip.

Sixteen years in the oil industry has sheltered me from a lot of things, and my MBA is making me see the world in a different way. I’m also beginning to sniff out potential opportunities here and there. That was the primary purpose of doing it, of course.

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Into-the-box thinking

Something I’ve learned doing my MBA is that it is possible for someone to be very intelligent, well-credentialed, and clearly a subject matter expert yet show a startling lack of intellectual curiosity or talent for critical thinking.

If someone presents themselves as an expert on a subject and I don’t know them, I try to build trust in what that person is telling me. I do this by asking them a difficult question or challenge something they’ve said. The way they respond will tell you an awful lot about what that person can really teach you. I used to do this with technical experts in my previous job, and most of the time they’d fall over themselves to explain their point in considerable detail. Thanks to one electrical engineer, I now know rather more than I used to about variable frequency drives. Opposite the electrical engineer sat a naval architect who I’d often pop in and see just because he’d start talking about some aspect of his work which I’d find interesting. Other times, particularly with managers but rarely with engineers, the response would be an instant dismissal based on the first thing which popped into their head. They most likely do this because they’re incompetent; they get away with it because of their position in the hierarchy.

But I’ve discovered even knowledgeable people like professors can respond this way too. My theory is it’s possible to become very successful in a given field by applying the prevailing orthodoxy and doing exactly as everyone expects without the slightest deviation. Like this, you can become very competent in your chosen subject – until someone chucks a curveball at you and it becomes clear you’ve had no practice in dealing with dissenting opinions. Some professors clearly like their views to be challenged or a strange idea thrown at them. “Okay, let’s look at this,” one might say and a discussion ensues. Or another will say: “Ah, no. This is why you’re wrong. What you need to consider is…” But others don’t seem to like it at all, and on occasion it’s  obvious they’re hearing common objections to an orthodox position for the first time.

Sadly, I think this is the future of education and expertise. Very bright people will be channeled into narrowly focused areas of expertise and discouraged from ever thinking for themselves outside the boundaries set by those who control the subject. A simple test of this theory is to listen to an expert in one field talk about another. More often than not it’s incoherent, emotionally-driven gibberish reminiscent of a protest organised by high-schoolers. I suspect the root of the problem lies partly in the pervasive culture of credentialism. If the certificate didn’t matter, there’d be no point attending a university or business school to get from a lecturer what you could easily learn by reading a book and doing some exercises. The added value a lecturer brings is the ability to go beyond the orthodoxy, stimulate discussion, push the boundaries a little, explore ideas, and get some real-world experience thrown into the mix. There were one or two classes I’ve had where I’d have happily paid just to hear the professor speak, because he had some fascinating insights into the world of business and management you’d never find in a textbook. But if the certificate is what matters most, lectures will turn into sessions where a professor simply regurgitates whatever you can find online or in a book.

The trouble with me – and there is always trouble with me – I go to school to learn, not to get a certificate. I also have one eye keenly trained on what I paid.

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How to pass exams in subjects you don’t understand

Last semester on my MBA I studied five main subjects, one of which was Quantitative Business Methods (QBM). It quickly became apparent this consisted entirely of statistical analyses, of the sort I don’t think I’d done before. I studied statistics as part of maths A-level and I’m sure I must have done some during my engineering degree, but this definitely seemed new to me.

At the beginning, I couldn’t work out why anyone in business would need to carry out statistical analyses of the sort we were being taught, which was mainly about finding correlations and associations in data. I was rather surprised to discover it was possible to find associations in sets of qualitative data; until then I’d assumed you could only do so with quantitative data. Anyway, the chap teaching us was exceptionally knowledgeable about statistics and appeared to do advanced analyses for fun. He took us deep into the theory, and pretty soon stuff like this was appearing on the board:

I was never very good at maths and when it came to statistics I was very average indeed (did you see what I did there?), so a lot of this confused me. I reckon by the end I grasped about 60% of the theory, and that involved me dredging my memory banks for stuff I’d learned 20 years before. But many of my colleagues had no such background and struggled like hell; one had done a bachelors in tourism, which I’m reasonably sure doesn’t involve giant sigmas surrounded by numbers.

