For many years, Paul wrote a blog for the New York Times about business life. Those postings eventually became the book, Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business. Paul’s book, Boss Life, is available now at your favorite bookstores and on Amazon.com.
A Business Owner Goes Back to School
By PAUL DOWNS JANUARY 15, 2013 7:00 AM
I read with interest an article in The Times about online college courses a couple of Sundays ago. Prompted by a rather roundabout turn of events, I recently took a business course online.
I left college quite some time ago, in 1986, and started my business immediately afterward. At various points over the years, I have contemplated going back to school but never took the time to do it. I was too busy, the courses were too expensive, and I didn’t see any need for an enhanced credential — I had already risen as far as anyone can go in my company. An MBA seemed like it might be interesting, but not worth the time and effort. Fast forward to July of this year, when I picked up the phone and found myself speaking to a potential client, who, it turned out, was an office manager for Coursera, the online education company.
We started discussing the kind of table she was looking for, and while we were speaking, I took a look at her company’s web site. I was surprised to see my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, featured prominently and even more surprised when I clicked through to see the courses being offered. An old cycling buddy of mine who teaches at Wharton, Christian Terwiesch, was giving a course called An Introduction to Operations Management. Leaving aside the scintillating title, this is a subject that is near and dear to me: figuring out the best allocation of resources — labor, machinery — in order to keep production flowing in a factory.
My knowledge in this field comes entirely from the school of hard knocks. The college courses I took concentrated on mechanical engineering and architectural design, and I never took one about running a factory. Nor have I ever run across a book on the subject, and so I have made decisions about how many people to hire and how many machines to buy without much guidance. And I have suffered for it. In the years leading up to the recession, we had way too many people on our shop floor and not enough space or machinery to keep them working efficiently.
I have done much better since then. We now make more product with half the number of people, but I was sure that a broad survey of the extant thinking on this subject would be useful. There were bound to be ways of thinking about resource allocation that I had not figured out on my own. So I signed up for the course. I sent Christian an e-mail telling him I had done so and promised to get back in touch when the course was completed.
Here’s how it worked: the course started just after Labor Day. Every week, a video lecture was released for students to view, along with homework problems. Once the videos were up on the Web site, I could view them whenever I wanted. The videos varied in length but ran under an hour each week. The homework was moderately difficult but careful review of the video provided enough information to answer the questions. Homework was submitted to Coursera for grading online. Along with the video and the homework assignment, the company provided an extensive online forum for students to discuss their questions and help one another with homework.
Christian had clearly put a lot of effort into the videos. He spoke directly to the camera, and the talking head shots were interspersed with video of him writing on a whiteboard or working through Excel spreadsheets while he was doing calculations. It was not boring, and it was not too difficult for me to understand. I found the math comprehensible, and I’m no Einstein. And I found the video format to be really, really helpful — I could easily pause it and rewind for review. It was actually a very good fit for a busy person like me.
The course ran for six weeks. Coursera estimated that the time required to view the videos and do the homework would be five to seven hours per week. I only did the homework for the first two weeks. After that, I just watched the videos, which meant an hour a week. Christian covered a broad range of resource-allocation situations, including many that weren’t about factories, so I decided that I would just watch the video, look for concepts that were relevant, and think about how I could put those concepts to use in my own factory.
I also plan to download some of the lectures and show them to my workers, which will be a very cheap and convenient way to upgrade our thinking about work flow on the shop floor. It’s amazing that I was able to take a college level course — and then put that material to work — for zero dollars. Even more amazing were the enrollment statistics for the course. More than 60,000 students, from all around the world, signed up. More than 4,000 completed all of the homework and the final exam. If the purpose of universities is to promote knowledge, Coursera and other ventures like it are an incredible step forward. People who would never have had the opportunity to learn now have access to high quality teaching.
Christian and I met for breakfast one morning, and we discussed the course and what I liked about it. The only criticism I could think of was that it had a very academic orientation, i.e. the material and homework was oriented toward very simple situations that really don’t exist in the real world. Christian told me that he would be doing another round of courses and was considering offering companion material that concentrated on how to make sense of messy reality. I think that a pair of operations courses, one on theory and the other on how it is implemented in the real world, would be very useful.
I would highly recommend the course to any small-business owner who runs a factory or a restaurant, or any operation where production resources are scarce and allocation tricky. While I can’t comment on other Coursera courses or the offerings of other online organizations, I would be eager to hear about the experiences others have had.
Can anyone suggest a good course in finance or accounting? Or any other subjects that might be useful to small-business owners?
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Paul’s book, Boss Life, is available now at your favorite bookstores and on Amazon.com.