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Data Analysis & Writing the Dissertation

This is the final post in my P&D series, where I will provide an overview of the Research Analysis and Writing the Dissertation stages.

Research Analysis

The approach used for the data analysis differs depending on the research strategy and data collection methods used, so here’s a quick summary of the method I followed for Grounded Theory Research using Interviews.

As I alluded to in my previous post, one of the challenges I encountered was what to do with 15 interview recordings, each of around 30-45 minutes length – transcribing these was likely to take between 4 and 8 working days before I even started the analysis! However, reading the literature about Grounded Theory introduced me to the concept of coding: this involves taking the salient points from the interviews and assigning them to a ‘code’ which represents the essence of the statement. For example, the comment “a strategic alliance is where two organisations combine to produce a new product offering that does not exist today and brings value to both organisations” could be assigned the code “joint value-generating product offering”.

There are many different ways of undertaking qualitative data coding, included dedicated software packages such as NVivo. However, I decided to use Excel given that I didn’t want to spend time learning a new software application, and am very comfortable manipulating data in Excel. I started by listening to the recording of each interview and summarising the key statements made (as opposed to transcribing every word), as well as using a macro to record the timestamp for each comment:

Analysis Step 1

Then I reviewed all the statements across all interviews, assigned each of them to one of my research objectives (eg. long-term strategy, success factors, organisational readiness), and gave them an initial code to represent the statement:

Analysis Step 2

The advantage of this two-pass approach was that the initial recording of comments helped me become familiar with the data, and allowed me to get a view of the trends appearing between interviews, so I could choose codes that were consistent across all the comments.

The final stage of the analysis involved focusing on each of the individual research objectives separately, where I used an Excel PivotTable to summarise the codes assigned to each one. This was generally quite a long list (eg. 30-40 different codes), but reviewing all the codes together helped me to see trends or identify gaps in the level of detail. I was then able to return to the original data and re-code some of the statements (focused codes); this resulted in a more manageable list (eg. 10 different codes), which I could then compare across the different types of individuals interviewed.

An additional benefit to this approach (in addition to consolidating 816 statements down to about 60 codes), was that it provided a quantitive data set to work with alongside the original qualitative comments. Although the sample size was not big enough to draw statistically valid conclusions, I was still able to draw numerical comparisons of the data. More importantly, this exercise took around 27 hours rather than the expected 50-60!

Writing the Dissertation

Undoubtably the most daunting aspect of undertaking the P&D is writing the 15,000 word dissertation (or possibly longer with supervisor approval!). Although there is a typical structure for a dissertation, there is flexibility in how it is written. My advice would be to work closely with your supervisor to ensure it is structured in a way that suits them – not only because they have lots of experience in reviewing them, but also because they will be first marking your work. I had a really helpful supervisor who provided me with a pro-forma beforehand explaining what he typically likes to see in each section – by aligning my dissertation to this meant it would be presented in a way he expected, and ensured I did not miss any fundamental points. I was also in regular contact with him whilst writing my dissertation, not only to gain initial feedback on each chapter, but also to seek advice about topics such as the level of depth required for the literature review, and how to divide content between results, analysis and recommendations.

Here’s a brief summary of how I approached my dissertation

Introduction – I wrote this chapter prior to starting my research, and although I found it necessary to change it over time, I would definitely recommend writing this chapter as you start your P&D; it forces you to think about why your research is important, ensures you capture sufficient background information on the subject of your research, and encourages you to think about how you will go about your research – all of which help bring the P&D to life very quickly.

Literature Review – I’ve discussed the literature review in a previous post, but one of the biggest challenges I faced with this was how to avoid writing too much. Having a specific set of research objectives helped with this, as it provided focus to the review, and avoided me discussing the many interesting (but not relevant) findings on the topic in general.

Research Methodology – This chapter was slightly easier to write than others, and like the introduction I would suggest writing this before undertaking the research, as what you learn whilst writing this section may change how you approach the research itself – as I mentioned previously, I originally planned to pursue a case study approach, but writing this section resulted in me changing to the grounded theory approach, which was far more suitable to my P&D objectives.