It wasn’t until three-quarters of the way through the semester that I cracked it. I’ve written before about my engineering degree and how I didn’t understand half of what the lecturer said, and the secret is that doesn’t matter. With most engineering subjects there’s a theory part and a practical part. Take for instance the concept of second moment of area. This is the basis for why I-beams make such good structural members: the stress in the beam under load is inversely proportional to its second moment of area. The maths behind the second moment of area disappeared from my understanding decades ago (assuming it was ever there) but the principle behind the second moment of area and the importance of the I-beam cross-section remained forever.

It would have been possible for the lecturer to simply say an I-beam is better than a rectangular hollow section just because, but that wouldn’t have made us very good engineers because we’d have no confidence in the statement. By showing us the mathematical theory behind it, we had that confidence even if we didn’t fully understand the theory. The exam, like many others on engineering subjects, tested our knowledge of the theory as well as its application. To pass the engineering exams it was important to figure out which parts of the theory you were going to be tested on, and how to apply it to the practical part of the question. You did this by asking the lecturer what would be on the exam, getting hold of past papers, and speaking to those in the year above. In other words, most of us got good (enough) at passing the exams and only a handful of the super-geniuses actually understood everything. This was sufficient to produce engineers who can work in industry, where knowledge of the theory isn’t required.

So I figured out that’s what was going on with this QBM course. The professor could easily have said if P(F<=f) is less than 0.05 then there is an association and we could thereafter apply that to datasets in future, but we’d have no confidence in it. So we got taught the theory, and this scared the hell out of everyone (including me in places). But towards the end it became apparent that we were only going to be tested on the application, i.e. how to generate descriptive statistics from a dataset and interpret them rather than the underlying theory, which made it an awful lot easier. From there, it was just a matter of boiling it down into those bits which are really important and disregarding the rest.

Some of my colleagues looked at me as if I was some sort of sorcerer, so I explained that I don’t understand it any more than they do, I just know how to apply the theory in a practical application and what numbers to look for when interpreting the results. I spent two hours before the exam giving several of my fellow students a crash-course in how to pass it, mainly by telling them what was important and what they could ignore. I’m not sure how they got on, but I passed with a good mark and I hope they did too.

Funnily enough, when I started reading the academic papers in preparation for my dissertation I realised the regression analyses being used to determine correlations and associations were those I’d just been taught in my QBM course, so I was actually able to understand the numerical results to some degree. Without that, I probably wouldn’t have any idea how they’d gone about it. Which is why why they teach it, of course. It’s been a while since I’ve learned a new discipline, and it feels rather good.

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Utopian dreams

On Saturday I attended a seminar where we were divided into groups and asked to present some ideas on how we would run a business. All the groups except mine said they would achieve gender equality by staffing their businesses on a 50:50 male to female basis. All but four of those presenting were women, mostly in their early twenties. Someone asked how they would manage sexual harassment issues in such an environment, and the answer came quickly from a bright young woman:

“There would be zero tolerance; anyone who engages in sexual harassment would be immediately fired.”

At this point I piped up to say that sexual harassment is notoriously hard to define, and that a huge number of graduate employees end up in relationships, and often marrying, someone they met on the same program. Will this be outlawed under a zero tolerance regime, or is it only sexual harassment if the girl isn’t interested in the guy? Just then an NHS doctor chimed in with an anecdote. She knows of a case where a doctor asked out a nurse (of about the same age) and she filed a sexual harassment claim against him. The management started trawling and found, to everyone’s horror, he’d asked another nurse out. This was enough to get him suspended for 6 months and, although he’s now practicing again, his name has been dragged through the mud. My doctor colleague  thought this was extremely unfair. Having listened to this, another bright young woman said:

“Well, he should have thought twice about sexually harassing women, then.”

