Thursday, March 31, 2011

Intellectual stimulation and frustration

I was reminded once again why I am studying for an MBA degree: the studies 'top off' my need for intellectual stimulation. Whilst my day job provides a certain amount of stimulation, there are times when it doesn't and when people's actions cause a great deal of frustration. Yesterday was one of those days.

I was examining with someone the bill of materials (BOM) for a specific part, the left hand something of a table, which led us to examine the BOM for the right hand part. These two parts should have identical BOMs, as the materials required are the same, but they should have different technical drawings as the finished products obviously are not identical: they are enantiomorphs.

Unfortunately, the BOMs were not identical; the BOM for the right hand part was empty and of course the BOM for the left hand part contained twice the quantities needed for the part. The clever dick who defined the BOM reckoned that the left hand part would never be required without the right hand part and so he could save himself ten seconds by defining one BOM for both parts.


Apparently (and this is not my area of speciality), it is possible to order one part without the other. If only the left hand part were ordered, then twice the required amount of raw materials would be withdrawn. If only the right hand part were ordered, then no raw materials would be withdrawn. But even without this, it is more logical and more correct to define a BOM for each part.

This sort of thing makes me want to punch walls. I'm not sure who the specific person was who defined this double BOM, but it doesn't matter too much; all members of the group which defines these BOMs suffer from chronic misunderstanding of what an ERP system is along with a genetic rigidness of thought. Curiously (or not), all four members of the group have Russian ethnicity.

Yesterday evening's lecture in Human Resources Management  was about recruitment and selection, and so ties in very nicely with the work that I do with the occupational psychologist. On the other hand, the conclusions of the HRM course are in opposition to those held by the psychologist, which causes me frequently to adopt a doublespeak position. There are only about fifteen students present at the lecture, which allows 'the audience' to interrupt the lecturer frequently with insights and asides. So, along with the source material, we heard about Dan Ariely and an article (whose title escapes me) about how people select recruits on the basis of only characteristic - such as whether one's degree is from a university (good) or from a college (bad) - without regard to any other characteristic of the applicants.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The camino pilgrimage

Isn't it typical? I don't write anything for three weeks and then write two blogs in a day.

The final part of David Lodge's wonderful book 'Therapy' takes place mainly in Spain, when the book's protagonist Laurence "Tubby" Passmore starts looking for his first girlfriend who is taking part in the 'Camino' pilgrimage. I'd never heard of this pilgrimage before, but as Lodge is a Catholic who knows what he is writing about, I had no reason to doubt that there is such a pilgrimage (and now I've found its website).

I was reading today an interview with Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez about their new film, "The way", which tells the story of a fortysomething man (played by Emilio, in a cameo role) who dies while walking the Camino – The Way of St James, the ancient pilgrimage route across Europe to the saint's grave at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. His father (played by Martin) travels to Europe to collect the body and ends up completing the walk on his son's behalf.

I'm much more interested in the interview because of the pilgrimage as opposed to a more prurient interest in another son of Martin Sheen. I look forward to seeing the film, as it will complement the book - Passmore too is on a spiritual pilgrimage although may not always be too aware of this fact.

I haven't disappeared off the face of the Earth

I haven't blogged lately because there hasn't been anything that interesting to write about. True, I've done some sterling work at the day job, but that barely interests people who work there, let alone people who don't work there. I've read maybe six new books but I don't have much to say about them.

The new cd by Van der Graaf Generator was released two weeks ago and I've been listening to it almost every day. As is common with all VdGG records, it's not possible to listen to it too frequently at first as it is rather spikey and one has to be in the correct mood. I like this disc much more than its predecessor, "Trisector", and possibly more than the first reunion disc, 'Present'. I still miss David Jackson and his wind instruments for the extra colour that they bring to the songs. The opening song, "Your time starts now" is a definite keeper; it sounds like mid-period solo Hammill although with the organ flushes that are the trademark of Hugh Banton.

