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Edinburgh Business School

Distance Learning MBA

A Personal History

By Mark Akrigg, MBA

Executive Summary
A caveat: different people have different needs
Why I entered the program
How I did in the program
EBS Exams
Are EBS exams unreasonably hard?
How I studied for the exams: the stages
Initial readthrough
Note taking
Repeated iterations of quizzes and case studies
Practice Exams from the textbook
The Student Handbook
Past exams
Resulting danger of overconfidence
The last 24 hours before the exam
Writing the exam
Apportioning my time
Multiple choice questions
Some remarks on the compulsory courses
Accounting
Economics
Finance
Marketing
Organizational Behaviour
Quantitative Methods
Strategic Planning
Some remarks on the elective courses
International Trade and Finance
Financial Risk Management 1
Conclusion of my studies

Executive Summary
If you are thinking of doing an MBA, the program offered by Edinburgh Business School
at Heriot-Watt University is well worth considering. Some advantages:
• You will learn a great deal from the courses, perhaps more than you thought
possible.
• The program is convenient and economical of time: no time is spent commuting
to and from lectures.
• Compared to an MBA from a boutique business school, it costs a relatively
modest amount of money.

However, there are other factors which may appear to you as disadvantages. For
example:
• The program is difficult.
• You are strictly on your own. There are no professors or teaching assistants to
help you.
• There is no networking compared to boutique business schools. Generally, you
will see your fellow students only once every six months, for a few minutes of
chat outside the examination hall.
• There is no externally imposed schedule of interim steps to ensure that you are on
track to completing the course successfully. In a conventional MBA program, the
lectures, the scheduled assignments, and the midterm exams are a stimulus to
maintain your study schedule. They provide constant feedback on how you are
doing. In the EBS program, you are solely responsible for maintaining a study
schedule and ensuring that you are mastering the material.

A caveat: different people have different needs


People have different needs, and different ways of learning. This document is a purely
personal account of EBS, how it responded to my needs, and how I responded to EBS. It
is not intended to be a universally applicable guide to how to succeed in the program.

Why I entered the program


As of summer 1997, I was working at a software company as a team leader, i.e. a senior
programmer with a few supervisory responsibilities. I was getting somewhat bored. (My
promotion to management, which cured this boredom, came halfway through the
MBA.) I had been in the software industry for 14 years, and wanted to do something
new. But I needed to do something to make my life more interesting.

I had thought of doing an MBA. But all the programs I had read about seemed rather
expensive, some seemed a tad pretentious, and what they virtually all featured was a
significant classroom component.

This posed a problem, for two reasons. The first factor was simple: I did not and do not
own a car. If you live in downtown Toronto (or New York, or London, or San
Francisco), you’ll understand why. Public transit is very good, and maintaining a car is
very expensive. Although I commute to work in a high-tech suburb north of Toronto,
even there public transit is not half bad during rush hour. But I would only be able to get
from work to a local university in decent time if I bought a car.

The second factor was simple: I work in the software industry, and my work hours are
not predictable. If a customer reports a major production issue at 4:55 in the afternoon,
you and your team stay until you have fixed the problem. Similarly, if you’re in danger
of missing a deadline, you stay late and do whatever it takes to make the deadline. If
there were a conflict between staying to fix a problem/meet a deadline and going to a
lecture or tutorial, the lecture/tutorial would lose. In other words, I was not in a position
to enter a program with a rigidly scheduled mandatory classroom component.

It was at this point (17 August 1996: I still have the clipping) that I happened to see an
article in the Globe and Mail, a leading Canadian newspaper, on alternative MBAs. The
programs were listed in order of increasing flexibility: the last one described was
described as “the ultimate in flexibility…this program offered by the Edinburgh Business
School at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, is open to anyone regardless of
educational background and comes with no classes, no discussions and no
assignments. You just send away for learning materials and write a three-hour exam for
each of the nine courses in the program.”

All this turned out to be perfectly true.

