Managing Knowledge and Ignorance: A Case for Executive Education

“The more you know, the more you do not know,” writes Shriniv Narayan in The Speaking Tree, a daily column in The Times of India. He argues that the observable universe is about 46 billion light-years in radius and there is an unobservable universe that the scientists are unable to fathom yet. Consider this; if that be the state of our knowledge and ignorance about the universe, what would be like our status in terms of our knowledge and ignorance in the world of business that is evolving at a faster pace. It is just not possible to say that your knowledge expedition is over, for newer developments keep reminding us; you have a long way to go. Specifically, in an Executive’s life, the rule is rather simple; one always remains a work in progress! Therefore, the imperatives of self-growth and self-management are rooted in the idea of new knowledge acquisition and the surest way to succeed here is to build commitment for your development goals. Formal and structured learning is a great way to build such a commitment. Clearly, there are many advantages that accrue for business executives when they sign up for such executive education programs:

  1. Growth Mindset: Sure enough, a growth mindset is about the company’s growth in the market place. But that is just half the story. If a company has to grow, its employees must deploy this mindset at the individual level as well and more specifically, in the way they see themselves as significant partners of the growth story. Executives signing up for executive education programs send a clear signal to their employers that they are committed to learn more and contribute more. Is not that what companies are looking for? It is a win-win for both; the employees and the employers.
  2. A Shift in Perspective: Executives enrolled in an education program develop a wider perspective on their business problems. At their work, they mostly rely on the knowledge bank developed within the company based on its own and or it’s competitors successes and failures. In an executive education program, the participants are encouraged to take a ringside view of the problems and build multiple perspectives on a given situation. In the movie Dead Poets Society, Keating (Played by Robin Williams) said, (https://youtu.be/U91Wl2YpkD8)

    “Just when you think you know something, you have to look at in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.”

    Clearly, an immediate consequence of good learning from a program is about developing new perspectives embedded in multiple paradigms of business. To illustrate the point, let me cite an example from my own learnings. At an executive education program when I was confronted with a business growth challenge, I was focussing on just one stakeholder; the customer. During the discussion in the classroom, I could build another perspective that included competitors- how to include them in our strategy to build topline growth?

  3. Recast Knowledge in Emerging Realities: Often, the ignorance is not about lack of knowledge but more about the fit with the new realities of business. Lets us take a very simple example to illustrate this point. Most of the Sales Managers are aware of “how to motivate your salesforce” formula and they feel very strongly about their own way of managing a sales force. Most of it is grounded in the expectancy theory that is fundamentally built on reward expectancy. However, if you are having a good number of salespeople from the millennial generation, you would want to ask; are my older views about motivation hold true? Possibly not. Maybe this generation of employees are more independent and they would perform best with least supervision. The emerging paradigm of self-leadership would help the sales managers understand that intrinsic motivation is a more powerful source of the ‘drive’ and all they need to do is to craft a ‘purpose’ for their sales force. Think of several such issues in operations, marketing, and HR; your knowledge of these domains need a recast into the new tech-driven realities of the business.
  4. The Network Learning: A good executive program helps in widening your network; you include more actors in your sphere of influence. Participant from other companies, industry and faculty members for the program, they all potentially become part of your network. The peer learning here is cross-functional and multi-disciplinary and therefore, you become more welcoming of new ideas and possibilities.
  5. Self-Discovery: As you start your learning in a structured curriculum based environment, you also get a sense of what are your natural strengths and weaknesses. Such a high level of awareness results in self-discovery not only in terms of your career choices but also aids in shaping newer options; for example – it is not uncommon for executives to discover their entrepreneurial streak during an executive program.

Therefore, when a business executive is evaluating the options of whether to enroll or not to enroll in an education program, it is worthwhile to consider the truth; that we are all work in progress. The more we invest now, in terms of available resources, our quest for managing the balance of knowledge and ignorance would grow stronger. That very quest is what successful managers are made of, and organizations who hire such managers reap long term dividends.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wear the badge of a Salesperson with pride

Last few days of 2017 and first few days of 2018 gave me few memorable experiences; sweet and sour. Let’s get over with the sour thing first. I was booked on a Indigo flight on 31st Dec and I was looking forward to being with my family in Delhi, however owing to bad weather the flight was cancelled. A short and crisp message from the airline left me stranded there. But that was not the service failure (we understand bad weather), the failure was that in such situation the service provider did not care for its customers – a call to the customer would have helped. My ticket was booked through premiermiles, a Citibank outfit and they did not even bother to send me a SMS (as per their record, I did travel on the flight which never took off!) A classic and not so pleasant example of a service operations failure. With so much of technology at their command!

