XBS, the Bloggers’ b school (XBS 3)

Hbs_1Last week, I had a couple of thoughts on the "bloggers business school."  There was some encouragement, especially from Francois Gossieaux at Corante and Russell Davies in the UK.  It feels like this is an idea with legs.  Now if we can just give it a head and a heart…


How about a name?  The sensible thing is to name the enterprise after it’s most generous donor.  New York real-estate developer Stephen M. Ross recently gave the University of Michigan business school $100 million.  My concern: would this be enough?

So let’s call it the XBS for the time being where X is the name of the future donor.  And, no, I don’t think this donor is going to have to match Stephen Ross’s gift.  I think we could sell the name to the right donor for around $20 million.  This would generate enough interest to supply salaries and keep XBS tuition free. 

Educational philosophy

The first objective of XBS is to create a network that links faculty to participants (a.k.a. students), participants to one another, and both participants and faculty to the world that is the web. 

The second objective is to link XBS to the world of business, so that the network is networked, as it were. 

The first objective means that instruction happens on line.

The second objective: instruction is integrated with the world. 

Russell Davies is developing something like a tutorial model, and this has advantages.  (If it’s good enough for Oxford and Cambridge…)  For my money, this model is didactic, too much a matter of educational superordinates telling their subordinates what and how to think.  (I say this with alll due respect to Russell.  He is casting around for solutions to an urgent problem and he has taken it on, heroically, as a one-man exercise.) 

I prefer a more collaborative model, one in which participants and faculty work together to solve problems, and master problem solving in the process.  The "case study" method work nicely here, and in the best case, students are co-authors of what happens in the classroom and "tutors" are there to direct discourse.  (There are HBS professors who can run an 80 minute class by asking a handful of questions.  The art of teaching here: to ask the exquisitely correct question of exactly the right student at precisely the right moment.  Russell, I believe, would do this brilliantly.) 

But the case study is not perfect for XBS.  This is because the case study is, again for my money, too artificially delimiting of the problem at hand.  Case studies demand cases: usually, a 6 to 12 page, closely worded treatment of data and observation, out of which the students must extract the problem, data, alternatives, and an answer. 

But the case is canned.  It is removed from the real world in all its blooming complexity and churning dynamism.  This prevents students from mastering complexity management (and I believe this will be their first professional responsibility in the capitalism of the 21st century).  More important, the canned case forces the b-school to play johnny-come-lately to capitalism.  As it stands, business schools are rest stops on the interstates of commerce.  Capitalism does not run through them.  It runs around them.  This leaves most business schools, even very powerful ones, working at a remove. 

So, let’s say XBS uses the "world study method."  In this event, every problem in the classroom would have to be a problem in the real world.  Below, I have attached my working notes for a case study  called "Arrested Development: you’re Mitch Hurwitz, what do you do?"  I think this will eventually become a cases study of the conventional kind, but what I like about it for present purposes is that it is in fact an urgent problem.

You will see that there are lots of outstanding questions in the working notes.  Anything in italics is a question that would have to be supplied in the case.  But these questions could be answered in the XBS classroom by participants who have industry contacts and formidable googling skills.    Furthermore, the answer to these questions are changing constantly.  One of Mitch’s options, internet distribution, has new options emerging all the time. 

In a perfect world, the XBS contemplation of Mitch’s problem would not be a "let’s pretend" version, a mere shadow of his deliberations, but something so comprehending (and comprehensive) of the complexities of the matter, that Mitch would find it deeply interesting and useful.

In this way, XBS could serve as an intellectual staging area for the real world.  Business professionals could bring their problems to the classroom.  (There are precedents for this sort of thing.  Harry Davis runs a product development course at the University of Chicago.  Each term students address on a problem proposed by someone in industry.) 

There are two objections, of course.  One is that no professional marketers is going to put a real problem "under glass" in this way and so expose his or her world to competitive scrutiny.  The nice thing about really productive classrooms is that they throw off a profusion of solutions.  The proposer may pick and choose his/her solution and the competition need be none the wiser.
The other objection is that these cases would be short lived.  Every b-school struggles to keep cases fresh.  Once Mitch has made his decision, the case is dead.  I am not so sure of this.  After all, there are no right answers here.  Even after Mitch has made a choice, the alternatives to his decision will attract student support, and as the world turns, the problem set will turn as well.  Fully attached to the world, these cases may have the ability to renew themselves. 

I think it would be especially interesting to give the same problem to several classes and watch each work through to its own solution.  This is an evolutionary model with multiple "what if" scenarios.  Each class would fix on its own particular version of the problem, data, strategy and answer.  Together, the classes would supply an interesting survey of the problem various configured.