Equally true was a warning the EBS Canadian agent gave later in the article: “The exams
are brutal.”

It sounded perfect: I would learn a great deal, but would be free of unnecessary
encumbrances. I sent off for the EBS pamphlet, and a friend who taught university in the
UK did some further investigation on my behalf. EBS looked like a go. I phoned in my
order, and a week later my first black binders of course material arrived. My life would
never be the same again.

How I did in the program


I won’t keep you in suspense. Here are the courses I took, the dates, my marks as
percentages, and their letter-grade equivalents:

Accounting Dec 97 73 A
Organizational Behaviour Dec 97 64 B
Economics Jun 98 74 A
Marketing Dec 98 65 A
Finance Jun 99 62 B
Quantitative Methods Jun 99 82 A+
International Trade and Dec 99 80 A+
Finance
Strategic Planning Jun 00 75 A
Financial Risk Management I Dec 00 71 A

Taken together, these marks were enough to place me in the 7% or so of graduates who
obtain the degree With Distinction.

At this point you may be asking one or both of the following questions:

(1) Since when is 65% an A?


(2) Why does an average in the low 70s rate an MBA With Distinction?

If you are asking these questions, you have not yet had the unique experience of writing
an EBS examination.

EBS Exams
EBS exams have two striking qualities:

(1) You are expected to know everything in the textbook. Mere general
understanding is not good enough. You must know the material cold.
(2) The exams are very full considering you only have three hours. You need to
work fast: you do not have the time to gradually recall material. Again, you must
know the material cold.

I had early warning of this. A few weeks before the Accounting exam, I did the first
practice accounting exam from the textbook, mimicking real exam conditions: no breaks,
and a three-hour limit. Going in, I thought I had the material well under control. Three
hours of battle ensued. I then marked my paper using the sample answers in the book,
taking care not to give myself the benefit of the doubt. The resulting mark was 55%. A
few more slips on my part, and I would have been below 50%! Clearly action was
needed. The remaining weeks were filled with extremely intense review.

Are EBS exams unreasonably hard?


Not really. As the university points out, these are graduate courses. Academic standards
in graduate studies, whether for professional or research degrees, are much more stringent
than for undergraduate courses. In an earlier life, I took an MA and a PhD in classical
languages, i.e. Latin and Greek. My marks for the course portion were around 80-85%,
seemingly higher than my EBS results. But the pass mark in these programs was 65%,
i.e. 64% was a fail. So in fact my marks were at much the same level at EBS as in the
other graduate programs I had taken.

I would conclude that the EBS courses were neither more nor less demanding than those
in other rigorous graduate programs.
How I studied for the exams: the stages
There are major differences between the courses, and of course my studying technique
evolved as the program continued. However, there was a general pattern which I
followed from course to course. The pattern, or set of stages, was as follows:

Initial read through


To start with, I would read straight through the course textbook, not taking any
notes. However, I would do all of the multiple choice exercises at the end of each
chapter: my score would indicate the degree of comprehension I had achieved. I would
attempt the case studies as well, except where the case studies were either too difficult for
me to attempt at that point, or too time consuming. I wanted to avoid getting bogged
down at this point. The objective was simply to obtain an overview of the subject.

Note taking
During the second reading, I would take full notes on the material. I used a notebook
computer to create the notes. The notes were intended to be a complete representation of
the information in the textbook, but in point form, and as concise as I could make them
without losing any essential information. This would take a fair number of weeks to do,
and was the longest stage of the preparation cycle. I created the notes with two
objectives in mind:
• It was a way of checking my level of knowledge. If I could not create
comprehensible notes, I knew that I did not yet understand the material
• The notes were quicker to review than the original textbook. In the final runup to
the exam, this was an important factor.

As before, I did all of the multiple-choice quizzes. In addition, I did all of the case
studies, except where
• I simply did not understand the material well enough to attempt them
• It would take more than 2-3 hours to do the case study

Repeated iterations of quizzes and case studies


At this point I would start review iterations. First I would read my notes for an individual
chapter, then I would do the multiple-choice quiz and case studies. I would do this a
number of times. If a particular chapter consistently yielded unusually poor results on the
multiple choice quiz, or if the case studies caused me problems, I would devote extra
time to that chapter to bring my level of knowledge up.