There then followed a discussion on sexual harassment in which someone proposed that, if more than one woman makes a complaint against a man, he should be fired even in the absence of any proof because there’s no smoke without fire. A chap sat behind me didn’t think much of this, and thought people are innocent until proven guilty. I realised that if this is the future, men will simply refuse to engage with women in the workplace beyond speaking in heavily-guarded sentences and ensuring there is always another witness around. Does anyone remember this story, about the professor who was accused of sexual harassment for making a joke about ladies’ lingerie in an elevator? Well, he’s had his appeal rejected. If this keeps up, segregated workplaces will look like an increasingly attractive proposition. At the very least, sensible men will avoid certain women at all costs – and certain companies.

A little later in the seminar, I shifted the conversation. I pointed out that all the business plans I’d seen involved some sort of manufacturing or production process. This will inevitably involve machinery, technicians, warehouses, forklifts, and large trucks. While you will find some women involved in such activities, the overwhelming majority of applicants will be men. However you cut it, women in general don’t want to be working the night shift loading lorries at the back of a paper mill or crawling around under a steam press trying to get a nozzle attached to a grease nipple. So whereas their intentions might be noble, they’re going to really struggle to fill 50% of the available positions with women: there simply won’t be enough of them applying. Women, in general, prefer to work regular hours in offices. In a business where the money is made in manufacturing or production, this makes them overheads.

The response was that very soon all these manufacturing jobs will be done by robots, and in the near future company roles might be better suited to women. I replied that anyone who thinks that has been nowhere near a production facility. The robots replaced the humans way back in the industrial revolution, but wherever there is machinery you still need humans maintaining it and doing the thousand tasks which don’t lend themselves to automation. A modern oil and gas facility can, in theory, run itself 24/7 without human intervention. Yet they have a small army of people monitoring the dials, ready to jump in when things go wrong, and another army working full time on maintenance and inspection. So I remain sceptical that robots will make all these jobs obsolete in the near future.

But the exchange confirmed what I already knew, having written about it before:

It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.

And it’s no secret which demographic is going to be fully engaged in these make-work schemes. But I fear some young women are in for one hell of a shock. When Laurie Penny fantasised last year about robots making men’s work obsolete, she didn’t seem to realise that mindless, repetitive, paper-shuffling in compliance and HR is a far riper target for automation than the stuff men do.

There seems to be money to be made filling the heads of young women with fantasies about 50:50 workplaces in profitable industries where men are fired on the spot for the slightest transgression. These efforts have succeeded to the point many think this is the inevitable future of global businesses. One thing is certain: the manufacturers of antidepressants have a rosy future ahead of them.

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Rumbled

So the university staff have found my blog; I wondered how long it would take. They’ve not made any remarks, other than an offhand comment from one of the professors at a party last night that he’d read what I’d written. The next question is how long it’ll take my fellow students to find it.

Yesterday one of my professors, who is Indian-born and trained as a lawyer in his home country before moving to Switzerland, remarked he doesn’t like socialism, is in favour of anarcho-capitalism, and is a libertarian. I was rather cheered by this. Would I have got a professor echoing similar sentiments if I’d gone to a US college, or Manchester Business School? Or would I have had to listen to anti-Trump diatribes and monologues on the virtues of Barack Obama?

I’ve only been here two weeks, but thus far I’ve seen no sign that ideological conformity is demanded from my school; on the contrary, robust debate and contradictory opinions seem to be encouraged. That alone is probably worth the monthly parking fees in Geneva.

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Discussion Held

The other day one of my professors read a piece from a fiction book, supposedly written by a man, in which a female employee laments that all men in her organisation are sexist pigs who will never change. He read it out simply to make us aware that sexual harassment in the workplace is something we all need to be aware of. He then asked for comments. Have a guess whose hand went up first?

My opening remark was that the sentiments expressed in the passage he read out, although a work of fiction, are a foundation of third wave feminism. I then stopped to briefly explain the difference between second and third wave feminism, because this appeared to be new territory for everyone, including the professor. I then said that, if these sentiments are true and men are truly unreformable sex pests, the logical conclusion is a return to segregated workplaces and an admission that those old dinosaurs of the 1950s were right all along. Is this what everyone wants? Silence.

A lively discussion ensued and I withdrew for a few minutes, but when the subject of the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling came up, I had a wealth of pre-prepared arguments to put forward. The clincher was, if all these brilliant women are underpaid, why hasn’t a company sprung up which hires them all and crushed their competitors into dust? That one made the professor pause.