The book list includes two by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, who unfortunately is claimed to be 'the next Steig Larsson'. Considering my opinion of Larsson's books, I'm not too sure that this is an accolade which I would want, but presumably it does boost sales. Like Larsson, Nesbo writes long books, which makes their assimilation somewhat difficult.

The Norwegian names don't help much in this respect either. Nesbo's protagonist, Inspector Harry Hole (why are police procedurals always about inspectors?) is not as inward looking as Rebus or Banks which is a shame as he seems to be cut from similar cloth.  As opposed to Ian Rankin's Rebus novels or Peter Robinson's Banks novels, Nesbo's novels have only one strand to them, albeit a very long strand. From the two which I have read ("Nemesis" and "Snowman"), it seems that Nesbo leads us purposely towards a false solution mid-way through the book.

The first book was ordered via the Book Depository whereas I picked up the second in an Israeli bookshop. The first route is definitely cheaper even though the Israeli book was priced remarkably low. 

Other books which I have read recently are "We had it so good", a contemporary novel about people slightly old than me, "Cider with roadies", a very amusing memoir by a writer for a music newspaper (now a radio presenter) slightly younger than me, (Stuart Maconie) and "The Fermata", which could be described as science fiction pornography, although there is too much pornography and not enough science fiction. The road to this book was via Robert Silverberg's "Dying Inside"; here too there is a protagonist who has an s-f gift (he can stop time by clicking his fingers) and uses it for less than moral purposes (mainly undressing women when they are 'stopped'). It's an interesting idea and probably someone could have done a better job than this.

I've just come back from a doctor's appointment; it seems that one BCC which was removed two years ago has reappeared, meaning another minor operation but more intensive than the previous. The doctor was prepared to do it then and there but it would mean not driving after the operation which would in turn leaving my motorbike in the shopping centre where the clinic is situated and the doctor feared that someone would steal it. So I have a repeat appointment for next week.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Post mortem on the Marketing exam

Once again the examiners of Heriot Watt astound me by asking questions to which I know the answers. There are subjects which I don't study so well but somehow they always manage to avoid them! To give an example: whilst looking at previous exam papers, I saw that there had been a question based on module 19. Module 19? Whaddayou mean, module 19? There is a module 19 in the book, but our lecturer, in his infinite wisdom, had considered it not worth learning as the chances of a question on this subject (module 19 is apparently about 'measuring and delivering marketing performance' - hmm, sounds interesting) were minimal. I hope that he did cover the subject the semester in which the question was asked. As there are only three questions in the exam, drawing a blank on a question is fatal.

The first question was, as expected, an exercise in strategies. This is something which we have been practicing in class for some time, so no one should have been unprepared for this. The only catch could be in which product lifestage cycle (plc) the product is - new market entries, growth markets or mature/declining markets; each variant has its own strategies. The question which we were given was about a new product: orange juice with added omega 3 oil; as far as I was concerned, this means that the plc is 'new market entry', with the appropriate strategies. Apart from the actual product, this question had been asked in an earlier exam paper, which we had solved as a class exam. In other words, I was totally prepared for this and I imagine that I did well. 

The above is not to say that the question/answer was easy; the answer took five pages of writing and just under an hour to complete. There are several stages which had to be remembered, and as it happened, I forgot one section - I caught this when going through my answers at the end. Fortunately I had plenty of time in which to add the missing section. There was also another small part in which the answer called for a 2X2 matrix, labelling each quadrant in the matrix (this is called the BCG model); I couldn't get the axes correct for the model at first.

The second question was about the decision making process of consumers. Our lecturer had told us that in order to answer the questions properly, one should first identify about which model the question is asking, then list the model and link it appropriately to the question. The question was in regard to anti-aging cream, and in my opinion, the decision making class for this product would be brand loyalty - high involvement for a low cost product. So I listed all the different classes for the model then declared at the end what my opinion was. The second half of the question was "how the decision making process would affect the company's strategy"; as I had chosen brand loyalty in a mature market, it seems to be that the appropriate strategy would be niche marketing. Our lecturer had also told us that if we chose a strategy or plc which was not what the examiners had in mind, we wouldn't lose many marks as long as we clearly stated our reasons and followed the subject through to the end. 

