The Intangibility and Measurement of Learning


An important aspect of learning is its intangibility. Learning is non-observable; it takes place within people and can only be inferred from actual behavior. For this reason, it is called an intervening variable. Because it must be inferred from behavior, it is often difficult to measure: other factors influence behavior, and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish what part of the behavior is attributable to learning. Two men may be assigned a task and given instructions on how to accomplish it. One may achieve much better results than the other, but that does not necessarily mean he has learned more. He may have had more ability to begin with, or he may have had a greater motivation to succeed than the other.

Performance is the result of learning, ability, motivation, and a variety of external factors. One man may produce more even having learned less because his ability or motivation enables him to perform more effectively. A student who works hard in a course and learns a great amount may see another student work less hard, appear to learn less, but receive a high grade. Such situations are common both in school and in the business world. The factor sometimes overlooked is the initial degree of skill or knowledge brought to the task, and the resultant effect on performance. Often it is performance that is observed, judged, and rewarded.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, and my Lectures.

Know your Customer


The conventional wisdom for product design and marketing says pay attention to the customers. Learn as much as you can about their needs and wants and then design the product on the basis of information. The customer is then part of you R&D department.

But the customer can be crucial to your R&D in a totally different and often overlooked way. You can learn a great deal by watching how your customers misuse and abuse your product after they buy it. Major breakthroughs in new products and innovative product redesigns have come from watching the customer “trash” the original intent and use a product in a totally different way.

By paying attention to how customers actually use, misuse, and abuse products, you’ll have the world’s largest R&D team and an endless supply of ideas with which to work.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Lectures, Line of Sight

Accrual Accounting and Cashflow


Before the end of World War 1 most managers kept track of cash out and cash in. many senior citizen owner-managers still do today. There is an inherent problem in keeping the records that way, however, if the business offers and receives much credit. Doing business on credit displaces the time of the exchange of cash from the exchange of goods and services. Sometimes very little cash comes in during a particular month and very much cash comes in during other months. The same is true of cash out.

Keeping in track of what you pay or get paid for credit transactions causes the monthly reports describing the operations to fluctuate from month to month even though the goods and services flowing in and out of the business may be very much the same. About 1920 the accounting profession began placing emphasis on the accrual method of accounting to overcome this difficulty.

The accrual method portrays the smoothed-out profit as if all the transactions had been for cash and as if the business had purchased only exactly what was needed to make the sale. It is not an accurate portrayal of everything going on in the business, but it is a good approximation of the net effect of those things that affect profit. The problem is that so much emphasis has been placed on the accrual method income statement and balance sheet that the importance of cash has been regulated to virtual obscurity.

Even this result is satisfactory when the reports are describing large businesses with access to external financing through the stock market, commercial paper, and bank loans at the prime interest rate. But companies that do not have access to these external sources of financing have a different problem. For them, the flow of cash through the business means life or death, whether the accrual based profit is great or terrible. When new or small businesses need cash they must turn to the bank, the banker will look to the personal savings and assets of the owner-manager for collateral.

Accountants have not forgotten nor overlooked the importance of cash. They recognize the need for cash in sufficient quantity to keep the business operating. For their purposes, however, they often infer the cash available to the business from the income statements and describe future cash availability with the balance sheets. They, and others, frequently describe it as: cash flow equals net profit after taxes plus depreciation and other noncash expenses, such as amortization.

This statement is incorrect except under some very stringent preconditions that rarely exist in practice for a small business. This statement is an approximation that is valid for large and stable businesses in which changes from year to year are small and the statements from which the cash flow is inferred are annual reports. For a small and new business looking at monthly financial reports this approximation is inadequate. In a small, growing business the net cash flow to the firm’s bank account does not equal the net profit plus depreciation. Profit is not cash nor is it cash flow.