If we are serious when we say that the world is becoming more dynamic, more inscrutable, more difficult to manage, surely a business school that runs the problem set in several different ways is a useful thing.  Indeed, by making itself a kind of staging area for the future, XBS could makes itself an essential part of the decision making process.  We can imagine managers building it into the problem solving process.  This would give them a chance to see what very complicated problems sets would look like when configured in very different ways.  ("Ok, here is what the what things look like if these factors are held to be most important, and here is what it looks like if other factors prove more important.")  This allows XBS to move from post hoc "catch up" to something much more prospective and useful.   

The value to the business world is perhaps clear, but I think this suggests a compelling case of the value of XBS to its participants (a.k.a. students).  Students will eventually be allowed onto the cat walk to see into every class that has entertained the question in question.  This is really very useful, demonstrating in an illuminating way what might have happened had other options been pursued.  XBS may be a better way to teach business in any case.  Almost certainly, it is a better way to teach business when business practice must content with new orders of dynamism. 

Appendix:  Case study

[these are my notes for a case study under construction.  Anything is italics is information I need to find out and build into the case.  (Or it may be information I have found out.)  It occurred to me that this is the sort of thing that could be left to the blogger business student to determine on their own.]

Mitch Hurwitz was sitting at his desk at The Hurwitz Company.  The office was quiet, even a little mournful.  Mitch’s  baby, Arrested Development, had just been cancelled.

Five Emmys and the 2004 award for "best comedy series" had not been enough to protect it.    As Fox executive Peter Liguori put it, ”The fan base is unquestionably one of the most loyal in TV – it’s just too small." The numbers this season had been disappointing, around 4.3 million viewers a week.

Insert here:
economics of TV:
what it costs to mount a series
how many are tried each year, how many successful
how profitable are the successful ones, who makes the profit
how many viewers are required to sustain a series
what the break even point is
when success is not immediately, who decides
famous exceptions, etc. (shows that struggled in obscurity with small numbers & finally made it)

second set:
how much can a series creator/writer hope to make, what about the West Wing writer, what about the guy who did the HBO Western, I think he started out doing NYPD Blue, we need to show that really successful shows make a prince’s ransom (this to support the argument that Hurwitz should cut his loses and begin again with a new property)

third set:
how did the audience for AD take shape.
Did the numbers build slowly?
Did early adopters convert to loyalists?
Was there a good deal of "churn" is fans came and went?)

In the old days, Mitch knew, cancellation was cancellation.  The networks were god.  There were no stays of executive.  When the network cancelled a show, it stayed cancelled.  But because Mitch was familiar with the writings of Chris Anderson at Wired Magazine and because he was a man deeply acquainted with the trends of his industry, he knew there was still hope.

fourth set:
Mitch’s career in television
what he had come to know about the industry
how things had changed as he came up, etc.
There is a good interview at the AV Club (link below)
how network TV had changed,
how cable plays had emerged,
the role of HBO in the reinvention of cable,
how even small cable outlets were now producing,
how the economics of the industry had changed as a result
sale by DVD, history, numbers, examples
distribution by internet, history, numbers, examples
video iPod and other venues
prepay for access to TV shows (see the opera subscription number)
Anderson’s small tail theory

Content from the AV Club Interview from February 05 that might be mined:

The show does need the space. Its complicated characters, baroque storylines, and manic pacing all pack a great deal of information into a small window, and it took some time to fully hit its stride, though last year’s DVD release of the entire first season made catching up easy.  [Robinson]

Hurwitz created and oversees the series, which shows a little of the gag-a-minute sensibility he learned as a writer and producer on programs like The Golden Girls, The Ellen Show, and The John Larroquette Show, but finds its own unique vibe in a quick-moving documentary style, with film director Ron Howard as the narrator who holds everything together. [Robinson]

Mitchell Hurwitz:

It became a very expensive show very quickly. When I was on The Golden Girls, we’d have eight scenes per show. And when Seinfeld came along, they went to, like, 30 scenes a show, which was revolutionary. Arrested Development has probably got 60 scenes per show. It just keeps emerging as this more and more complex thing. I always try to keep it very simple at its heart.

The style of the show that has emerged is broad comedy done very dry. We throw a lot of the jokes away. So it feels improvised, but we really do write these out. We write in the overlaps often. We write in the stutters sometimes, if that’s important to a scene. Then, that said, a lot of the people on our cast—Will Arnett, David Cross, and Jason Bateman are really good at adding to the dialogue, and spinning things, and coming up with pieces here and there. But it’s a very tightly scripted show, because we’re trying to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time.

Our hope is that we just stay alive long enough that people discover it, and word of mouth develops, and that kind of thing. We’re just putting everything we can into it. So I really have no theories why it’s not working better. But on the other hand, it’s working as well as anything I’ve ever done. So it’s all new to me.

