Wednesday, 6 September 2017

HBX CORe: My Experience Doing Harvard Business School's Online pre-MBA

This summer, I did an online pre-MBA with Harvard Business School called HBX CORe, mostly sponsored by the Naughton Foundation, who continue to be awesome. 

The course covered Business Analytics (Stats), Financial Accounting and Economics for Managers (Microeconomics with some emphasis on using your knowledge to make decisions). The certificate you get at the end apparently holds the same weight as an executive course certificate from Harvard Business School. 

Business Analytics (Stats)

I really enjoyed this part of the course because I love statistics, and I knew about half of it already, having done the Leaving Cert, three research projects, and a year in a science degree where we covered statistics twice. 

The course covered measures of central tendency and spread like mean, standard deviation, variance and the coefficient of variation, plotting histograms and scatter plots, interpreting things like correlation coefficients, confidence intervals and hypothesis testing. All that was very easy because I already knew most it, but I did learn some new stuff with Module 4: Linear Regression and Module 5: Multivariable regression, about how to do and interpret regression analysis, accounting for net vs gross effects for variables included/excluded from the model, using and understanding the R-squared value to assess the strength of a model and the adjusted R-squared to compare models with different numbers of variables, and dealing with issues like collinearity in your model. 

There was a big emphasis on applying your learning to real-world scenarios throughout, with almost everything done by example, which was quite nice. 

The other two courses I had zero prior experience of so they were more challenging. 

Financial Accounting 

I definitely found accounting tough at first -- it took me a while to wrap my head around the basic assets = liabilities + owner's equity equation so I kept getting that wrong for a bit, and it was definitely hard to remember which accounts get debited or credited (it seemed a bit arbitrary to be honest). We covered journal entries, T-accounts, the trial balance and balance sheet, the income statement, the statement of cash flows, forecasting and valuation, interpreting ratios (e.g. leverage, assets/equity, or the length of the cash flow cycle), accounting principles (like materiality, historical cost, consistency, money measurement, the entity concept), adjusting journal entries (accruals and deferrals), the accrual method of accounting vs the cash method (Harvard uses accrual as do most big places apparently), deferred taxes, production systems, long-lived assets (depreciation and amortization expenses and accumulated) and free cash flows, among other things.

My favourite parts were determining company lifecycles and industries from cash flow statements (e.g. a startup company typically has negative operating cashflows as it's not profitable yet, negative investing activities because it's spending a lot buying equipment and high positive financing activities because it's raising lots of capital, whereas a mature company typically has positive operating cash flows, small positive or negative investing activities because because it's only buying some replacement equipment and can offset the cost by selling off old equipment, and negative financing cash flows because it's paying dividends by this point), accounting principles (materiality, historical cost, entity concept, consistency, money measurement, conservatism) and FIFO vs LIFO (first in first out vs last in first out, basically how you track the cost of goods sold, which I liked because FIFO and LIFO are computer science terms, or at least "queue" and "stack" are). 

Economics for Managers

Economics was also completely new to me, and it's definitely counterintuitive. It was also funny because it's "for Managers" and a lot of people in the program apparently were in managerial positions at their companies but I was just a first year college student, but y'know good to learn it early I guess.

Economics covered willingness to pay and the demand curve, elasticity, measuring demand via surveys, focus groups and conjoint analysis, strategies for increasing demand including advertising, complements vs substitutes, and network effects, willingness to sell, measuring cost, fixed vs variable cost, price wars and relative cost analysis, supply curves, scale economies, markets and market equilibrium, short term and long term, demand and supply shocks, price ceilings and price floors, consumer vs producer surplus, the impact of taxes on certain goods, exchange rates and the China growth miracle, creating markets, types of auctions, and competition and differentiation including monopoly pricing, marginal revenue, various strategies for price discrimination including self-selection, discounts for certain groups (e.g. students and seniors) and two-part tariffs, bundling and strategies for competitive differentiation. 

I learned a lot of economics from this course but I think my main takeaway is wow economics is cut-throat. It shocked me how it was all about making the most profit rather than about what was the right thing to do. For example, I learned how and whether to set discounts for students and seniors to make the most profit overall, when previously I thought it was just because they knew these people couldn't pay as much and wanted them to have the experience (e.g. cinema ticket) too. Maybe I was naive but I guess I just thought more people were naturally kind. So yeah, pretty crazy. 

The Course Platform

The course platform was very slick, and I loved that there were so very many quizzes throughout because learning it just by lectures would've sucked, whereas this kept me engaged and made me understand the material. There were a lot of really cool explanatory graphics, and it was clear that a lot of effort had been put into the platform. As is the Harvard Business School way (from what I've heard), there were a lot of case studies, featuring interviews with the CEOs of the companies, and I particularly liked the ones with the American Red Cross and a pharmaceutical company, though there were lots of others e.g. Amazon. Some of the videos seemed a bit gratuitous so it was annoying that they were unskippable but mostly they were good. According to this Business Insider review of HBX CORe, the platform is designed never to have the user idly watching a video or reading content for more than five minutes, so it's full of interactive activities. 

There was a big emphasis put on interacting with your cohort, but I only did a little bit apart from the occasional required peer marking (so for example I didn't use Peer Help) because, well, I didn't want to do much, so it'd better not impact my grade.

The Final Exam

I sat the final exam on 1st September and am waiting for my results. I haven't a clue how I did on the exam to be honest (in the continuous assessment, I got A1s in Stats and Accounting and an A2 in Economics), so we'll just have to wait and see, but I did learn a lot so I'm glad I did the course. 

Update: I ended up getting 100% in the Statistics exam! Will update with the other two if I can find my scores two years later...


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