The thing is, as I wrote here, if you’re going to raise a contentious issue you’d better hope there’s not someone in the audience who’s given it serious consideration and reached a different conclusion from you unless you have all your ducks in a row. All I was doing is repeating the strongest lines of argument I’d seen others make – such as Christina Hoff Sommers, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson – during endless debates on the same subject. At one point I had to confess, with a grin, that reading and writing about this stuff is a hobby of mine. I don’t think anyone expected that.

Still, it was a good discussion and the professor right to raise it: sexual harassment is a big topic in the modern business environment, whether we like it or not. I also learned from the professor that Switzerland is a very conservative country, and they haven’t bought into a lot of the gender equality stuff. As I’ve said before, the Swiss are a serious people.

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Really Dangerous

Via a reader, this story:

A publisher has said it will stop selling a GCSE textbook after it was found to contain stereotypes about Caribbean families.

The paragraph in the sociology of families section of the book reads: “In Caribbean families, the fathers and husbands are largely absent and women assume the most responsibility in childrearing.

Is this true?

The lone parent charity Gingerbread says that in families of Black or minority ethnic backgrounds, 21% are single parent families compared with 16% nationally. The parent’s gender is not stated.

Not quite “largely absent”, then. Anyway:

People on social media have called the text “racist”.

Of course.

Tamu Thomas is from Motherhood Reconstructed, which celebrates black British mothers.

I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like if you were a black child, sitting in class and reading a statement like that.

I suppose it depends on whether the child is in the 21% cohort who has no father at home.

“I do acknowledge that the number of families with absent fathers is higher in the black community, proportionally. But when something is put forward as fact like that without explaining the historical reasons why that might be the case, without any context, that’s really dangerous.”

What historical reasons would they be, then?

“If we had an educational system that actually studied and analysed the black experience, including the impact of the slave trade and racism in society, it would be different,” Tamu says.

So it’s okay to say, quite correctly, that children in Caribbean families are more likely to grow up without a father – but only if slavery and racism are to blame. Now slavery ended in the Caribbean in 1834; I confess I’d quite like to attend a class explaining why this is the cause of men abandoning children they fathered in the past ten years or so.

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First Week

So I’ve done my first week of my MBA, which consisted of lectures on:

1. Organisational Behaviour, i.e. how the shape and behaviour of organisations change as they grow.

2. Management Skills

3. Managerial Accounting

4. Marketing Management

5. Quantitative Business Methods, i.e. statistics

The lecture on statistics involved a certain amount of maths, and I saw a quadratic equation for the first time in years. Happily, it’ll not be a patch on the maths I had to tackle for my engineering degree. There will be no matrices or complex numbers, for a start. So far, I’m finding it all quite interesting, even the accounting. Yesterday a classmate nudged me and asked whether I was genuinely paying attention or just faking it. I replied that compared to sitting through French meetings, this was like watching an action movie. Things will have to get an awful lot duller before I start to regret coming here.

On Wednesday one of my classmates asked whether he thought our MBA was worth the money (about 32k euros). I ran a few numbers and worked out we get around 480 hours of lectures over the academic year, which works out at 65-70 euros per hour. A lawyer will charge 300 euros per hour, and a plumber around 100. Unless the lecturer  is a complete moron, this is pretty good value even if you’re in a class of twenty students. On top of that, we get guest speakers, company visits, and all the informal interaction with the professors. Whether the MBA will land you a job which pays enough to justify the outlay is another matter.

In my final term I’ll need to write a dissertation on a subject of my choosing, although it  ought to be related to HR and add to the sum total of academic knowledge. It must be between 15k-20k words, which having written a 76k word book doesn’t worry me much. But what about the topic? I’m tempted to address one of the subjects I bang on about on here. Perhaps a study into the effects of affirmative action regarding women and minorities on young men (or women) in a multinational? Does it make them re-think their future with the company, or dissuade them from applying in the first place? Or maybe the contradiction between a company’s commitment to diversity and their embrace of local content laws? I could even look at the effects of local content laws in some manner. I’ve got no idea how I would even begin to research any of this – my biggest worry is I don’t think companies would share data or allow me access – but they’d be interesting topics of study, and I need that. Has anyone done anything like this before?

