Blog post

Business Schools are Not Preparing Students For Information Overload

By Craig Roth | March 10, 2011 | 0 Comments

Attention Management

A colleague recently brought up the issue of how universities aren’t preparing knowledge workers for the real world.  That sparked me to dig up a 2008 blog entry I wrote on another blog and would like to expose to my new GBN audience.  It was about how students are taught to solve problems being spoon fed perfect information and not taught to solve needle-in-haystack problems, tricky information aggregation problems, or process streams of information.

Case studies were all the rage when I was getting my MBA.  They still are.  Which is great – they are valuable tools for developing intuition, analyzing information, making difficult decisions under uncertainty, and developing social IQ by working in groups.

I met with a vendor that had updated the old Harvard Business Review case study format by offering online simulations for universities (and executive education).  The information is now accessed online and presented in Excel and adds the extra dimension of being able to pour through a larger number of realistic charts, graphs, and financial reports in Excel and PowerPoint – real tools they’ll use when they graduate.  Rather than a single dump of information and decision point, these simulations run over time with many decision points and involve collaboration as well as competition.  I was quite impressed compared to the old photocopied case studies I used.

But the case studies and the simulations still lay out neat and tidy chunks of information on which to make decisions.  Granted, the information is often incomplete, which is part of the challenge.  But most real-life decision makers would kill to have the information they need so neatly packaged and trimmed for their consumption.  Where are the twenty useless reports that surround every useful one?  Where are the five versions of the report that make finding the single point of truth so elusive?  Why is the information in one handy report instead of spread among three different reports with mismatched categorization, columns, and metadata?  I won’t even get into the social element of trying to find the information that is being purposely hidden or twisted by co-workers with incentives to provide inaccurate information.

I’m not just joking about how screwed up the average corporation is.  These difficulties exist in even the best of organizations, making attention management an essential discipline if one desires to be an effective information worker and good managerial decision maker.  Therefore, an additional form of simulation that exercises decision making under an information surplus would be useful for students and even executives to deal with.

This is not to say the existing case studies and simulations need to have random noise added to make them more difficult. When working out, it’s good to isolate a muscle group and existing products do that. I’m just saying there’s a new muscle group that could use some examination and exercise: attention management. Learning how to separate the wheat from the chaff when sorting through information is getting tougher as new information channels are introduced and end user publishing causes an exponential increase in content. I believe that business educational institutions do not prepare students to cope with decision making and stream processing (not being given an explicit decision point but noticing a pattern of news or trigger that compels a prudent manager to seize the initiative and proactively take action) in an information overload environment.  Adding this skill to the case study repertoire would provide them a useful skill that crosses all potential industries and disciplines the business graduate is likely to enter.

Here are some ideas for a case study for students (or executive skills class) that exercise attention management skills.  Picture a simulation that runs for eight weeks, the data is accessed online, and the author guarantees the “truth” is there hidden amongst a great deal of noise.

  • Dashboard creation:  This case study exercises the ability to select which information to pay attention to from a universe of quantitative and qualitative options.  Have the deliverable of the simulation be creation of a dashboard.  The dashboard can contain exactly 6 charts on it, selected from dozens of reports and near limitless ways to slice the data.  Students can play with different dashboards for the first 4 weeks, but from then on can only look at the information on the dashboard they’ve selected and make decisions off it.  At the end, teams compare the dashboards they selected and the decisions the dashboards led them to take. 
  • Stream processing: Simulate a changing situation with potential “red alert” situation (it could be like a stock market with one sector ready to go boom or bust) and allow the students to select up to 3 triggers to set.  After the triggers are selected, the students run blind until their triggers are hit.
  • Social networking:  Let the users negotiate a social network by allowing them, one each turn, to send one of a set of canned emails or instant messages to various simulated employees up and down the line that enable them to piece together the situation much in the way that “Clue” does (“The problem is the District Sales Manager in the Great Lakes region with a candlestick …”)
  • KPI selection: This case study concentrates on exercising the ability to prioritize the most important quantitative information from a universe of reports.  After a few turns to watch a slew of numbers and reports and what they mean to the business, the students select their 6 key performance indicators and then see who can make the best decisions and the environment changes based on the information they have pre-selected to analyze.

Those are just a few examples to try to make this more concrete.  The real value is gained after the simulation is over and students talk about how they tried to pull important information forward and push unimportant information to the background, how their dashboards and networks worked for them, and what they’d do differently next time.  I don’t design case studies and am sure someone who does could do a better job, but they give an idea of the types of skills that I’d like to see an MBA grad having as they enter a real-life large organization.

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