Towards the end of each course, I would have one or two run-throughs of the entire set
multiple choice questions and case studies without prior review of the individual
chapters.
A good rule of thumb was that if I scored 80% or more on a multiple choice quiz, I had a
reasonable grasp of the chapter. If I scored 90%, I had an excellent knowledge.

Practice Exams from the textbook


Not more than four weeks before the exam, I would write the practice exams from the
textbook. As I related above, for Accounting, which I took at the start of the program, I
replicated the actual conditions of the exam: 3 hours, no breaks, the stereo silent.

This had the advantage of reproducing the conditions of the actual exam. It had the
disadvantage that it left me rather stressed out, just like a real exam. So during
subsequent courses when attempting the practice exams, I would break the exam into its
constituent parts: multiple choice questions, case studies, and so on. I would do one part
at a time, take a break (either a total break, or some review), then return to the exam to do
the next part. I would make very certain that an overall limit of 3 hours applied to the
time I was actually writing the exam.

The practice exam results turned out to be an excellent predictor of my performance on


the actual exam.

The Student Handbook


The University publishes a Student Handbook, which includes practice exams. (The
edition that I had was from 1995, and may have been superseded.) Some of the sample
exams are the same as in the textbooks, but others are found only in the
handbook. However, the handbook offers examples of actual student answers as
well. These student answers have two notable features:
• They are good quality answers. In fact, sometimes you read them and think that
really nothing more can possibly be said on the topic in question.
• Examiners’ comments are included! These comments are the best opportunity you
will have to get an impression of exactly how the EBS examiners will go about
marking your paper. I made a point of reading them carefully.

Past exams
The university posts past exams
at www.ebs.hw.ac.uk/MBA/studentservice/EX/index.html .

There was a danger of overload here. When there were six past examinations posted for
a subject, it did not seem worth my while to spend the time writing and rewriting every
part of all six exams. What I was able to do was to ensure that I was in a position to
answer all of the questions in a reasonable way. If several questions bore a close
resemblance, I would do one of the instances in detail. If any question caused me
particular difficulty, I would place special emphasis on repeating it (and other similar
questions) until I was sure that I could handle an equivalent question when writing the
actual exam.
Resulting danger of overconfidence
There was a danger of overconfidence. I was writing the previous exams under ideal
circumstances. That is, I was at home, well rested, and had recently reviewed the
appropriate part of the textbook. Because of this I took very seriously any question
which I had gotten basically right, but had had some trouble in answering.

The problem was how I would react to a similar question under exam
conditions. Suppose that I had not slept extremely well, had arrived early, the other
students gathering for the exam had been nervous, and my mood had been affected. In
addition, suppose that I had just realized that I had bombed out on the previous question,
but had no time to go back and try to improve my answer. How well would I do?

In other words, I prepared for the worst.

The last 24 hours before the exam

I couldn’t review everything. Instead, I would focus on two classes of items


• Things that were certain to be on the exam
• Areas which I had found particularly difficult

In particular, I would focus on brute memorization of lists where this was likely to be
useful. For example, in Accounting, I needed to memorize the standard accounting ratios
perfectly. Similarly, in Strategic Planning, I needed to know all of the stages of the
strategic planning process in the model favoured by the textbook.

Writing the exam


It was exam time now. There I was, surrounded by other EBS students, none of whom I
had seen before.

But of course, whatever the physical circumstances, in fact I was entirely alone. I had
handed in no assignments, done no group projects, and written no midterms. I didn’t
know the faculty, and I didn’t know the markers. It was just me and the exam. Three
hours stood between me and the end of the course.