Whilst comparing notes with other students after the exam, this is the question which had the most different answers as it seemed that almost everyone understood the question in a different and individual manner. There are no exact nor even approximately exact answers in marketing, so no one will be penalised for giving slightly unexpected answers, as long as nothing in the answer contradicts information given in the question.

The third question invited us to discuss how marketing surveys can help the automobile industry by not introducing new products which will fail. As far as I could see, the question required three different models - the introduction of new products, how to plan a market survey and the different methods of actually performing the survey. So I listed the new products model, noting where marketing surveys would help, and then I listed the other models, noting where there were issues pertinent to the question.

I get the feeling that I did quite well on this exam, much better than I had expected. Let us hope that the examiner feels the same way.

I had got to the hotel conference room (where the exam is held) about an hour and a half too early; I hadn't wanted to leave home an hour later and arrive in a rush. This time allowed me to go over several of the models once more, including the model regarding the introduction of new products. There were several of us revising at the same time, asking each other questions. One man asked what seemed to be very simple questions and on hearing my answers predicted that I would do very well in the exam. "From your mouth to God's ears", I replied. This same man left the exam room after an hour and a quarter (the exam lasts three hours) - I had barely finished the first question. I don't know what this means - did he give only partial answers to each question because he didn't know the material (as per his pre-exam questions)? Did he only answer one question? Does he write at the speed of light? Was he only jesting with his pre-exam questions?

We will know in a month or so when the results are published.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

If you believe ...

During the course of last minute revision for the Marketing exam tomorrow, I remembered the following story. I present here an almost word for word email which I wrote in April 2004.

... You won't understand the basketball part, which is to do with the EuroLeague championship. Whoever won the match would go up to the semi-finals, so of course it was an important game. Although Maccabi played very well in the first quarter, they played badly in the remaining three quarters, and with only about 20 seconds to go, they were losing by six points. Missed free throws meant that Maccabi were losing by three points with two seconds to go. A long throw to one of the players who turned and scored a three pointer meant that Maccabi tied the game. After that, because the Lithuanian star had fouled out, Maccabi had it much easier in extra time and won by eight points.

Thursday was an interesting day. Nominally, I was on holiday - the factory was closed - but I wanted to use the time to sort out some problems, and also to write a program for use at work. In the post were two books which I had ordered from Amazon - one is a users' guide to a software music program (Reason), and the other is by managerial guru Robin Sharma, who will be speaking in Israel in one month's time (which is the reason I had ordered the book). This tome is entitled "The monk who sold his Ferrari", which apparently has been quite a hit in certain circles.

This book tells the (exceedingly thin) story about a top lawyer who has a heart attack and so decides to quit being a lawyer. He travels to India where he searches for spiritual enlightenment, finds a recluse group of gurus and undertakes a spiritual change. He returns to spread the word, via the narrator of the book, also a lawyer (actually the top lawyer's assistant). It's a very thin novel in the literary sense of the word, in fact annoyingly so, but at least this is a slightly different tone from the usual self-help type of book. I've actually got bogged down about half way through; I'm sure that there's more wisdom to impart, but the book is getting exceedingly turgid, and the thin veneer of fiction is getting more annoying the more I read.

In the evening was the unbelievable basketball match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Zhalghiris Kovna. As a game, Kovna deserved to win because they played better, but somehow Maccabi managed to pull the fat out of the fire in the last incredible sixteen seconds (that is, before extra time). I wouldn't normally refer to such event here except for one reason: after the game, a few of the Maccabi players and management were interviewed, and in one of these, Derrick Sharp, he who scored the vital three pointer which tied the game, said the incredible phrase: "If you believe, you can achieve". I don't know whether this is a well known phrase on the level of "no pain, no gain", but to my ears, sensitised by the unbelievable change of fortune in the game and also reading about the monk who had sold his Ferrari, it was like hearing words from Heaven.

