You still have to hustle!

Professor Brian Boyd

Professor Brian Boyd is Head and Chair Professor of the Department of Management. He teaches courses in corporate strategy, new product development, entrepreneurship, and the management of executive teams. Professor Boyd has taught in a number of universities around the world, and has a long-term interest in innovative approaches to managerial education. He talks on life in Hong Kong, case study teaching, conversations that last a week, and more…

"A little bit of paranoia is good because it means you can never be complacent." Professor Boyd leans forward in his chair attentively, seemingly poised for action. "If you read Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, these guys aren't so interested in all the other guys at the big Fortune 500 firms. They are worried about the 19 year-old kid sitting in his garage who is going to come up with the Next Big Thing that is going to make everything you do irrelevant."

It certainly looks as if this avid rock climber, who gets up before sunrise to get to yoga class, aims at remaining relevant.

Professor Brian Boyd is climbing rock

Professor Boyd has spent much of his life on the move, in 'challenging places' such as Hong Kong, Holland, Italy, Australia, as well as in his home base in the United States.

He's been in Hong Kong for a year and a half so far this time round, but is still getting some of the basics in place.

"This city is more NYC than NYC. You can do almost anything here, you can buy almost anything here, although of course you've got to know where to find it. I've just spent countless hours looking for simple things like a dryer vent – that recently took four trips to Mongkok."

But you sense that to Professor Boyd this is all part of the fun. And that living and working here in the city center is infinitely more to his liking than being on a campus at the edge of town.

"We are in the most amazing situation here at CityU. With the MTR at Kowloon Tong you can literally take off in any direction. My gym is in Mongkok. I can take a minibus up the hill first thing in the morning, get out and hike up to Lion Rock. I was up there with a friend and I pointed out my place and he said, That's your apartment? That's where you work? And I said, yeah. It's a phenomenally cool place to live."

Home for Professor Boyd nowadays is a rented flat in the shadow of the rock. The move here meant a big change in his life: "Prior to coming to Hong Kong I was 16 years in Arizona. It's about as different as you could possibly get. The entire state probably has a population similar to this city. Everything is open, relatively flat. It's not dense and compact. Arizona is not super multicultural, although there is a China Town, and you can get Dim Sum in Phoenix. In my opinion Hong Kong and Sydney are the two best cities in the world." He leaves little doubt in which order.

So what about the educational culture here? There have got to be some changes after dealing with US students where voicing opinion is second nature? He concurs. "Here is a different place. It's more notable when you get to the younger students – entry undergrads are fairly quiet. Not surprising really. Then you get the students who have gone off on exchanges. They come back and they've already transformed a lot. And then you get the MBA students, and they're very chatty and very demanding."

Exchange he feels is hugely useful, and he draws on his own experience: "I did my first sabbatical here in Hong Kong. I had lived in a relatively insular place, and I was teaching international strategy, and it was largely an abstraction. I had travelled but I hadn't lived anywhere. So I decided that one of the key criteria was to get to a challenging place. So I talked to business schools in Germany, France and here. And I came here to the University of Science and Technology. It was very transformational on a personal basis. Hong Kong is such an international city for business. So I think for our students exchange is a wonderful opportunity for them to go overseas for a semester. It helps to reshape the mindsets of the students."

So, given that a good proportion of our students may be prone to quietness in class, it must be a bit of a challenge teaching with techniques such as case studies? Professor Boyd affirms that this can be true: "First a caveat: case studies are a wonderful tool, and also a challenging tool for undergraduates because of the cultural norms as to how they approach a classroom. A common misconception is that we use a company that has done something wonderful – did everything right. In reality in case study teaching we take a complex problem, lots of different strands, and unpack it. What are the important elements, how do they work together, and what should a company do? A lot of this is very discussion orientated. It means students have to be very vocal, have to be willing to discuss with each other, and have to be willing to disagree with the professor. That can be seen as impolite by undergrad students here."

"We are developing an undergraduate management course where the focus will be on case studies – giving the opportunity to build analytical skills, critical thinking, English language skills."

"We are developing an undergraduate management course where the focus will be on case studies – giving the opportunity to build analytical skills, critical thinking, English language skills. We're hoping it's going to fly. The challenge will be to see if anyone actually signs up for it!"

Hong Kong students often like black and white answers, but Professor Boyd says that this isn't just an issue for our students. He has taught on Technology MBAs in the United States where 90% of the students had engineering, computer science, or science degrees: "The students there were very heavy on technical skills, and very used to black and white answers. Then they got to their MBA projects and discovered they needed another skill set."

"Those people had a problem that there is grey – and that grey can be desirable and manageable. I had an engineer who raised his hand in class and wanted an exact formula for the probability of the project completing on time successfully. He was sure that there had to be a formula out there. He wouldn't let it go."

"Another example: Sitting in on a behavioural class a professor drew an x/y chart on the board, and students wanted to know what the axis represented – what the increments were? In fact it didn't matter what they meant because he was illustrating the conceptual relationship between two things. And afterwards one of the students came up and said this was a sort of epiphany for him – that you could talk at this higher level of abstraction."

In strategy that's a concept called 'equifinality' – the principle that there are many paths to the same destination which can be equally good.

"So students can have a hard time with the idea that there is no one best way to do something. It's a hard concept to live with if you come out of accountancy or financing, or Information Systems. There's code that works, there's code that doesn't work. That's a gross simplification to my friends in IS! In accountancy there are rules that you have to follow. Students starting out with case studies can feel very uncomfortable, but with the passage of time they become much more conversant. So it's not an Asia specific problem. It's hard for students anywhere without the background knowledge. Take a 19 year-old who has never held a job except perhaps stocking products at Watsons. Suddenly let's pretend that you are the CEO of a global firm – it's hard."

Will lectures survive in their present format in ten years time? Professor Boyd makes a distinction between electronic and blended learning.

"I've had case studies where the best conversation was asynchronous – students in ten different time zones, and the actual conversation took place over a week. Of course it's richer if you're face to face in a blended environment – which I think is the best. But big online classes are challenging – to carry personal relationships.

With 50 I really know who everybody is. With 150, that's pushing it – they don't even know who I am!"

Technology has advanced a lot since Professor Boyd's undergrad days.

"Can I tell you a story? For current econometrics students this'll be like living in caves. We had an undergrad project, and because the prof really wanted us to understand stuff, we did the diagnostic test, matrix, algebra all long hand. That meant pages and pages of calculations with an HP calculator. I ran the whole project on punch cards. It was pretty antiquated. Not quite as bad as people doing factor analysis by hand. So from a digital perspective I'm old but not ancient!"

And is there any advice for our students. How should they get on in life?
"Yes, but the advice I have is depressing," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

"Life is essentially Darwinian – it's a sad and unfortunate fact. There are competitors out there. Recently we did this retreat called a Career Weekend – helping students to plan their transition to life outside school. I told them that they are elite within Hong Kong, because here in CB we reject 80% of our applicants. So it is a wonderful achievement to have got here. The sad part is that the people they are competing with now are in all the other universities … you are now moving to a more rarefied level of competition. So you still have to work hard and you still have to hustle. And the people who are going to thrive are the ones who recognize early on that whatever I do there is something I can do more. University is the starting point. Whatever you do, you are going to have to learn new skills and that's going to go on until you retire."

Life might be tough out there in the Darwinian jungle – but this indefatigable scholar-warrior will be there, coaxing his students on, hustling to the last.