Apportioning my time
The examinations were generally too long for the 3 hours allotted. By doing full justice
to one question, I would only make the situation even worse for the next. But minor
variations in time allocation between questions of equal value seemed reasonable, as long
as (1) the variations were in fact minor, and (2) I truly believed that the question I was
giving less time to would take less time to answer. But I made sure that I left enough
time to make a reasonable attempt to answer each question. I didn’t even think of leaving
a question unanswered. A poor answer would presumably get a mark or two. An
unanswered question would get none.

Multiple choice questions


The Edinburgh Business School has an unrivalled talent for creating fiendishly difficult
multiple choice questions.

Not every exam had them, but most did. In spite of their difficulty, I prized these
questions highly, because if I did a very good job on them, I could get a mark very close
to 100% in this section, because the scores were all or nothing. In contrast, the essay
questions/case studies inevitably had a subjective element, with the result that in practice
I could never get an essay mark higher than 80%, and probably much less.

The result is that I was willing to give the multiple-choice questions more than their fair
share of time, when this was required. A case in point was Financial Risk Management
1, where the questions involved a good deal of mathematics, and took me more than an
hour, even though they were only worth one third of the final mark. In other exams, the
multiple choice questions took a good deal less than one hour.

By doing a good job of the multiple choice questions, I put myself in a strong
position. Heading into the case studies and essay questions, I could be reasonably sure
that I already had a mark of (say) 27%. I only needed to get 23% more to get an
unconditional pass. This 23% was from the 66.7% of the exam which remained. In other
words, I only needed to get 35% on the remaining parts of the exam to get a pass.

Careful repetition of the multiple choice questions from the textbook and from the
practice exams proved invaluable in preparing for the exams.

Some remarks on the compulsory courses


These remarks are not meant to summarize the courses. Instead, they are comments and
suggestions that I haven’t seen elsewhere, which you might find useful.

Accounting
Textbook: Release 1.1, 1996

The textbook is very, very well written. It assumes no prior knowledge, but moves
extremely fast. At the same time, it takes no short cuts. In other words, if the text says
that it will briefly touch on something, don’t believe it! There will be a detailed
discussion.
The examination was a stomach-churning experience, and I was somewhat concerned
about the outcome. But in fact my result of 73% was fine, so clearly I had over-
reacted. The moral is not to place too much credence in your personal feelings when
writing an EBS exam. And do not let your emotions during the exam slow you down in
completing it!

Be sure when going into the exam that you have completely memorized the accounting
ratios: current ratio and so on.

Economics
Textbook: Release 1.1, 1997

The textbook is by Professor Lumsden himself, founder of the Distance Learning


program, and is written to a very high standard.

I found the Macroeconomics section of the textbook considerably more mysterious than
the Microeconomics section. The most enigmatic chapter of all was Module 19
“Integration of the Real and Monetary Sectors of the Economy”. For me the solution was
simply reading the chapter again and again, until finally it made sense. Here I can offer a
piece of advice. Have a look at Figure 19.3 “The liquidity and money (LM) schedule”
and Figure 19.4 “Increase in the money supply − shift in the LM schedule”. Look at the
diagrams very, very carefully. Do you see some extremely faint horizontal and vertical
lines in the four quadrants of each of the two figures? Do not be deceived by the
faintness of these lines. If you understand them, you understand the chapter.

Finance
Textbook: Release 1.1, 1997

Professor Boudreaux’s exposition of finance is a model of lucid and elegant technical


writing. Once you have read this book, you will never read the financial press the same
way again.

The course is difficult, particularly Module 12 “Advanced Topics: Options, Agency,


Derivatives and Financial Engineering”. The examinations are difficult as well. In my
case, the first case study on the exam was simply too complex for the time allotted, and I
did a poor job of it. However, I ended up with an overall mark of 62% in spite of this
unfortunate event. I believe that my salvation was a well-done set of multiple choice
questions, which raised the overall average.

A word of advice: make sure that you become extremely proficient in bond arithmetic:
calculating implied future interest rates and so on, before writing the exam
Marketing
Textbook: Release 1.1, 1996

The textbook is gigantic, consisting of 20 chapters, each of which is 30 pages or so in


length.

