Joe LiPuma: There’s a lot to learn from research on management

Posted: January 16, 2013 by jennroig in English, Interviews
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Joseph LiPuma

Joseph LiPuma

This is the original, unedited English version of the interview to Prof. Joe LiPuma, from the French EMLYON Business School, and also author of Unlocking the Ivory Tower: How management research can transform your business.

In a nutshell, what would you say is the most compelling argument for a businessman to read your book?

I think the main point is efficiency.

A number of books that are out there on management and business are great. Many of them present a couple of ideas… But what we have done, we have taken a lot of the academic literature over the last years and we have summarized it, and synthesized it, so this book provides a very condensed, concise, broad view of a lot of concepts that are on other books. So, I think that’s the big reason.

Businessmen argue that their daily activities are so practical, so down to Earth, that it’s difficult to find some guidance on the abstract academic knowledge. On the other hand, there’s so much change and uncertainty, that research just doesn’t cover it, much less can anticipate to it. So, what could businessmen learn from your research? Why is it relevant?

One of the nice things about the academic literature is that generally it is not just about a specific incident, very textual in terms of time or place, but the idea in most academic literature is that it’s supposed to be generalizable, it’s supposed to present big ideas that maybe are the combination of things that happened in a number of companies, or hundreds of different situations, so it should be a little more generalizable.

About the fact of a rapidly changing environment, in very uncertain times, there are still lessons to be learnt from the literature. What others have done to solve problems? That’s important. And even if things are changing, if you understand how some things were done in the past, mistakes that were done in the past, you can help to avoid those in the future.

The other big thing is that, what we can learn from given things in certain times it is to understand what the contexts are… whether it’s about different laws, or different economic conditions that result in certain actions… If we understand the context, then as context changes, so the environment becomes more uncertain, we can come and say: this happened in this context, this is what drove to this particular behavior or result, now that we have a different context, how does this new context will change the results? So we can approach it that way.

It gives us some sense of how to understand what conditions drive the results. It’s a big thing. Even if we encounter ourselves in new conditions, we might change our actions to accommodate those new conditions.

As director of Emlyon’s international MBA program, could you tell about some insertion of legal contents? Is there a goal to bring some level of legal understanding to students about legal issues in business? If there is, how are you tackling to pass this kind of knowledge to a global group of students, considering legal settings are so different from country to country?

The law and the legal aspects dictate in many ways what’s possible and what’s not possible. So there are ways we do tackle the issue. First, we start with a two-days course that we teach about International Business and Regulatory organizations. We take our MBA students to Geneva, where we have discussions with the World Trade Organization (WTO). The following week we have representatives from the International Labor Organization, what we try to do it’s to first hand have them understand how broad regulatory organization – like the WTO, ILO- look at things like regulation, and then to understand how companies need to act in the context of these international regulations.

There are other pieces of courses that we do in entrepreneurship for the MBA, I teach a section of that, where we look at things like venture capital. How does venture capital change by region and countries? It’s different in the USA, China, Europe, why is that? What legal and regulatory conditions affect venture capital, or affect the way a young company can get its money. For instance, in the US a lot of venture capital comes from the pension funds, in France pension funds are not allowed to invest on venture capital. That affects the amount of funding young companies may have access through venture capital.

With that, what we are trying it’s to think about the context. What about the context? How is it affecting things for you? It could be access to capital, legal and regulatory conditions can affect those. Also how do you get your equity investments?

We also have an elective course that looks at European and American legal frameworks, taught by a professor with a background in law, who looks at, compares and talks about American and European legal systems.

The point about so many participants from different countries in our program… We don’t try to teach what the laws are in Mexico, or Peru, or the US, Canada or France, we couldn’t possibly teach all those things in our class. What we can teach though, we can sensitize our participants to hear how are some legal conditions in different countries and how can they affect business.

The goal is that participants who go to work in some other country where he’s never been in, he can think back to the course and reflect, what can I be assuming? What do I need to look at in terms of the legal conditions in this country that can actually make a difference in how do I establish my business? how do I operate my business? how do I deal with employees? We try to teach them the elements they might need to explore and how they may vary between different countries.

As entrepreneur and executive, and as professor, you have worked within different cultural settings and economic scenarios, what do you think is the biggest challenge for those international executives and businessmen?