Although this pronouncement may be unconventional, entrepreneurs are realistic. Successful entrepreneurs ask how it really works and then get on with building their business. In the conventional approach the analysts, having inferred cash flow from profit, depreciation, and amortization, stop there, allowing their readers to assume that the resulting cash is in the bank wiating to be spent.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

Managing Cash and Liquidity


In a turbulent environment, cash returns are important, if not more important, than reported profit returns. Cash returns lead to liquidity, and liquidity is a top priority consideration whenever risks and uncertainties surround a business situation, as they do in so many cases today. Cash and liquidity put any company in a better position to withstand a surprise blow, adapt to sudden changes, and capitalize on the narrower windows of opportunity that are commonplace in a turbulent environment.

This doesn’t mean that profits and profit growth are not important. The whole purpose of any business enterprise is to maximize profits and profit growth, but this objective will  not be achieved if business unit managers do not focus more time and attention on managing their cash and liquidity. Any entrepreneur that has lived through a start-up knows the importance of cash and liquidity. The entrepreneur knows from experience that a business can go bankrupt even while it is reporting profits. But it will never go bankrupt as long as its cash and liquidity positions are strong. Most corporate executives understand this point also, but many do not follow through to make sure it is sufficiently stressed or understood at the operating level. This is where the problem lies. Most business unit managers who operate under a corporate umbrella tend to overlook the importance of managing their own cash and liquidity and look instead to the corporation as a never ending source of funds.

The results are apparent in most corporations. Capital expenditure proposals tend to be a “wish list” often justified on project volume gains or cost savings that never occur. Working capital is allowed to build without adequate regard for carrying costs on the cash commitment. In short, overinvestment in plant and equipment, and working capital often serves as a buffer to cover sloppy business practices and control. These are practices that inevitably lead to an investment base that is too big for the business and to marginal profit returns.

Many operating managers in a corporation are not even aware of the costs incurred while excess capital is tied up in the business. This is not an exaggeration. Just ask any four or five business unit managers how much it costs to carry their inventory. Most of them will acknowledge an interest cost of, say 7—8 percent, but few will recognize that total carrying costs, which include storage, taxes, obsolescence, and shrink, actually run closer to 30 percent in today’s environment. We would also bet that none of them have such charges against their earnings, even though it is a very legitimate cost of doing business.

Not every company operates this way. Most corporate executives are not tough minded or rigorous enough in challenging cash commitments, and most business unit managers have more cash tied up in their business than required.

Ideally, every manager should think like a small business entrepreneur with his or her own money at risk. If this were the case, we would not see so many companies with bloated balance sheets and marginal returns. Left on their own, most business unit managers do not think this way, however. Life is not easier when you can draw almost at will on coroprate resources to meet the payroll, build inventories, and buy supplies, tooling and a lot of equipment. Under such conditions you don’t have to worry very much about how to make ends meet.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

Managers are not just Leaders in Waiting


Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things.” Conventional wisdom is proud of maxims like this. It uses them to encourage managers to label themselves “leaders.” It casts the manager as the dependable plodder, while the leader is the sophisticated executive, scanning the horizon, strategizing. Since most people would rather be a sophisticated exective than a dependable plodder, this advice seems positive and developmental. It isn’t: it demeans the manager role but doesn’t succeed in doing much else. The difference between a manager and a leader is much more profound than most people think. The company that overlooks this difference will suffer for it.

 The most important difference between a great manager and a great leader is one of focus. Great managers look inward. They look inside the company, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs, and motivation of each person. These differences are small, subtle, but great managers need to pay attention to them. These subtle differences guide them toward the right way to release each person’s unique talents into performance.

 Great leaders, by contrast, look outward. They look out at the competition, out at the future, out at alternative routes forward. They focus on broad patterns, finding connections, cracks, and then press home their advantage where the resistance is weakest. They must be visionaries, strategic thinkers, and activators. When played well, this is, without doubt, a critical role. But it doesn’t have much to do with the challenge of turning one individual’s talents into performance.