Results – I encountered some challenges writing my Results chapter – the initial feedback by my supervisor highlighted that I had used this section to begin my analysis, with the consequence that I did not  display my results effectively. This highlights the importance of getting your initial draft to your supervisor early, as I was able to work closely with him to understand how to split content between the Results and Analysis chapters. Following a number of discussions, I focused on using the Results chapter to compare the various statements and codes identified for each of the two sample groups I interviewed. I used a combination of text, tables and charts to make it easy for the reader to interpret (and also to keep my word count under control!), which also helped highlight trends and patterns for discussion in the analysis chapter. Another minor challenge I encountered when writing the results was how to use references for comments made by interviewees, as all interviews were anonymous. I overcame this by using a code to classify different types of interviewees (eg. DH1..5 were department heads and SH1…5 were individuals working with strategic alliances).

Analysis – The analysis section focused on evaluating the research findings against the literature review. This was a much more descriptive section than the Results chapter, and  the section that required the most thought. It was really interesting to write this section, as bringing the literature review into context both helped explain some of the results I had seen, and also allowed me to identify some new theories: both specifically to the subject of my research, and also more generically to the field of strategic alliances itself.

Recommendations – This section is essentially the outcome from your P&D; ie. after undertaking the research and analysis, this is what my recommendation is moving forward. Having spent four months looking into the subject matter and speaking with many colleagues about the topic, I started writing this section with a view on what my recommendations would be. However, by taking the time to justify these recommendations using my literature review and analysis, I felt that I could really stand by these recommendations as they were proven by my research, as well as identifying some new recommendations that I had not previously considered.

Conclusion – There were three parts to my conclusion; firstly I stated a specific answer to the original research question. Although this may seem obvious, this is something that I didn’t naturally bring out in my first draft, and yet including it provided the dissertation with a strong point of closure. I also used this chapter to highlight some of the limitations of my research, suggest how it could be generalised to other subjects, and also propose potential ways of taking the research further.

Submission

Submission

And that was it … 6 months later, 110 pages (including appendices and references) were submitted to Warwick Business School. Not only did this represent the completion of my P&D, but it also marked the completion of my MBA – pressing the ‘Submit’ button for the final time was a wonderful feeling! Since then I have had my dissertation marked, and my MBA has been officially confirmed by the University. Next step … graduation!

My MBA Dissertation

Planning your P&D Research

Following the literature review which I described in my last blog post, the typical next step on an MBA project is the research stage. This was the stage that I was most looking forward to, as it allowed me to engage in the topic in a real-life environment, and capture new insights above those I had read about in the literature review.

Book - Research Methods for Business StudentsAlthough I already had a view on the approach I intended to take for my research, I reviewed the book Research Methods for Business Students first; this not only shaped my research plan, but also helped me appreciate the reasons why this approach was most suitable, as well as some of the limitations. It quickly became apparent that planning academic research is about much more than just deciding whether you want to undertake interviews, surveys, observation, etc., with many other factors to consider first.

Preparing for your Research

One of the first aspects to consider is the Research Philosophy, which could be one of Positivism, Realism, Interpretivism and Pragmatism. Following a brief review of these, it became clear that I was pursuing an interpretivist philosophy for my research. Although I don’t feel this impacted significantly on how I undertook my research, reading about these philosophies  brought an awareness of the different perspectives that research can take, and helped me appreciate how complex the field of research is.

Following this, I looked into the Research Approach. This appeared to be more  relevant to planning my research, as it describes the overall intent of undertaking the research:

  • Deductive – this type of research involves proving or disproving a specific hypothesis
  • Inductive – this is more of an exploratory approach to research, where the hypothesis is expected to ‘emerge’ from the research findings
  • Abductive – this is a combination of the above two approaches; inductive research is undertaken to identify a hypothesis, and then  deductive research is taken to prove/disprove it

Although I originally wanted to pursue an abductive research approach, following discussions with my supervisor I decided to use an inductive research approach, as I would not have had time to undertake two separate research exercises.

Next I considered the Research Methodology – was I intending to undertake quantitative research based on statistical or mathematical data, or qualitative research based on words, images and other less-structured data (I appreciate this is a somewhat simplified view of the two!). The majority of my research was likely to be qualitative (as I was planning to use interviews to capture participants’  viewpoints) but there was also likely to be a quantitative aspect as I intended to capture some information in specific categories, and then apply a mathematical comparison of the output. My key observation from this, however, was that the choice of qualitative or quantitative does not necessarily need to be made when planning research, and in my case developing my research plan changed the balance slightly.

Finally there is the Research Design:

  • Exploratory research – used to explore a topic and capture new insights
  • Descriptive research – used to understand what happened or is happening
  • Explanatory research – used to explain what happened or is happening

I opted to pursue an exploratory research design, as the objective of my research was to plan for a future scenario, as opposed to evaluating a past situation.

