Sarah Stuart's 2014 Blog

Sarah Stuart, an MBA student and former editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, reveals the challenges of the programme in a weekly blog.

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A world where data tells you what to do

21 October 2014

Study (verb): the art of texting, watching TV and eating with an open textbook nearby."

"The future of work (theory): algorithms."

I stole that first one (thanks That Career Girl) but at least I got it down on (virtual) paper. See, with eight weeks of my MBA to go and with a mountain of paid and study work to do, I seem to be at my lowest productivity ebb.

That second quote is, scarily enough, also true. As I've procrastinated my way through the past week, thoughts of "why bother" have centered entirely on this spooky story.

Two months ago a British company appointed an algorithm to its board. The future of prescriptive analytics - data telling you what you should do - is hard at work at Deep Knowledge Ventures, a venture capital group where the human members of the board get the same voting power as the algorithm, which analyses variables around investment decisions.

Yes, decision-making is something financial markets have also delegated to algorithms. But votes on a board? It's sparked debate as to what the real future of a business executive is. If data can tell you what you've done, and what you could do, then it's going to be just as efficient at telling business owners what they should do. And it will do it faster and more cheaply.

We've discussed the future of work a lot over the past few months. Some belittle MBA programmes and their focus on "old" skills such as finance, accounting, strategy and management; skills that may become less important in our new data-driven world.

But those people may not realise the emphasis, in this second year at least, on how business is transforming and where we all may fit into it.

That's where papers such as Leadership - with its focus on ethics and judgment and leading teams - come in. Algorithims can't make judgement calls. They can't, yet, motivate teams. And, as University of Auckland Business School Professor Kaj Storbacka told me last week, they can't find opportunity in serendipity.

One area where they have it over us, however, is in the very human art of procrastination. For the past two years I've met every deadline, attended every class, been the earliest to team meetings and gladly given up my weekends to university work. I've barely recognised myself, thus becoming lulled into into a false sense of personal discipline.

No more. The old pre-MBA me is back. The procrastinators reading will recognise the churning panic and sweaty-palmed fear I am choosing to distract myself - using multiple online quizzes, hours of staring at the paper piles on my desk, and long thoughtful lunches.

With just a couple of assignments left to complete and an Everest of a research project due on December 2, all my good habits of the past two years have fled.

This year I chose the Executive MBA programme which sits in class Fridays and Saturdays every fortnight. They are much longer lecture days with bigger gaps in between but, for the first three semesters, the volume of team work meant group pressure kept everything on track. Two or three nights a week we'd be meeting by phone at least. Weekend get-togethers were imperative.

But suddenly, at the final hurdle, my crutches are gone. This semester is all solo work. That research project - 14,000 data-heavy words of meaningful analysis - is hanging over me like a spring storm in Sydney.

Find me an algorithm for that.