 Great managers are not mini-executives waiting for leadership to be thurst upon them. Great leaders are not simply managers who have developed sophistication. The core activities of a manager and a leader are simply different. It is entirely possible for a person to be a brilliant manager and a terrible leader. But it is just as possible for a person to excel as a leader and fail as manager. And, of course, a few exceptionally ralented individuals excel at both.

 If companies confuse the two roles by expecting every manager to be a leader, or if they define “leader” as simply a more advanced form of “manager,” then the all-important “catalyst” role will soon be undervalued, poorly understood, and poorly played. Gradually the company will fall apart.

 My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

Political Aspects of Organizational Change


There is a large number of individuals who are undecided about change—they need to be influenced or persuaded to support the change. How can a manager motivate employees to change? Most of the change management literature overlooks the fact that people are largely motivated by self interest. In the 90s, popular writing in Change Management exhorted managers to develop ‘vision’ statements to appeal to people’s hearts. While there is some merit in this proposal, change managers who ignore people’s minds (and by that I mean self-interests) will find it quite difficult to garner support for their change efforts. Individuals are not solely drive by self-interests but these interests are important. In some instances, change may involve relinquishing one’s self-interest. The first thing people are likely to ask when informed about change is: what is in it for me?

There had to be a number of decisions to be made at every stage of the project involving large financial outlays—quickly and without political or bureaucratic interference. The decision-making process ensure this. Public support is critical for land acquisition and later for smooth execution. A number of contractors would be involved, and their effectiveness had to be ensured for the corporation to be effective. The community would be concerned about possible environmental degradation. Though the project would ultimately benefit the community, no cost could be unilaterally imposed on any stakeholder. The project owes its success to effectively managing such political aspects too.

If the organization’s change agenda matches self-interests of employees and other stakeholders, it has little problem in gathering support. On the other hand, if the change agenda requires employees to give up at least some of their interests, then mobilizing support is a more difficult task. More importantly, even if the change agenda is aligned with employees’ self-interests, they have to be convinced that participating in change will advance their self interests. Therefore, mobilising support is largely about influencing people to change despite—or because of—their self-interests. This aspect of influencing people’s self-interest is what makes change management ‘political’; it requires close attention to the science and art of persuasion. In other words, we need to understand the psychology of persuasion before we can devise effective ways of influencing people.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

Reinterpreting Products


Product is not what the engineer explicitly says it is, but what the consumer, implicitly demands that it shall be. Thus the consumer consumes not things, but expected benefits—not cosmetics, but the satisfactions of the allurements they promise; not quarter-inch drills, but quarter-inch holes; not stock in companies, but capital gains; not numerically controlled milling machines, but trouble-free and accurately smooth metal parts; not low-cal whipped cream, but self-rewarding indulgence combined with sophisticated convenience.

The product does not exist as a separate entity. The product is what the consumer perceives it to be. Consumer perceptions are strategically important at all stages of product development, from initial conceptualization to concept testing, to positioning, to designing, manufacturing, packaging, pricing, delivering, advertising, selling, financing, and servicing. Product analysis, therefore, embraces systematic research at all stages. The focus of such research is not on the product itself, but on the consumers and how they respond to the various alternatives at each stage.

To simplify the exposition I am drawing examples primarily from the field of consumer products, such as the tangible items found on the shelves of supermarkets, in department stores, appliances shops, and automobile showrooms. In doing so I am not overlooking the importance of the field of services, such as airlines, insurance companies, banks, and travel agents; or the field of industrial goods, such as computers, chemicals, textiles, and lift trucks. While there are some differences in marketing strategies from one category to the next, the underlying principle of delivering customer satisfaction is the same.

Therefore, the producer should analyze actual or potential product or service in terms of its ability to meet a consumer need or want. It is axiomatic that consumers cannot draw the blueprints or provide detailed specifications for producers. It is up to the business person to experiment with new products or services, or modifications of old ones, and test their acceptance in the marketplace. Advertising can then be used to point out their presumed need/want satisfying properties to would-be users.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please contact www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

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