Research Strategy

Many different strategies can be used for undertaking research, including:

  • experiments,
  • surveys,
  • archival research,
  • case studies,
  • ethnography,
  • action research,
  • grounded theory research,
  • narrative inquiry

Initially my intention was to pursue a case study approach; however, after further investigation I realised this involved focused on explaining a past or current event, rather than preparing for a future one (which was the objective of my dissertation). This led me to look into action research, but this relies on the research resulting in changes to the topics being studied, which would not be possible in my “advisory” P&D. I finally decided to use a grounded theory research strategy, which involves developing new theories based on findings from my research.

Although the choice of research strategy may appear academic, I would strongly suggest that anyone undertaking a P&D considers this towards the start of their project – there is a wealth of information on each of these strategies that will not only help design the research appropriately, but also maximise the insights captured from it. I personally found a lot of value in reading about them, especially when I had decided on the strategy I wanted to pursue.

Data Collection Methodology

The final aspect to planning research (although ironically the one that most people think of first) is what method to collect data using. There are three key data collection methods for primary research:

  • Observation
  • Interviews & Focus groups
  • Questionnaires & Surveys

I decided to use semi-structured interviews for my research as they would allow me to explore the topic in-depth with the research participants, and also provide an environment where I could capture new learnings about a topic, rather than limiting the research to my current understanding of the topic. Here are some tips for anyone else considering using interviews for their research:

  • Getting a good sample is critical – I was lucky as I had a very supportive sponsor who helped facilitate access to a large and appropriate range of interviewees, but this is definitely something that should be considered early as gaining access can take some time.
  • Sony DictaphoneUse the right tools – I purchased a Sony Dictaphone just for this research, which was a very worthwhile investment as the interview recordings were extremely clear and easy to review and write-up.
  • Plan your interview, but be flexible – I spent a lot of time preparing interview themes, questions and discussion points, all of which were valuable for less forthcoming interviewees. However, some of the most insightful interviews were those where the interviewees strayed from the initial themes slightly, and exposed thoughts and observations that provided a more rounded view of my research topic.
  • Be conscious of the time to write-up the results – full transcribing of interviews can take 3-6x the length of the interviews (so 15 x 45-minute interviews would require 30-60 hours!). However, depending on the purpose of the research full transcribing may not be necessary; I used a coding approach to reduce this to about 2x the duration (see the textbooks on Grounded Theory for more information on this).

As you can probably tell from the above, planning research is far more involved than just choosing a way to collect data, and I recommend the above points are all given at least some thought prior to starting research (not least because it will help when writing the ‘research methodology’ section of your dissertation). I would also recommend either investing in or loaning two books – the first would be a broad business research book the explains the above in more detail Constructing Grounded Theory(such as the one I mentioned in a previous blog post); the second would be a book specific to your choice of research strategy (eg. grounded theory), as this will help ensure that your approach to data collection will allow you to analyse the results quickly, and in a way that maximises the value you get from your findings.

Overall I found the research stage of my P&D really interesting, and it gave me a fantastic opportunity to engage with some senior individuals at my employer and discuss a very interesting topic (and if there are any reading this – thank you very much for your time, every interview was extremely valuable). The next step of my P&D was to analyse the results and write the dissertation, which will be the subject of my next blog post.

The P&D Literature Review

It is with great pleasure that I can write that earlier this month I submitted the final assignment of my MBA, the dissertation. Pressing the ‘Submit’ button represented not only the completion of my Project & Dissertation, but also the end of my MBA studies – and despite having thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and acquired a wealth of knowledge, it felt wonderful to draw it to a close after 38 months of studying. All that is left now is to wait for my dissertation to be graded, following which I should be able to graduate and formally conclude my MBA in July this year.

Until then, however, I will continue sharing my experience of the P&D; my last post described my plan for the P&D, and I will now explain how I approached the first stage, the literature review.

The Literature Review

I admit that this wasn’t something I was looking forward to – the task of finding and reviewing 50-100 documents seemed quite daunting. However, the book I referred to in my last post provided some useful guidance which made the whole process a lot easier, and resulted in me splitting it into four different stages: Search, Review, Analyse and Write.