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Back to School

So yesterday and today were registration and orientation days for my MBA, which will start properly on Monday. The first thing I noticed when we all assembled was I was the oldest person there by roughly a decade, and a good twenty years older than most. I  then realised I was mingling with undergrads which explained some, but not all, of the discrepancy. Alas, even once the MBA students had been filtered out, I was still the grandpa of the bunch. Some of them looked about fifteen.

You know when sometimes you wish you could go back in time and relive your younger days, only with the knowledge and wisdom you have now? Well, I felt a bit like I was doing that yesterday. The Dean of the school spoke to us – undergrads and postgrads together – and I nodded along thinking “yup, that’s about right”. I particularly liked the bit about having to get used to a new place and new culture. Interestingly, I probably listened more this time around than I did back in 1996. I’m not in the slightest bit concerned by what’s coming.

The business school is small, tiny in fact, and my MBA class only a handful of people. As such, I’ve already met pretty much all the staff and know half of them by name, including the Dean and his deputy. Contrast this with the University of Manchester which had thousands of students and a sprawling hierarchy between the Dean and the undergrads. Chatting with a few of the professors it seems they have considerable experience outside academia, which is a good sign. One thing they stressed is timekeeping: lectures start on time and the professors get annoyed if people are late. This is also a good sign. One of the reasons I chose Switzerland over France (which was cheaper) is I could imagine shelling out a load of money to find the lecturers unorganised, uninterested, and late which would annoy me no end. I don’t know if that’s what French business schools are like, but I didn’t want to risk it.

I heard a lot of Russian being spoken over the past two days, and I kept quiet that I could understand half of it. Quite a few of the school staff are Russian speakers, and we had Russians, Ukrainians, and Kazakhs in our group yesterday. As far as I could tell, I was the only Brit. In my MBA class I’m joined by two African ladies, a lady from Austria, a female NHS surgeon, a lady from Siberia, and a Thai chap who reckons it’s high time someone sorted his country out and the job should fall to him. Good on him, I say. We also have a bloke who speaks Russian and a Thai lady. While I am studying HR because nobody in that area of business understands engineering, projects, and operations the surgeon is doing an MBA because none of the managers in the NHS has a clue about medicine. Perhaps bridging yawning chasms in an increasingly managerial world is a well-paying niche? I hope so.

One thing I noticed is, like in France, young people in Switzerland an elsewhere in Europe spend an awful lot of their twenties doing a series of internships. Due to the labour laws, nobody wants to hire anyone young and experienced so they only offer them short-term internships. These seem very popular in Geneva. It appears jobs are thin on the ground in this city, especially for those with no experience. I’m hoping my experience will land me something once I graduate, but others are doing an MBA with almost no work experience because they have little other choice than to keep studying. This doesn’t sound like a very good state of affairs to me.

The school has pretty good industry connections and people who can advise how to land a job once you graduate. There are lots of company visits, guest speakers, and networking events which I intend to get the absolute maximum from. It seems having a chat with someone who likes the cut of your jib is a better way to get into a company than going through HR who, according to the person in charge of careers, are always useless. Who knew? However, I remarked that the names of the companies which flashed on the screen were giant corporations or supranational bodies, the type of which I wish to avoid and would be reluctant to hire a blogger who says mean things about polyamorists in an HR post. Google’s name was mentioned and everyone fell into an awed silence, whereas I thought I’d like to ask whoever shows up what he thinks of James Damore’s sacking, the board weeping over Hillary’s loss, allegations of trying to swing the election, and the inevitable antitrust suit that’s going to break the company up. I should probably learn to keep my trap shut on this course. Thankfully, the school and the professors also have connections with smaller companies, including a lot of start-ups.

