Article 27 – The in word in business school today is disruption

by Tan Thiam Hock

After seven weeks of cool spring weather, our Malaysian sun finally arrived in Boston. As I basked in the warm sunshine in the courtyard of McArthurs Hall, Harvard Business School (HBS), a gentle breeze reminded me of Awana Genting back to 2004, where I last enrolled in a two-week HBS management programme organised by our Malaysian HBS Alumni Club. Four HBS professors taught us then.

Here I am, eight years later, being taught by no less than 15 senior Harvard professors covering almost 120 case studies and numerous lectures. To justify their hefty fees, HBS threw their full arsenal of specialist professors at us. From basic strategy, finance, marketing subjects to deal making negotiation to social media to entrepreneurship. We have had the presence of former and current CEOs of Merck, Cisco, Carl Zeiss and many others attending our discussions on their company followed by their explanation and defence on their course of actions/decision making as per their case study.

Today, we covered the Facebook case study to coincide with its listing. And we had the director of FBI giving us a lecture after attending the case study on FBI reorganisation after Sept 11. To say that I am impressed would be an understatement.

It was like a Hollywood movie. There must be at least 10 FBI agents with their standard issued earpiece and dark suits staring at us at the entrance and exit. And then a standing ovation at the end of the speech to send off The Director. Captain America has saved the universe again.

HBS is the post graduate business school of the Harvard University. It has arguably the most revered MBA programme in the world. With a fixed annual enrolment of 900 students, an applicant has a 7% success rate and he or she will be at least 27 years old with an average of four years working experience. It is a two-year programme with full residential accommodation provided in campus. Depending on ones preferred living standards, the expected investment should be between US$160,000 and US$200,000 (RM480,000 and RM600,000) over two years.

It is in the executive education that HBS has amazed me the most. They have built a business model that is difficult to replicate when in the world, all kinds of education business is being commoditised. They have differentiated themselves in terms of positioning, reputation and school fees. High, higher, highest.

HBS is a money making machine. They have built an organisation that is always evolving, very sensitive to the external environment. If necessary, they are not afraid to modify their strategy, realign people, structure, processes and their unique culture to face the new environment. All the time, staying close to their core strategy of providing a unique learning experience to their target market. They practise what they preach.

Sensitive to change

So are you sensitive to the changing environment’ When do you think is a good time for your organisation to adjust your strategy and realign your organisation to face new challenges’ Is it during the good times or only when your organisation is in intensive care’

On hindsight, just look at Malaysia Airlines over the last 15 years. What do you think the management should have done then’ When Southwest Airlines and Ryanair in the United States and Europe respectively have successfully taken their markets by storm, they should not have ignored the threat set by AirAsia. When you see air ticket prices being commoditised, you will be flying into a smaller gross margin zone. Which means you need a leaner and lower cost structured organisation to face a new challenging environment. So what do you think happened’ And is their current organisational cost structure lean enough to face even tougher challenges today’ We will find out within 15 months.

In the current world where many products and services are moving towards commoditisation, how are you differentiating your products and services from the competition’ More importantly, how do you continue to differentiate to stay ahead of your competition’ Look at Astro. From a virtual stranglehold grip on cable TV market, their monopoly status has been threatened by new entrants offering lower cost options straight to your homes. Astros response must be swift and decisive. As a true market leader, Astro should pre-empt and disrupt the competition. With new technology and smart devices like iPad and smartphones, Astro will deliver contents to their consumers anywhere their consumers find it convenient to consume. Just like The Stars ePaper.

Then from the competitors viewpoint, just imagine Malay Mail relaunched as an ePaper. Massive savings on newsprint and delivery costs. Does that mean that this is the beginning of the end of free physical newspaper’ Absolutely intriguing. Technological advances have disrupted businesses all over the world. And HBS is actually reviewing amongst themselves whether e-learning will disrupt their current successful executive education model’ Will your business be disrupted by new technologies’ If it is, be afraid. Be very afraid.

High margin

I have always emphasised that entrepreneur wannabes should go into high margin business. Which means avoid businesses that is being commoditised and having the ability to differentiate your products or services from your competition. The in word in business school today is disruption. Disrupt others before they disrupt you. Disrupt yourself to stay ahead. Stay ahead of technology disruption. Be the disruptor not the disruptee. There are no such words. I just disrupted the dictionary.

So is the HBS executive education programme as good as they claimed’ Does it justify the high positioning and high cost charged’ Honestly, I have no idea. They have kept us so busy from day one to stop us from thinking about it. And they have piled a tonne of case studies and notes onto us. Plus many free books written by the professors. So much so that this bunch of senior executives with an average age of 47 years face information fatigue, CPU overload and degrading eyesights.

Case studies still piling in until the last day. John Kotter still to speak next week. But spirits are high as we look forward to the close of the programme. This programme has been a major disruption to my life. Miss my country, my sunshine, my food, my friends and colleagues. And most of all my family.

Have a happy weekend.

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