[these quotes from interview of Mitchell Hurwitz by Tasha Robinson, February 9th, 2005, http://avclub.com/content/node/24899/1/1%5D


Scenario 1:  "revenge of the long tail."

Fox, bless them, gave AD it’s run.  The numbers are in and the test is over.  AD has found its audience: 4.3 million viewers is it.  Mitch should throw in his cards. He might want to take AD to cable, but a guy with his talent and track record would do better to start again.  AD gives him lots of profile and credibility.  People will return his phone calls.  Dump this baby.  Go again.

Scenario 2: Retreat to cable

With the advent of long tail TV (LTTV?), there is a lingering hope for AD: that it takes refuge with a lesser network.  There are some networks for whom 4.3 million viewers is just fine, thank you very much.  On TNT, an only slightly larger number made The Closer one of the biggest hits in cable history.

The students who take this position would have to defend themselves against the accusation that there is not enough money in cable to sustain a show like AD and if some of its stars left, the show would close in any case.

Scenario 3: Return to glory

This option says, take refuge with USA network for a couple of years, let the audience build, and return to Fox (and the big money).  Mitch is on record as saying, "why should we assume that when you try something different it will immediately be accepted?”   This suggests that he believes that AD is a little ahead of its time.  He might wish to say in play until the world catches up to him.

Scenario 4: Move to new channels and new revenue sources

Hurwitz can abandon TV distribution altogether.  The advent of the DVD market gives him both a new way to get to market and a new source of funding.  (See Ginna on Sternberg on Whedon’s Firefly options, below. )   There is also a internet distribution possibility, likely funded by a subscription model of some kind. [thanks to bloggers who contributed here.]

This option leaves open the "return to network glory" possibility, but I am guessing that Scenario 4 would give Hurwitz more creative freedom and better returns.  It was also give him a heroic standing in the small tail markets that remain, in the case of TV and Hollywood, still pretty "fat middle."

And the winner is…

Each of these positions is defensible and every good case study should allow the class to break into camps and for controversy to ensue.  But every case has, in the heart of the writer and the instructor, a right answer.  And this is a section from the "teaching note" that is send to the instructor.

How do we decide which scenario?  The shape of the numbers should tell us.  When Liguori says, ”The fan base is unquestionably one of the most loyal in TV," this is a bad sign.  This suggests that we have got everyone aboard who is coming aboard.  If this is what the numbers tell us, advantage goes to students who support Scenario 1.

On the other hand, if the enthusiasm is distributed, that’s more promising.  They should show degrees of enthusiasm and some evidence of conversion: that it takes awhile for newcomers to become fans, for fans to become loyalists and for loyalists to become devotees.  We should see word of mouth support and the statistical evidence that WOM is indeed taking place.

Of course, there is a more fundamental problem here and that is whether news of AD actually found its way to all or most of the would-be viewers.  Daniel Drezner and Debbie Millman says that news reached him belatedly…and this suggests that marketing has something to answer for.  Drezner and Millman are after all pretty well informed about popular culture.  If we determine that news was badly distributed, then we go with Scenario 2 and/or 3.

So the "right answer" turns on whether we think the AD audience is a long tail market, or a long tail market struggling to become a fat middle.  So the "right answer" turns on what numbers we supply (or what they can be made to say).  Do they show an adoption pattern for AD that is thickly packed or more stretched out?  Does this flock cluster or does it attenuate?


Drezner, Daniel.  2005. My Personal Apologies to Mitchell Hurwitz. Blog post.  November 14, 2005. here.

Justin, Neal. 2005. Neal Justin: Kyra Sedgwick is getting her closeup — finally. Star Tribune. July 28, 2005.  here.

Robinson, Tasha.  2005. An interview with Mitchell Hurwitz.  The AV Club.  February 9th 2005. here.

Snierson, Dan.  2005. Arrested Development 2003-2005?  We say goodbye to ”Arrested Development” — EW looks back on the three seasons of the critically acclaimed Fox comedy.
Entertainment Weekly.  November 18, 2005.  here.  (subscription required)

(all quotes and stats from the Entertainment Weekly article, with the exception of the numbers for The Closer which are from Neal Justin, as above.)

last note: On December 19, there appeared an article in the NYT on new means and methods of movie distribution.  All of these clippings from Holson, Laura M. 2005. Before You Buy a Ticket, Why Not Buy the DVD?  New York Times.  December 19, 2005

a couple of passages:

Among them is IndieFlix, based in Seattle, which was introduced by two independent filmmakers in October. For $9.95 a disc, the company will burn a feature or documentary film onto a DVD and ship it to a customer who has ordered it online. Another outfit, 2929 Entertainment, has teamed up with the Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh to offer the forthcoming movie "Bubble" simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on cable television.

Hollywood has a long-established way of promoting its movies, mainly through blockbuster releases. Until that changes, entrepreneurs will probably continue to find it challenging to get people to watch their films and to earn enough money to make their ventures profitable.