Let’s get to the sweet experience. On Jan 2, I walked into a store of Himalaya Opticals and met a very helpful salesperson. While helping me in selecting a good frame he quickly realized that I was closing in on my choice. However, he also sensed that I was not very happy with my selection. Looking at my decision dilemma, he suggested that I postpone my purchase for three days as they were expecting more stock in the store and I will surely get what I was looking for. He was a smart salesperson who could have easily sold something to me that day itself. He chose not to do so but invited me to a later date. That set me thinking; why do good salespeople bet on their customers? How do they offset their risks and tradeoff short-term gains for long-term relationships with customers? To understand these questions, we need to consider the evolution journey for this profession called ‘Sales’.

Powers et al.(1987) published an interesting article chronicling the profession of selling before 1900. This paper provides a detailed review of how the profession evolved through different ages in the history. Here are some of the key points:

1. The Ancient World: Selling as an economic activity started with the idea of shortages and surpluses in the agriculture produce. The ‘Peddler’ was the first salesperson which did primarily two jobs; selling and holding the inventory. The salesperson would go house to house to sell their wares driven by the entrepreneurial spirit.

2. The Classical World: After the Greeks developed coinage system and formed commercial regulations, the markets got a structure: clusters of sellers in one place competing for customer’s business. The era saw the emergence of ‘Merchant Salesman” and Women Salesperson (Pea Soup Woman!).

3. The Dark Ages: It was during this period that Islamic traders started developing the profession and selling became a primary source of economic growth. A salesperson/merchant was considered a contributing member of the society.

4. The Middle Ages: Selling evolved as a career choice and people took this option for quick success. However, it was also realized that a career of the travelling salesman was not a pious existence.

5. The Renaissance: The salesman assumed different roles; auctioneer, trader, lecturer and even entertainer. He was considered wise and powerful people invested in his wisdom to increase their own treasuries. During this period of commercial re-awakening, merchant markets and fairs provided a fertile ground for the selling profession to grow further.

6. The Modern Age: Beginning of 18th century, a retail system started forming and technological inventions were taking shape. To complement these developments, advancement on sales practices was an important driver. Josiah Wedgewood, a Potter, can be considered one of the leading businessman in that era who implemented the idea of market expansion and coverage and served his markets by getting his ‘salesmen out on the road’. His use of company salesmen to execute his marketing plan including creative promotion was remarkable. He first coined this idea that distribution would be best serviced by the captive agents of the firm. Also, development in transportation and communication technology helped in realizing the idea of a fully integrated sales force. These developments in transportation and communication made salespeople more efficient.

Therefore, the evolution of sales profession provided a solid foundation for the development of the marketing paradigms in the 20th century. It is important to understand the linkage of marketing thought development and further evolution of sales profession in 20th century and beyond. Let’s take a closer look.
1. The Transactional Paradigm: Selling continued to be dominated by the idea of a transaction; a seller and a buyer and hence the exchange. A large part of 20th century, a salesperson job continued to be a ‘peddler’; to sell and manage inventory. Yes, the sales organizations crafted the selling job in a way that required salespeople to manage customer demand through a distribution channel network. In industrial selling, salespeople mostly handled customer enquiries, gave a demonstration and collect the order. (Many organizations did not have a sales function; they called it commercial department)

2. The Relationship Paradigm: By the end of 20th century, marketing scholars started building the concept of relationship marketing and that had a major impact on the way companies would look at their salespeople. A big change that took place was in terms of the value of a salesperson. Since customer relationships became the key driver for sales growth, salespeople were on the front of relationship building efforts. Again, a technological advancement in term of computing software made the idea of CRM operationally efficient. Now, salespeople were much more informed about their customer and they could customize their selling strategy to be more effective. Salesforce effectiveness became the buzz word.