Suddenly a tune popped into my head, perfectly suited to those words, so I ran to the computer and quickly keyed them in so that I wouldn't forget. I was too excited to go to bed for a while (because of the game), and although I was watching the interviews, my mind kept on returning to that magical phrase, "If you believe, you can achieve". Eventually I did go to bed, but once there, my imagination kept on coming up with couplets - "when you awake, there's a choice you must make", etc. At first, I kept on getting out of bed, walking to the computer and noting down the lines, but after a while I got tired of this, and so every time a new couplet came into my head, I would note it down in a notebook kept by my bedside (writing in the dark, I should note).

I've written about this at length because the serendipity of the lyrics' creation is important. Unfortunately too many of days are routine, and it's not often enough that I get transported into that mental state which allows the (almost) painless creation of a song lyric. I don't know whether the basketball game would have been enough to stimulate me, although I suspect that I would have jotted down Sharp's phrase for future use, because of its rhyme, compactness and general utility. But it took the juxtaposition of the game's high and the Sharma book to produce the direct connection.
I also sent the letter to Robin Sharma, and here is his reply:
Thanks so much for sharing this with me. Fascinating. Robin

Why do I bring all this up now? Because if I believe in my ability to answer questions in tomorrow's exam, then I will achieve. Confidence is the key.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


I wrote the other day regarding my upcoming exam, "It's all a matter of confidence"; it only occurred to me this morning that I had stumbled upon a coincidence.

The final lecture in the marketing course was held on Monday evening, and as usual, I selected a few cds to play in the car whilst travelling to and fro. This time I picked "As close as this" by Peter Hammill, a very solo record from the late 80s, in which he promised that the music was played by "one pass of the hands".

One of the tracks, probably the most outstanding in terms of performance, is called "Confidence"!

Behind the smile of confidence
somewhere you'll find the wanted man
blank-faced and wary of conversation with himself.
Around the ring of confidence
they're dancing to a different tune;
the others seem so confident, why don't you take a leaf
from the storm we're passing through?
In confidence we sail across the seven seas
to hide behind the veil - in confidence the key!
'I'm in good form, I'm feeling fine,'
responsibly how well you do -
there's nothing I can say about
the usual cocktail of public faith and private taboo.
In confidence the trick is there for all to see -
In confidence the key!

Unfortunately, I don't have "the smile of confidence" this time around.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Pre-exam nerves

I'm writing this on a train going north from Tel Aviv to Haifa bay, so excuse me if there are subtle spelling mistakes and lapses in concentration.

I don't think that I can afford the time at the minute to go north as I will be sitting my exam in Marketing on Monday and I don't feel too prepared. Even worse: I have to go to another meeting in Haifa on Sunday, a day which I wanted to take off.

It's all a matter of confidence: before most of my MBA exams, I was feeling confident about knowing the material, and this confidence informed both how I felt in the week leading up to the exams and how well I did. I didn't feel at all confident prior to the exam in Organisational Behaviour and my mark reflected this. They say that there is more material to be remembered (and regurgitated) in Marketing than in OB, although the lecturer (who will also mark the papers) says that one doesn't have to aim for the same accuracy.

Most of the revision has centred around "question 1" which is about marketing strategies. We have a consistent framework for the answer which has to be rattled off; some of it is boilerplate and some is dependent on the case study presented in the question. A great deal depends on what is called the plc - which stage the product is in the 'product life cycle'. If it is a new product being introduced, then there are certain strategies; if the product's market is growing then there are other strategies (ten!), and if the market is mature then there are another few strategies, although to be honest, most of these are the same strategies as for the growing market. So there are 16-20 strategies to be remembered, each with its description. Short term memory is supposed to hold 5-9 items, meaning that these strategies have to be well remembered.

But there are also two more questions which have to be answered in the exam, and these have their own models with six or so stages. One has to remember about six different models (that's 36 items) although only two of those will be needed.

My body is in revolt: last night my blood pressure was comparatively very high, and a night's sleep didn't cause it to drop by very much. My dreams were rather intense and violent, not the normal kind of nightly fare.

I just have to concentrate, breathe deeply and learn the material.

Randy Newman won his second oscar after twenty nominations for one of the songs in 'Toy Story 3'.