The What and the How

Have you ever executed an analysis perfectly and then learned that the analysis didn’t hit the mark with regards to What was needed. My engineering education provided me with many tools, so I’ve always been good at knowing How to complete an analysis, but that’s only gotten me half way to the finish line.

A recent accounting class at Darden really brought this concept home. My class had just finished an accounting case where we had applied activity based costing to allocate fixed costs. Armed with this tool, most of us spent 2-3 hours in our next learning team debating the appropriate drivers to allocate the fixed costs in our next case. It wasn’t until we finished the allocations that we realized fixed costs were irrelevant to the current business situation. We spent our time determining how to allocate fixed costs rather than discussing what costs were important to business.

Every MBA program teaches the how and the what in different proportions, and it’s important to understand which elements you need to develop. If you have an engineering or technical education (like myself), you probably have a pretty good handle on how to complete an analysis and apply a framework. If you have spent time managing people and organizations, you might have your bearings with regards to what are the right tools to address a business problem.

Another consideration is the career field you seek to enter. If you are looking at a specific technical function such as asset valuation, you will probably need to bone up on how to apply different valuation tools. The more general and cross-functional the career, the more you will be challenged with determining what tools are appropriate.

Once you have an understanding of your development needs, you should consider the teaching focus of your target MBA programs. An assessment of the teaching methods employed can be a good indicator of the programs focus. I’ve included some examples below.

What: cases, class discussion, team discussion, simulations
How: text books, lectures, technical notes, excel models

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