1. Search

I started the literature review process by searching for articles using the Warwick University Library website. This contains a full catalogue of books, eBooks, papers, journals, and other documentary sources, which can either be accessed online, or viewed physically from the University Library; despite being a distance-learning student, I was still able to gain access to printed materials using the postal loan service, which proved invaluable on a number of occasions.

One of the initial challenges is figuring out where to start – a search for “strategic alliances” identified 84,683 different articles! However, I quickly found that by bringing together different phrases that were aligned with my research objectives, I was able to view a more focused set of results. I also narrowed down the results using the filters built into the search tool (eg. timeframe = last 10 years, subject area = strategic alliances), and also undertook a manual filtering exercise where I excluded documents that were clearly not relevant based on their title. This didn’t take long – after 6-7 searches I had identified over 70 documents, and found that subsequent searches were increasingly showing the same documents.

Once you have found the various literature sources, it’s important to find a way to store them. There is an ‘add to bag’ option within the library search application, but I didn’t feel this would give me sufficient ability to manage the different sources properly moving forward. As such, I decided to create a spreadsheet, recording the title, year, and any initial thoughts for each source – although this was more time-consuming than just adding to a bag, it was really helpful during the analysis and writing up stages. I also stored copy of each document in Evernote (see here to find out how) – although this was a time-consuming activity, it made writing the dissertation far easier.

Literature Review Table

2. Review

After collating all the documents I reviewed them in varying levels of depth – some I read end-to-end (especially the shorter HBR articles), annotating them using Evernote; others I just skimmed the introduction, conclusion and any sections that appeared particularly relevant. The objective of this stage was to determine the focus of each document, as well as understanding which of them would actually be relevant, useful and applicable to the research. A useful tip that I read was to write one or two sentences for each source that summarises the key message/focus areas; again this was very useful in future stages.

As part of this stage I also recorded which of the research objectives each document was relevant to in my previous spreadsheet, which made writing the literature review much easier as I could just filter the sources by this column.

3. Analyse

The next stage of the literature review was to review the relevant documents identified in the Review stage, capturing specifically relevant comments, conclusions, explanations, theories, models, and other artefacts that can be used to explain, justify, or potentially challenge my research findings. This step became more of an ongoing process that started before I planned my research, and continued right through to writing the literature review; however, this might be a reflection of the methodology that I pursued (Grounded Theory) rather than being appropriate for all dissertations.

Initially I used a table similar to the Review stage where I noted specific comments that I thought might be useful when writing the dissertation. The format I used for this table was:

  • Research Objective – I used a code for each of these as well as for different aspects of the research objective (eg. 1a, 2c, 3d, 3e); this allowed me to filter the results when writing the literature review
  • Source – the name of the original document
  • Insight – what was written about the research objective (could be a quote, the name of a model, or a description of what the author was discussing)
  • Page – where in the source was this written

Annotating in EvernoteAlthough I found this useful, it became very time-consuming, so I decided to use this approach for only the key texts about my research objectives, and then for the rest I reverted to recording annotations and comments on the documents themselves. However, this is not to say that the approach won’t work for others I suspect this depends on personal preferences, time available, and the nature of the research topic being studied.

4. Write

The final stage of the literature review is to actually write it for the dissertation. Given the preparation I had undertaken in previous stages, I found this relatively straightforward to undertake – although that’s not to suggest it was easy. However, there were some key things that helped me whilst writing:

  • I had a number of clearly defined research objectives, and during the previous stages had assigned every source to one or more objectives. When it came to writing a section about that objective, a quick filter on the tables quickly provided a more focused list of content to base my review on.
  • Whilst reviewing the content I highlighted in a specific colour any quotations that I felt were particularly relevant. A quick skim through a source looking for that colour then helped me find quotations that would support the literature review discussion.
  • Separating out the research objectives into categories and subcategories not only helped me to structure the literature review, but also made it much easier to know where to bring in specific sources. For example, three specific papers focussed on knowledge leakage, and so when writing about that topic I could instantly locate previous research and insights.

Although these four stages may appear to be a lot of work, and possibly an arduous approach, I found they allowed me to capture everything in a manner that made writing the literature review relatively straightforward. This approach also helped me become very aware of the different sources and authors, so when I wanted to discuss a point in the literature review, I often knew exactly which document to refer to without needing to review lots of articles.

So that’s the literature review; the next stage of the P&D is typically defining a research methodology and undertaking the research, which I will discuss in my next post.