I made the mistake of attempting to do Marketing at the same time as the Quantitative
Methods course, but quickly realized my error, and faxed in a request to defer the
Quantitative Methods exam to June of the following year.

The virtue of the Marketing course is that it is comprehensive. After you’ve finished it,
you certainly will know a lot about how to do market research, how to design a product,
and how to market the product, and through which channels.

On the other hand, its very length makes it difficult to master. In this connection, I found
it very helpful to read The Portable MBA in Marketing, second edition (Wiley, 1998), by
Charles Schewe & Alexander Hiam, ISBN 0-471-19367-4, which covers much the same
material in an agreeably snappy fashion, and was excellent secondary study material.

A second challenge I faced was a type of culture shock. The world of marketing was
completely foreign to me, and I found it difficult to adjust. It became clear to me that I
could use some help beyond what the textbook provided.

So I made a point of buying Advertising Age magazine on a regular basis, and of buying
some books on marketing. The quality of these books was variable, but by reading them I
became familiar with the mental landscape of marketing.

However, the Portable MBA book already mentioned is rather well written. Another
book I found which was conspicuously well written was Ogilvy on Advertising, by David
Ogilvy, the famous copywriter and advertising executive. I found it in a handy paperback
format, published by Vintage Books, ISBN 039472903X. The book did not relate
directly to the course, but gave a fuller view of the world of advertising, and provided a
welcome break from studying the textbook.

The examination consisted entirely of case studies, unlike the textbook, which had many
multiple choice questions at the end of each chapter. As a result, the exam was a little
unnerving. However, I simply tried to apply the concepts from the textbook in a
reasonably methodical way, and things worked out fairly well.

The EBS Student Handbook (1995 edition, ISBN 027361234 4) more than paid for itself
with its warning in the Marketing section that many students misread exam questions
“and provide the outline of a marketing plan instead of the marketing research
plan specified in the question”. Had I not seen this warning, I might easily have misread
one of the exam questions and made exactly this error.
Organizational Behaviour
Textbook: Release 1.2, 1995

In writing the essay questions of the exam, there was a danger of lapsing into personal
reminiscence (“war stories”) instead of sticking to academic analysis. There is no
question in my mind that I was guilty of this to some degree.

It is also the only course in the entire program in which I felt truly self-confident when
answering the essay questions. But the mark I received in the course was lower than in
any course but Finance. Be warned by my example!

Quantitative Methods
Textbook: Release 1995 1.1

The textbook starts off gently, and is reasonably straightforward up through Module 7
“Distributions”. Module 8 “Statistical Inference” is much, much more difficult than what
precedes, and the textbook continues at this new, higher level of difficulty right through
to the 15th and final module, “Managing Forecasts”.

For the second, more mathematical part of the textbook, all that I can recommend is
constant repetition. This worked for me: unexpectedly, it was in this course that I ended
up getting my highest mark of the program.

The first few modules, although less difficult, turned out to be immediately useful. At
work, I create many documents each year which simply present data to client companies
or my own company’s senior management. There was an immediate, noticeable, and
permanent improvement in the quality of these documents as soon as I had read Module 3
“Data Communication” for the first time.

Strategic Planning
Textbook: Release 1.1, 1995

Like Marketing, this is a somewhat subjective area, so the quantitative portion of the
textbook is relatively slender. There are no multiple choice questions in the textbook or
on the exam.

However, the textbook is tightly written, and I found it more agreeable to contend with
than Marketing. Its section on reasons for (and against) acquisitions was unforgettable,
and made immediate sense of some of the current takeover battles (and aftermaths) that I
was reading about in the business press. I found Appendix 1 “Strategy Report”
immediately helpful in presenting some analysis that I had been doing at work.