One of the biggest things for an entrepreneur is to recognize what their biases are. I don’t mean biases in a negative sense. I mean it in the sense of people who have spent their lives in one country, where they grew with a certain way of thinking, to look at the world, as they come to any business situation, in any country, they carry that set of expectations that can bias their view of the way business work.

So, I think any business person needs to first recognize in themselves what those biases are, what their blind spots are, what assumptions they are making. So they can approach opportunities and problems with a more open mind and not just move forward with a set of expectations they developed for years while living in some other places.

Some of that is maybe responding to culture but either way culture has ways in which may affect the way people negotiate contracts. There are a lot of aspects to that. I think the big thing is just having good sense of themselves, what baggage they bring to certain situations they encounter in different countries.

In terms of leadership, do you think there is any aptitude that gets admired and would be considered inspiring across cultures and countries?

I think there are two things that stand out to me. One is empathy, being able to put into someone else’s position and understand them no matter where they come from.

The other is conviction. The leader needs a strong view of what’s right, and what’s appropriate for the business.

I think of people like Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, you look at these people, who are universally recognized as leaders, even if you didn’t agree with them, you would recognize they are leaders. They were all approachable and empathetic, they have strong convictions. I think that gets admired, that’s inspiring, and those are to me, the two big things.

Critics keep voicing arguments against MBAs, either arguing a lack of ethical values, or that such certificate is no longer a mandatory for career success. What are your arguments to in defense of these programs? How to convince young entrepreneurs or business students to undertake a MBA program?

First I think that having the MBA, the certificate, really isn´t necessary. It’s true, the certificate doesn’t necessarily take you anyway. So we have people who just want to get their MBA so they can say they have it, but really, it isn’t necessary nor is it enough.

In some ways, we hope it won’t be just the certificate but what you can learn out of it. But even the learning isn’t necessary, we have seen a lot of people being very successful without MBA, many people we can name. So it’s not the certificate.

The big thing is that what is learnt can certainly increase your chances of success rather than just trial and error. One of the reasons why we do things by giving people cases is that once you see the mistakes other people have made, you may be able to not make those. Someone who doesn’t know history is bound to relive the past in the future, you’ll do the same thing in the future. With cases, we can learn.

I think that it can increase the chances for success rather than trial and error. MBA programs are now moving toward including things like leadership skills, people self awareness, increasing interpersonal, or intercultural awareness. Many of the people on our program have worked within international environments or teams, but even then, coming to a program which is very intense with people from 15 different countries, they find that even their previous international experiences didn`t prepare them for the challenges they face working here with colleagues from so many places.

The other thing is that you get a broader business knowledge. You can certainly succeed in an industry by having some very specialized knowledge, but what we hope with the MBA is to provide broader knowledge so you can excel or succeed in multiple contexts.

I think it’s to be able to work in international frameworks, with international mindset. Things that are necessary for the future.

What do B-Schools need to change to make MBA programs sustainable? Do you see any kind of upcoming changes?

A lot of what MBA programs teach is very functional knowledge, how to do mk, how to do finances, human resource management.

But as managers, it’s not the way in which we encounter problems and opportunities. If you have a problem that it’s financial in nature, it will have strong implications in mk, and in HHRR, how do we best teach that? One thing we are doing it’s to have, after we do 10 weeks of these functional courses, we do an integrative seminar that is co-taught by faculty from all four of our faculty groups to have the participants work on cases, looking at potential challenges across all areas.

Second it’s working with other schools. In regard to alliances, we see that in business working with other companies is critical, the way how companies are thinking about sticking their core competence while working with partners. Well business schools need to be doing the same. There are things we do well, and there are others that we have partners that we work with that they do well.

Recently, we just joined a consortium of 7 schools doing international masters in management. We are working these kind of alliances.

Other thing we are pushing here it’s experiential learning, having people getting their hands dirty with business. Not just sitting in a classroom but also working with companies, which is something we do and it’s a big piece of a program. Not just theoretical exercise, it’s really working with programs that companies are experiences, because in that case you really need to consider the finance, and the mk, and the strategy, everything together.

Those are two big things.

More broadly, beyond what we are doing, in general, what I think business schools should be doing is to put themselves back at the interception between business, government, and society.

Business is a strong player, has a strong role in that, but it’s very much doing these things in concert with government, policymakers, people. So they also need to take part in providing better conditions to people, whether it’s helping to improve better economic situations, better services. Business has to be at this interception, and business schools must support business to provide those services and satisfy those needs.

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