Getting started with the P&D

It’s been a few months since my last blog post, as I have been busy working on the final stage of my MBA, the Project & Dissertation. In the middle of last year I posted about my decision to defer starting my P&D until after I had completed all 13 modules, so that I could focus 100% on the P&D, and review my project topic given that I had recently moved into a new job. Since then I have chosen a new topic, completed the literature review and undertaken my research; I am now in the process of completing the analysis and writing up my dissertation.

The focus of my project is the topic of Strategic Alliances. The primary reason for choosing this was that it gave me the opportunity to get involved in and contribute to an activity currently underway at work, as opposed to it just being for academic purposes; for some of the other reasons see my previous post on choosing an MBA project.  Although strategic alliances did not receive much attention in the MBA modules I studied, it has been fascinating to learn about a new area of business management – especially one that potentially has such a strategic impact. For anyone who is interested in knowing more, here are a few articles to whet your appetite (and feel free to get in touch if you’d like a more comprehensive list – I have collated plenty of sources!):

Planning the P&D

Book - Research Methods for Business Students

Once I had finalised the subject area for my P&D, I decided to develop a step-by-step plan to get from choosing my research topic to submitting the final dissertation. There are a number of resources on the WBS Intranet that explain how to do this, but after reviewing a former student’s presentation on how they approached their P&D, I made the decision to invest in a book dedicated to the process. There were lots to choose from, including a recommendation from WBS to use Real World Research. However, after reviewing the synopsis of this and many others, I opted to buy Research Methods for Business Students – it also received strong reviews, is slightly more recent, and is focussed specifically on those undertaking a research project in business. For anyone at the start of their P&D, I would strongly recommend buying a book on the topic before going too far – there was lots of advice in the book that has helped guide me on every step of my P&D. Also, the methodology section of the dissertation typically expects you to justify the decisions you make regarding any research, and this book will provide lots of material for this.

The plan I produced involved a number of different stages:

  1. Identify my research objectives
  2. Search for relevant literature that would guide my research
  3. Develop a research methodology based on the project requirements and current literature
  4. Review the literature in more detail, to ensure that the research is consistent with, and builds on this
  5. Undertake the research
  6. Analyse the literature and draw conclusions
  7. Produce the project deliverable (if required)
  8. Write the dissertation
  9. Review the dissertation (based on project supervisor feedback)
  10. Final review and submit the dissertation

However, there are lots of different ways of approaching the P&D, with some of the following changes:

  • It may be more appropriate to undertake the full literature review before even considering the research methodology
  • The requirement for and timing of the project deliverable depends on if the P&D is in place to support a live business requirement, and if so, what the expectations are of the project sponsor
  • Writing the dissertation can be undertaken alongside each of the steps rather than at the end (ie. write the introduction in step 1, methodology in step 3, etc) – this approach is commonly encouraged, but unfortunately I was not able to follow this due to time constraints on when my research had to take place

Another invaluable piece of advice that was given to me is to speak regularly with your project supervisor as you begin to scope out your project idea, develop your research methodology, and plan your dissertation; they may have specific guidance on the best approach to follow. I have found the discussions with my supervisor very beneficial, both because they helped provide clarity around what was expected of me when undertaking the research & analysis, and also ensuring that my dissertation will be consistent with what they expect (after all, they are the ones first-marking it).

That’s just a quick introduction to getting started with the P&D – in future posts I’ll share my thoughts about undertaking the literature review, completing the research and writing the dissertation.

Looking back over the 13 modules

13 modules, 17 textbooks, 130 lessons, 4 visits to Warwick, 15 TMAs, 11 assignments, and 3 exams. Two and a half years after I started my MBA, I’m very pleased to say that on Wednesday I received confirmation that I had passed my final module’s assignment, meaning I have now completed all the modules and just have the project & dissertation to complete. It feels great to know that I have finished the taught learning of the MBA, and although it has been challenging and exhausting at times, it has been an extremely valuable experience. The textbooks, lessons, live webinars, and online discussions  have been interesting, insightful and valuable, and the assignments have complemented the learning by demonstrating how to apply many of the theories and concepts in real life. I’m really pleased with the breadth of subject matter that has been covered on the Warwick MBA, and feel that there was a good balance of modules across the broad spectrum of business topics. As a reminder, the modules I studied are:

Corporate Strategy 

Functional Areas

Culture & People

Financial

Other

In general I enjoyed all the modules, but looking back my top three would be:

Innovation & Creativity – I’m personally very interested in how innovation can help organisations be successful, and so was really looking forward to this module which I chose as one of my electives. The various innovation frameworks and perspectives on innovation were fascinating, particularly when I used these to assess the innovativeness of organisations I was familiar with. It was also useful to appreciate the role of creativity, particular in terms of managing creativity both at an individual and group level. The final assignment was very interesting, as it required me to undertake an assessment of the innovation capability of the company I worked for, and was a great opportunity to understand how the concepts applied to the reality of an organisation’s processes, structure and culture.