This was one course where outside reading was helpful. The books I found most
immediately useful were:
• Competitive Strategy, by Michael Porter (New York: Free Press; ISBN
0684841487)
• Competitive Advantage, also by Michael Porter (New York: Free Press; ISBN
0684841487)
• The Portable MBA in Strategy, by Liam Fahey and Robert M Randall (New
York: Wiley; ISBN 0471197084)

To get more background in specific company histories, I read the business stories in
the Economist each week, and also read
• The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, by Amar V. Bhidé (New York:
Oxford, 1999: ISBN 0195131444)
• Matsushita Leadership, by John P. Kotter (New York: Free Press,1997; ISBN
068483460X)
• ABB, the Dancing Giant, by Kevin Barham and Claudia Heimer (London:
Financial Times Prentice Hall, 1999: ISBN 0273628615)

I also read the first third of My Years at General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan (New York:
Doubleday; ISBN 0385042353). I did not finish the book because I ran out of time for
extra reading as the exam approached. The book itself is excellent.

I don’t think there’s any strong need to read the specific company histories that I chose,
but I do think it’s helpful to choose one or two company histories to give some reality to
the theory provided by the textbook. Take a second look before purchasing the business
history titles your bookstore is promoting most heavily: they tend to be aimed at a general
audience, and can be insubstantial and (in the case of company founders) somewhat self-
centred.

Some remarks on the elective courses


Both of the electives I took were in the area of Finance. I took International Trade and
Finance because my own area of software has a global market, and the course seemed
relevant. I took Financial Risk Management 1 because it looked challenging and
interesting. It turned out to be both, but perhaps went a bit overboard on the challenging
side.

International Trade and Finance


Textbook: Release 1.2, 1995

The textbook was very well written, and dealt in an informative way with such topics as
trade policy, economic integration, exchange rates, and the International Monetary
Fund. It was not as difficult as the compulsory courses, so simply in order to expand my
knowledge I did substantial outside reading.

Because of the date of its last revision, the text did not deal with such subjects as
• The WTO (World Trade Organization), which had not yet come into existence and
superseded the GATT organization
• The creation of the Euro
• The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
• The Asian monetary crisis of the late 90s

It proved to be simple enough to find outside books that dealt with these subjects. In
addition, I found that the websites of the World Trade Organization (www.wto.org) and
the International Monetary Fund (www.imf.org) offered excellent supplementary material
which was, of course, free of charge.

Financial Risk Management 1


Textbook: Release 1.1, 1998

The course deals with such areas as market mechanisms, interest rate risk, financial risk
quantification, and credit risk. It has a heavy mathematical component, and in my
opinion is more difficult than most of the compulsory courses. It is what you would
expect a graduate course in Finance to be like.

That said, the quality of the textbook is at the program’s usual high level, and the
exercises and case studies provide a full review of the material in each chapter.

The textbook contained a number of typos, which at times slowed me down. However,
you can find a list of corrections atwatercooler.domainvalet.com/files/frm1err.doc . Keep
your life simple: enter the full set of corrections in your copy of the textbook.

For (relatively) light reading that offered something of a break from the course, I used
• Risk: the new management imperative in finance, by James T Gleason (Princeton:
Bloomberg Press, 2000; ISBN 1576600742)
• The Collapse of Barings, by Stephen Fay (London: Richard Cohen, 1996: ISBN
0393040550)

I also read two books on the Long-Term Capital Management crisis of 1998:
• When Genius Failed, by Roger Lowenstein (New York: Random House, 2000; ISBN
1841155039)
• Inventing Money, by Nicholas Dunbar (Chichester: Wiley, 2000; ISBN 0471498114)

Conclusion of my studies
The Financial Risk Management 1 exam in December 2000 did not go extremely
well. The multiple choice questions were difficult. I took the time necessary to answer
them (as mentioned, I place a high value on the multiple choice questions), but this left
me short of time at the end of the exam, so for the final case study in the exam, I had to
give a relatively skimpy set of answers.
However, two months later, my marks came in, and they were fine. I had completed all 9
courses, and would be going to Edinburgh in July!