3. The Value Paradigm: As we entered the 21st century, marketers emphasized that the sustainable relationship with customers is possible only if we understand customer value and deliver it to them. This had huge positive implications for the profession of selling. (a) Salespeople started appreciating the idea of customer value creation and that made them customer oriented. They started following the customers’ benefit schema and designed their sales pitch accordingly. (b) A salesperson was no longer responding to customer requirements, she was actively participating in helping the customer understand and articulate the requirements. The salesperson started doing so with the help of relevant knowledge delivery. (c) The notion of a salesperson as a ‘Value Merchant’ started gathering more strength, as more and more companies treated their salespeople as ‘knowledge brokers’ to get more customer insights that would help them to design market offerings. (d) This brought more prestige, accountability and integrity in a salesperson’s job. (I wish to exclude exceptions to unethical practices by few companies. Salespeople did not fail, sales strategy did!)

With this understanding of the evolution of a salesperson’s profession, I go back to my experience with the salesperson I met at Himalaya opticals. As a salesperson, he was taking full responsibility for the value that I was looking for. With his experience, he could make out that I was looking for something that was comfortable to wear and he must have noted that I was not looking at the MRP. Therefore, he possibly and rightly so took me as someone who could pay a higher price for a better frame. Hence the advice: come back on Friday, we are getting fresh stock. And to ensure that I come back, he said with confidence: “You will get what you are looking for and I will work out the best deal for you”. Am I going back to the store? You bet!

Your organization has a new Knowledge Manager

A dominant theme that emerges from the recent advancement in the field of economics and marketing suggest that we are moving towards a knowledge intensive economy (Verbeke et al., 2010). This immediately prompts our minds to think about industries and emergence of new business domains such as life sciences. However, importance of knowledge in selling cuts across selling context (B2B or B2C) and product categories (Financial products, Consumer products, Industrial products etc.). In B2B contexts knowledge on buying process, buying centres are critical to sales success. In B2C contexts, a deeper understanding of customer segments, channel complexities and pricing implications.. Customers are unwilling to partner with salespeople who are not efficient in processing and connecting knowledge to the process of value co-creation. Therefore, one of the key responsibilities of the sales management is to ensure that salespeople use depth of knowledge to co-create value with their customers. This responsibility is steadily crafting sales manager’s role into a knowledge manager’s role.
• Sales Manager and Organizational Goals: Sales managers have a much more evolved role that is aligned with the strategic goals of the organizations. In such a scenario, sales managers are required to take a mid to long-term view of anticipated developments in area of their buyer’s industries. They need to keep an eye on the pace of innovation and identify knowledge updating needs for their sales force.
• Sales Manager as Knowledge Provider: Sales Managers are taking lead in positioning themselves as “Knowledge Centres”. This involves using efficient methods to assimilate required information and package them into “Knowledge capsules” and train their sales force to apply these during sales encounters.
• Sales Manager and Customer Championship: If sales Manager must champion the cause of customers, how does he do that? Possibly by developing insights into macro-level indicators that is driving the change in customer’s business and therefore, his/her needs. Sales Managers therefore should go beyond mundane market intelligence gathering and form bases for picking up themes for future needs of the customers.
• Sales Manager is the ‘Data Guy’: We will find bigger roles for such sales managers. Data analytics is making a shift from being a decision support activity to a core activity in the daily grind of a sales manager. Sales Managers are not only learning new tools but they are also making themselves better equipped for decision making based on intuitions that are largely supported by data.
• Sales Manager as the Coach: Coaching roles does require deeper knowledge about the sales force members. As a coach, Sales Managers help their team members overcome obstacles, perform better and lead a ‘good life’. Increasingly, Sales Managers are equipping themselves with knowledge that help them manage work-stress and role overload. Concepts and related knowledge on workplace spirituality is finding more and more takers.

Verebeke, W., Dietz, B. and Verwaal, E. (2010), “Drivers of sales performance: A contemporary meta-analysis. Have salespeople become knowledge brokers?”, Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 39(3), 407-428.