Management of Change – This was another of my electives, and I expected to find a number of different methodologies and frameworks that could be used to implement change within an organisation. Initially I was slightly disheartened when I realised that only one of the ten lessons focused on these methodologies; however, as I progressed through the module I came to appreciate the various complexities of change, the importance of considering an organisation’s readiness for change, the different approaches that can be used to ‘frame’ changes, and how resistance to change can be dealt with. Overall, the module provided some really valuable insights, which I am confident I will be able to draw on in the future when involved in change programmes. Like Innovation & Creativity, the assignment was also based on the company I worked for, which again brought the module’s concepts to life, and helped me appreciate the challenges involved in implementing change in a large,  global organisation.

Strategic Advantage – this was a core module that considered the business strategy of an organisation. It started by looking at ways of evaluating the competitive landscape for an organisation, and then explored the different approaches to developing a competitive strategy, such as market and resource-based strategies, blue-ocean strategy, and hyper-competition. There were also some interesting lessons on mergers, alliances, and global strategies, all of which were fascinating. Although the module covered a broad range of concepts, I would have liked it to have gone into more depth in some areas; however, I guess this just means I should have taken the Strategy & Practice elective module.  The final assignment was another really interesting one, focussing on the strategic impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on BP.

Although these were my top three modules, all the others were still both interesting and valuable:

The Financial modules provided insight into financial statements, product costs & pricing, budgeting, performance control, financing decisions and the mechanics of publicly-owned companies;

The Functional modules explained in detail the challenges and opportunities in two key business functions, Marketing and Operations, and demonstrated these from both a day-to-day and strategic perspective;

Organisational Behaviour provided a look at the human and cultural side of an organisation, from the perspective of individuals, groups, the whole firm, and its interaction with society;

Economics of the Business Environment demonstrated the impact of the wider economy of a business strategy, both in terms of the macro-economy and micro-economy;

Modelling and Analysis taught a number of tools that can be used in many different business activities, such as regression, simulation, and modelling;

Complexity, Management and Network Thinking looked at how businesses can take advantage of the increasingly complex environments in which they operate, including the networks that develop between people, organisations, processes, and systems.

 

All that remains now to complete my MBA is the Project & Dissertation. This is a significant piece of work (about 25% of the MBA), which I’m really pleased to be starting as this will give me the opportunity to study in detail some of the concepts learned during the course, and apply them to a real-life environment. I made the decision to put my P&D on hold for a few months whilst I completed my last module, so although I’m starting a bit later than originally planned, this means I can now focus 100% of my time on the P&D, which I expect to take me until the start of next year. Although I have not finalised the exact research question for my P&D, it will almost definitely be related to the fields of Strategy, Business Models, or Innovation – but more about that in a future post.

Ten Tips for Warwick DLMBA starters (Updated)

Are you starting  the Warwick Distance Learning MBA this month? If so – congratulations on being accepted, and here are some tips for making the most of the course  (in no particular order).

This is an updated version of my previous post,
Ten tips for the Warwick DL MBA 

1. Participate in the live sessions

The wbsLive sessions (WBS’s live web conferencing platform) provide a great opportunity to interact directly with  tutors. Although some of the sessions focus on reviewing previously studied content, others make use of the technology with polls, whiteboard sessions, and lots of Q&A, providing more depth to the topics. In particular, I’ve  found most presenters to be very helpful when answering questions in these sessions, providing answers that are more detailed than those that can be written  online.

2. Choose a suitable way of taking notes

I have written previously about different ways of taking notes (see here and here), and would recommend that you think about what works best for you before progressing too far through the course, to avoid having to retrospectively write notes. Also, be willing to use different note-taking techniques for different modules – for example, a module like marketing may require a different approach to organisational behaviour, and modules assessed by exam are likely to need to a different approach to those being assessed by assignment.