We were also given some practical advice about Switzerland which gave me the impression it’s a serious country. For starters, you can’t do anything without a residency permit, and for that you need to demonstrate you have an address. They then post the permit to that address and if your name isn’t on the mailbox, they don’t deliver it. In fact, the Swiss postal service won’t deliver anything unless your name is on the mailbox. The person doing the presentation was almost apologetic about this, saying it was to make sure everyone who is claiming residency is living where they’re supposed to be. I thought it was a splendid policy, and if the UK had applied such common sense the authorities would have known who was in the Grenfell Tower and there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for wholesale fraud. We were also told that in Switzerland you pay your damned bills. If you don’t, you get one warning and a fine, then another, and after that you’re on some list which will make it impossible for you to rent or sign up to any new service for at least five years. Like I said, Switzerland is a serious country.

So on Monday I start: 5 evenings per week between 18:00 and 21:00 with a 16:30 start on Fridays. There will also be seminars twice a semester, plus other stuff I need to do. I was dismayed to find out I will have to write essays by hand under exam conditions because I simply cannot write any more: since graduation in 2000 I’ve had no reason to write block text, and the billion words I’ve written since then have all been done on a computer. So my first task is to practice handwriting again, writing two sides of A4 per day until I’m comfortable doing it again. I’d better get on with it.

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A New Direction

So, having decided the oil industry wasn’t for me, what to do next? My professional skill, insofar as I have one, is a project engineer or manager, basically someone who can organise, communicate, and coordinate a bunch of specialists to get stuff done. Although doing this well brings considerable added value to any organisation, I was faced with two problems if I attempted to take these skills into another industry (or even stay in oil and gas):

1. Project management positions are to some degree prestigious, hence they are granted to the favoured sons of the upper management regardless of whether they have the necessary skills and competence. There are exceptions, but it would be hard for me to break into a new industry and convince someone to give me a decent project manager role.

2. Project engineers tend to have to report to incompetent project managers, and you end up doing menial admin work on behalf of the dolt above you who is good pals with someone in the higher echelons. Also, project engineers tend to be badly paid because few recognise the importance of the role; you’re basically a dogsbody to be blamed when things go wrong. Depending on where you are, this can also apply to project managers. I was once in an interview for a project management position which reported into a technical manager. I asked what the technical manager’s job was, and was told he was responsible for the project execution. In other words, it was some loafer in HQ who wanted to tell the project manager how to run the project. Micromanagement and non-accountability is absolutely rife everywhere these days.

What I needed to find was a job that:

1. Came with good working conditions, i.e. if the pay was not great you’re at least somewhere without green in the flag and you can drink the tapwater.

2. Was a role that was growing, i.e. there are plenty of them about and, even better, the numbers are increasing.

3. Was a role that sat near the top of any hierarchy so, unlike project engineers who lie near the bottom, you’d not be handed shit-burgers every day.

4. Was generally badly done and if anyone halfway competent showed up, they’d immediately stand out.

So what role encompasses all of that? Why, Human Resource Management, of course!

Has the laughter died down? Have you all quite finished? Right, allow me to continue. HR is something that does need to be done properly, but almost all of the time isn’t. The principle reasons for this is as follows. What used to fall under the responsibility of middle management has been handed off to an HR department. This suits the middle management because the last thing a modern manager wants is responsibility, and it gives them a handy excuse at to why “nothing can be done” because “it’s an HR decision”. In theory, a centralised HR department is supposed to handle those responsibilities more efficiently than middle managers, but in practice they often don’t get handled at all. HR departments have grown increasingly remote from the middle management and most would have little to no idea what an actual worker did or why. Often HR doesn’t even sit in the same continent, let alone country, as those who generate the value in a company, yet they are tasked with producing policies and procedures which govern the minutiae of their working lives.

Everywhere I’ve worked without exception there has been an unbridgeable gulf between the HR department and those who carry out the company operations. On the rare occasions they meet, they’re talking completely different languages. In many instances, the HR department works chiefly as the propaganda organ of the senior management. Whatever they think they’re doing, it isn’t human resource management. The reason for this is the sort of people who are good at projects and operations have no interest in HR, and almost nobody working in HR went there intentionally: they ended up there because they were too useless to do anything else, or they saw it as a way to occupy a comfy chair in an air-conditioned office having got a 2:2 in Modern Literature and Psychology from the University of Glamorgan. Perhaps two or three times in my career I’ve encountered a genuine HR professional who studied for it specifically, and it’s like coming across Christiano Ronaldo playing football for the local pub. There is a drastic shortage of these people, and they’re worth their weight in gold.