"The idea that a lot of things can get out without marketing clout is not there," said Bob Berney, a Hollywood veteran and president of Picturehouse, a theatrical distribution company. "I think there are complications for the next several years, as we are still in a theatrically driven mode."

Still, many in Hollywood smell opportunity, particularly since Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple and an industry outsider, announced he would offer some television shows and movies on the video iPod. "I’ve seen more movement in the last three months than the previous five years," said Todd Wagner, who along with his business partner, Mark Cuban, will release Mr. Soderbergh’s "Bubble" in late January. "I think people are now saying they can’t avoid this."

5 thoughts on “XBS, the Bloggers’ b school (XBS 3)

  1. Peter

    Grant — If you go ahead with this, I suggest you try to use some intelligent software system to support online interactions (between students and staff, students and students, and staff and staff), such as that developed by the Computer-Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) people.

    Ideally, I think you will need semantic annotation, folksonomies, argumentatation structures, etc, so that online discussions and contributions can be classified, summarized, archived, searched and reasoned-over (eg, automatically comparing one class’s discussions with another’s).

  2. russell

    You’re right about the problems of the tutorial approach. I’ve grappled with them rather inadequately this month – I set a bad problem and marked it fairly grumpily. I don’t think it’s my natural metier. But it has the advantage that none of us need to be in the same place at the same time. And it’s reasonably respectful of everyone’s busy schedule. Since everything’s for free I think it’s unfair to expect too much of anyone. Myself included.

    Something more conversational and collaborative would be better, but I don’t know how to do that when everyone has proper jobs, they’re scattered across timezones and the technology uptake varies. And I’m not experienced enough with IM etc to know if you can do ‘nuance’ well.

    I hoped that the real ‘teaching’ would emerge in the comments/discussion after the event but that’s not happened yet. Still, it’s early days. DoThinkPlan, that’s my motto, I’ve done some doing, maybe I should move onto the Thinking phase.

    More positively – I’m sure $100 million would get the XBS through the first couple of weeks and a logo design.

  3. Grant

    Peter, great idea, essential idea. We need you. Best, Grant

    Russell, Yes, this will be tricky, getting everyone in sync, and yes, your model let’s people work off line. The case study method could be made to work if people can get an hour at their desks for class participation. I don’t know if this is practical or not. Maybe it’s lunch time: noon EST, 17:00 in London and 9 in the morning west coast time. It sounds like Peter has a fix on the tech that will help. And yeah I think we can afford the logo but having our colors done, that’s gonna cost. Thanks, Grant

  4. Ginna

    Grant, I think there are great ideas in there about how you would want to deliver your business curriculum, but I didn’t really get anything about what you would deliver.

    I suspect I am pretty close to your target audience. The main reason I chose to reject traditional b-schools was content. Even the ones with so-called entrepreneur programs seemed more focussed on producing investment bankers or advertising execs.

    It seems like there are many alternatives out there for online delivery, and all the schools I looked at used case studies from the real world. How will the XBS differentiate itself in this market? Why should a blogger choose your school, especially considering it will be lacking a “name” for a long time to come?

    What I wanted in a school was one that would teach me to start a business, and then run it, not to work in one.

    I suspect many if not most bloggers share this entrepreneurial drive. I should think then it would be the curriculum, not the media which would attract them. Less focus on accounting and finance, and more on the mechanics of how these things happen.

    I’ll give you an example. I recently took a course which I called “business boot camp”. Coming into the course, we all had to have and work on a specific business idea. It didn’t matter if we ever had any intention of starting the business, we still needed the idea.

    Every day we worked on those ideas, in class and out. When we talked about market research, we had to go out and do some, and then give a presentation on our particular market.

    When we talked about sales funnels and cold calling, our homework was to go to a mall or store and “cold call” 20 people and aske them for their impressions of us. (That was really hard.) But the lesson was well learned.

    Having our own “babies” involved made us far more involved in the material. We also got direct and invaluable support and criticism from the class on each facet of our business idea.

    Now, this course was 3 weeks (truly just a boot camp), and when it was over, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d pay a lot of money to take an MBA structured like that program. Even if the students didn’t want to start businesses, I suspect they’d be valuable employees.

  5. Mik Davis

    Great analysis of the problems facing the brilliant “Arrested Development”. Try to also consider that while Fox did promote the program, it can’t really be said that they did it sufficiently. It came out as a smash critical hit, but was a slow ratings starter (like the first season of 24 that struggled but is now a consistent hit). Also, consider that there are very few comedies on the horizon to enter syndication and this one looks to age better than most and with its DVD sales bears repeated viewings. Can you put Mitch in touch with me, I’ve been dying to interview him for years. Thanks again.

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