3. Get involved with your study group

When you start the distance learning MBA you are allocated to a study group. I recommend that you take the time to meet the others in your group (virtually of course), especially in the first semester; even if you don’t want any support with the academic elements of the MBA, it is very helpful to have some people to speak with – otherwise just focussing on the textbooks and lesson notes can be quite isolating. Plus, it’s a requirement to work in your study groups at Warwick Week 1, so it helps if you already know each other.

4. Get involved with the discussion forums

Another component of the WBS MBA programme is the online discussion boards. For anyone not familiar with the concept, this allows you to pose a question or make a comment, then others (students and tutors) can post an answer or make their own comment, in their own time. Like the study groups and live sessions, these are another good way to have a more interactive experience than just textbooks and lesson notes, and when lots of people contribute it brings out a wealth of insights from different perspectives, significantly adding to the taught learning on the module.

5. Read around the topics

During my first year I concentrated on reading the textbooks and lecture notes, then completing the assignments and TMAs. However, during the second year I made a conscious effort to extend my learning experience outside the provided resources. This was typically using news and blog sites such as Ft.com and Harvard Business Review, although for some  modules I also loaned recommended reading texts from the library or bought additional books. As well as providing a different perspective on the content, this also allowed me to collect additional references in advance of the final assignments, which is encouraged rather than just relying on the textbook.

6. Plan your time and track your progress

I’m sure many other existing students would agree – the workload for the DLMBA is high, even though it is nicely segmented into ten lessons per module. WBS provide a suggested schedule on my.wbs, and I would recommend that you try to stick to this (or even get in front of it) – if you get more than a week or two behind it can be very difficult to catch up, putting a lot of pressure on you to complete the lessons at the end of the semester, and reducing the time available for writing the assignments or revising. I’ve written a blog post about this previously which has some suggestions, so I won’t repeat them here, but I’ll add that I found my study plan was a great motivational tool towards the end of each semester – it was very satisfying to see the end of the modules getting closer, and this encouraged me to keep going.

7. Complete the TMAs

I found the TMAs a really valuable part of most modules. The fact that they are optional makes it very tempting to skip over these time-consuming pieces of work; however, I can honestly say that they not only helped with learning the content, but also made a huge difference to how I approached the final assessments. This is especially important for modules that you find difficult – it is far better to realise you have the wrong approach with a TMA, than with a final assignment. They also provided a good indicator of how long needs to be allocated to complete the final assignment, which helped at the end of the module. I’ve written about some of the TMAs here and here.

The TMAs are also useful preparation for those modules that are assessed by an examination, as they provide practice for completing a written exam, which many of us had not done for over a decade. I’ve written more about this here.

8. Become familiar with the library databases

There were a few comments about the resources available in the library at the start of the course, but as this is a distance learning MBA I assumed these was designed more for on-campus students. However, I was wrong – the library has access to many online resources that are particularly useful during the course, such as company accounts’ analysis, industry overviews, online versions of textbooks, and published papers. These are invaluable when writing the final assignments, so it helps if you are used to navigating the library search tools beforehand.

Another offering from Warwick Library, which I was not aware of until my second year, is the ability for them to post books out to students in the UK or ROI. This was really helpful when writing the final assignments, particularly if you want to discuss an alternative perspective to that in the provided textbooks. Alternatively, Warwick Library is part of a scheme that allows students to use other libraries.

9. Make the most of Warwick Week

Warwick Week is a twice-yearly event where you have the opportunity to meet and interact with your study group, other peers, and lecturers. I personally found this week really useful, both for networking, and for the debates & discussions that took place during and after the workshops/exercises. To find out more about Warwick Week, see my blog posts about  WW1, WW2 and WW3.

10. Take time out from study

The DLMBA is a major undertaking, with lots of work as I mentioned previously, so as well as scheduling time to study its important to schedule time away from study. I usually tried to have one non-study day every week, but obviously this depends on your work and personal circumstances. However, remember that this is a three-year course, and although intense periods of study may be required (especially in the last month of each semester), balancing work, study and personal time will be essential to getting through the next three years.

 

Hopefully these tips have been useful, and if you want to know what’s coming up then have a look back over some of my previous blog posts. You can also subscribe to my blog, either using the ‘subscribe’ button on the left of the home page, or by following  me on Twitter.

Good luck – there’s a wealth of knowledge waiting for you – and make sure you enjoy the experience as well!

MBA Semester 4 Completed

My second year of the Warwick distance learning MBA is now finished! My last blog post was written when I was right in the middle of writing three 3,000 word assignments – this was the first time I had needed to write three concurrently (previous semesters included exams or had them staggered), so hitting the submit button for the third time was one very happy moment.