Now the advantage I have is I am genuinely interested in HR management, these  days far more so than the technical stuff. I am sure part of this is having seen so much of it done badly while realising it should really not be that difficult. I’ve seen travel policies where one section contradicts the other, career managers who didn’t know the person whose career they were supposedly managing, untrained managers stepping on legal landmines wherever they trod, and CVs of competent people filtered out by HR while completely unsuitable candidates get the nod. Across the four branches of HR – policy, legal, training, and recruitment – I’ve seen little but blithering incompetence. All are subjects I’ve somehow become interested in, particularly those elements which are to do with personalities and human behaviours. I also take a keen interest in administration being done well, and if I have any skill it’s probably that; get your admin right and everything else becomes much easier. It also helps that I can write clearly and accurately, especially when it comes to reports, procedures, and emails.

Now I know I’d not last five minutes in an HR department of a major corporation, but I reckon I could bring considerable value to a small company. Consider a startup of 4-5 people, managed by the founders, who now need to expand to 20 people and assign someone to Bulgaria for 6 months where the factory for their prototype is being made. They’re going to need HR policies, but who writes them? Who’s going to set the housing policy in Bulgaria, and manage any visitors? They also need a finance manager; how do they recruit him? These are things the founders will have little interest in, and will either wing it or get some outside help. There are plenty of HR consultancies to whom you can outsource things like travel and accommodation policies, and the resulting documents are useful if the people to whom they supposedly apply want a good laugh. This is because HR consultancies are staffed with the sort of people who end up in HR, not people who know what an engineer or technician’s job involves. The company could also hire someone, perhaps a nice young lady with a few years experience working in the HR department of another company somewhere and she could ensure all employees are fully briefed on the diversity policy and the importance of ensuring all eleven managers sign off their expenses before they can be processed.

So here’s where I come in. I’m that rare beast who has an engineering degree, a lot of operations and project experience, and an interest in getting HR done properly and willing to do it myself. The trouble is, no company would hire me in an HR role: I have no experience outside winging it in various positions, and me waving my hands around saying “It’s common sense, innit?” isn’t going to convince anyone. What I need if I want to land an HR job in a small tech company is a course which will provide me with the complete and structured knowledge to do the job.

To that end I started looking for Masters or MBA courses in Human Resource Management. I dismissed the US business schools out of hand on the grounds I didn’t want to pay a king’s ransom to listen to Marxist harridans tell me I’m a rapist. I considered the UK but thought London would be expensive to live in and perhaps also filled with demented leftists, and it took under two minutes to write off Manchester Business School. So I looked at Geneva, for two reasons. The first is the Swiss tend to be quite sensible folk, serious about business, and their schools good (although very expensive). The second is I have an apartment in Annecy just 45 minutes away by car, meaning I don’t need to fork out for accommodation.

So I applied to an MBA in Human Resources Management at the EU Business School in Geneva and got accepted (the essay I submitted with my application was this one). The course begins in October and lasts a year, with lectures taking place between 6pm and 9pm each weekday evening. This is obviously to allow people to work while studying, but helps me in two ways. Firstly the commute will be much easier, going against the traffic, and secondly it leaves the day free for blogging and writing books.

At the end of the course I’ll probably look for a position in a company in Geneva; I am hoping my industry experience will make up for my lack of direct experience in an HR role. A small company might not need anyone full-time, but that’s okay; I can either work part time or in a dual role, running projects or operations as well. Having proper HR capability should also open the door to general management roles too; previous companies I’ve worked for would have paid handsomely for a general manager who could manage the HR himself. Long-term, I might even go into freelance HR consultancy, but that’s a way off yet.

So that’s the plan, folks. I’ll be in Paris until end August when my gardening leave finishes, in September I’ll move to Annecy, and in October it’s back to school.

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