I was the Chairperson of the Irish Management Institute a few years back, which was a little strange because I have no formal background whatsoever in business management, economics or finance! One of the raging discussions we had at the board level of the IMI was what should be the future of executive education in
Then, by coincidence, Monday’s Financial Times had a supplement on Business Education, including its international ranking of the top global executive education schools. It carried several very interesting articles suggesting that the top schools have changed their product from business education to business advice, and almost to management consulting. Customisation of curricula and classes lead to faculty not so much teaching, but instead providing insight in a discussion about specifically how to address issues within a client company, and/or specifically how to apply a particular idea or theory within a client company.
One of the things I had asked myself during my years at the IMI was whether there can be such a thing as a management profession. A profession, by definition, implies some core knowledge, which may be expanded and refined over time by appropriate research and in the light of experience; a way of asserting that an individual has attained a particular level of competence in that knowledge, and therefore can be admitted to the profession; and a code of ethics particularly as to service to the public, including appropriate disciplinary actions if these should be broken (The Economist article makes similar comments). As a professional engineer in
But can there be a management or business profession ? Is there a body of knowledge, an admissions procedure, a code of ethics and a disciplinary mechanism ? Can there be a guardian organization for the profession ? In fact should there not be one, so as to protect the public and including shareholders and investors ? However would such an organized profession stifle innovation and entrepreneurship ? As The Economist observes, Bill Gates dropped out of university and would presumably never have made the grade to become a “professional business manager”.
Hmmm. So what is executive education all about ? Can business management ever become a profession ?
I hesitate to comment further in general for all industries, but I do have some views more specifically as applies to the software industry.
In the mid 90s I had the sincere pleasure of having John Cullinane on the board of directors of IONA. John, as I am sure you know, founded and ran the first software company to file an IPO, the first billion dollar software company, and the first company to do a Super-Bowl ad! His company Cullinet was well known during the 1970s and 1980s. John has written an excellent summary of some of his lessons from those years, which I believe are as applicable today to software companies as they were then, in his book “The Entrepreneurs Survival Guide: 101 Tips for Managing in Good Times and Bad”.
One of the things John said to me early on as a board member at
I guess if what I suggest above is true, then in principle two rival companies with very similar product offerings, and very similar strategies, and of very similar sizes, in principle should be unable to out-execute each other. That is a controversial claim, since execution is key to the success of any software company: but I do believe that a professional experienced software CEO is unlikely to make mistakes in execution, since what is needed in execution is actually now reasonably understood across the industry.
Competitive advantage then in the software industry is increasingly unlikely to come from execution alone. Instead, in my view, advantage comes from strategic insight and analysis, from new products and new business models. Advantage comes from understanding the current state within a particular segment of the industry, and leveraging that to introduce new products and services, perhaps in new ways, and which add sufficient value to motivate the market to invest and customers to buy.
“Success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration” said
An accepted body of knowledge will not, in my view, stifle innovation. Bill Gates would not have suffocated had such a pragmatic tome been available to him.
Perhaps I’m just representing a personal bias. I get excited by discussions on the state and direction of the industry, and where the current leverage points and opportunities are. I get less excited by discussions about operational issues, which of course are important and critical, but reasonably obvious in what needs to be done. Innovation in the industry creates competitive advantage; sheer execution is increasingly unlikely to do so.
I’m open to counter-persuasion. Flame suit on. What do you think ?