Strategic Advantage

Following on from lesson three, this module looked at strategy from a different perspective – instead of focussing on the market (ie. competing based on what customers want), the resource-based view looks at how organisations compete based on their core competences and assets; it was interesting to look at some organisations I know and see how they combine the two strategies. We then looked at some practical strategy concepts – hyper-competition and blue ocean thinking (the latter was also covered in Innovation & Creativity).

The second half of the module focused on some specific strategy-related issues: expanding internationally, diversifying to a multi-business organisation, mergers and acquisitons, and strategic alliances. These were all very interesting topics, and although we had a full lesson on each, a number of them also have a dedicated elective that goes into a lot more detail.

Deepwater Horizon rigThe final assignment for Strategic Advantage was based upon a case study of the BP Macondo incident (more commonly known as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). I’ve had limited involvement in the oil and gas industry during my career, but watched the fallout from the incident on the news. The case itself was very insightful, including lots of depth around what happened and why (there’s a good overview from Forbes for anyone who’s interested).  The basis of the assignment was to look at this incident from a number of perspectives – firstly, to assess whether it was BP’s fault or an ‘industry accident’, then consider how BP’s history, culture, politics and regulations affected the decisions leading up to the incident, and finally thinking about the long-term strategy for BP. Overall it was a really interesting assignment, allowing us to explore how issues of risk and uncertainty can affect an organisation, and how strategy can play a key role when dealing with them.

Strategic Marketing

The first half of this module introduced Strategic Marketing as a longer-term perspective to Marketing, with an understanding of the marketing environment, the various strategic positions that an organisation can take, and growth strategies. The second half of the module then looked in detail at functional strategies, based around the 4 P’s:

  • Product –  in the long-term this focuses more on concepts such as branding, innovation and product development life-cycles
  • Price – in addition to the various approaches to pricing, this lesson also looked at how to respond to competitor price cuts, and deal with customer price sensitivity
  • Promotion – this was very similar to the Marketing module, but extended it to understand the longer-term impact of different strategies
  • Place (ie. distribution channels) – this included an interesting discussion around the marketing strategy impact  of physical distribution decisions

There was also a specific lesson on market-entry timing – an area of particular interest to the module leader, Scott Dacko – which looked at the benefits and disadvantages of being a market leader, early follower, and late follower.

This module followed a different approach to others for the TMAs: instead of using them primarily to reinforce the content from previous lessons, the Strategic Marketing TMAs were assessed preparation exercises for our final assignment (although they didn’t contribute to the grade). This approach worked really well, as it not only helped me review the lesson content, but also provided some insight into the environment for the final assignment, and meant that I already had lots of material ready for the ‘research’ phase.

The final assignment itself required us to select a product that had been newly introduced to the market within the last two years, describe & critique the marketing strategy used, provide an opinion on whether we think it will be successful, and suggest improvements moving forward. I can’t share the product I used given that the assignments have not yet been marked, but it was very interesting to go beyond the visible marketing efforts and look in detail at how the product was positioned, how it fits into the company brand, and how it has been received by the market so far.

Innovation & Creativity

I was 70% through this module when I last wrote about it; the next few lessons explored some specific concepts such as Open Innovation, which is the concept of working with other organisations on innovation rather than keeping everything ‘in-house’, and Design Thinking, which reflects on how the innovation process can be designed and embedded in an organisation, and how this can impact the output of the design process. The module ended by looking at how to effectively lead creative teams, and realise business value from innovation.

We had previously completed a group assignment for this module worth 30% of the grade; the remainder was assessed through an individual assignment, the focus of which was to develop a strategy to promote innovation and creativity within my organisation. This was another very interesting assignment, especially as I was able to undertake some primary research to assess my organisation’s state of innovation. This was based on the Innovation Value Chain concept, which includes a questionnaire designed specifically for this purpose. One of the nice side benefits from this assignment was that it generated lots of discussion with my colleagues who had completed the questionnaire, about how innovative my organisation was.

Innovation Value Chain questionnaire

That’s it for this semester – I have now completed twelve out of the thirteen modules, leaving just one module (Corporate Finance) and a project to complete next year. However, before I start those I’m looking forward to enjoying a few weeks off over the Christmas break – I wish you all an enjoyable festive season, and will be back again in 2014.