28 February 2012

On Google+

Robert Scoble and Herb Greenberg are amongst those weighing in on the WSJ's "analysis" of Google+. The underlying question is simple : What is Google+?

It's not a friend graph, like Facebook. It's not a link sharing & micro-comment platform, like Twitter. It's not an interest collection, like Pintrest. But it's a bit like each of them. It's also a bit of a blog, a bit of a conversation manager, a bit of an chat hub (hangouts) and a bit of a content sharing tool... 

No, Robert Scoble, it's not a discovery engine. It's close, but it's not that yet. Perhaps down the line it will become one, but not now. No, Herb Greenberg, it's not a tech geek hub either. It's an interaction enabler. 

G+ enables you to engage with people regarding content, opinions and information. It helps discussions remain between relevant people, be they a small, private group or the wider public. It encourages you to not just share a link, but give your own take on the material within, and discuss it with others. 

Noise control is still something that can be improved, but G+'s approach to the topic is telling when one looks at the attitude that Facebook and Twitter have. The community on G+ isn't interested in "+1"-ing status updates, talking about raw links, or being fed RSS feeds. We want to engage with you, have a discussion, share our opinions and find people who are interested in the same topics.

If you want to be kept up to date, G+ won't provide it. If you want to know what your acquaintances are doing, G+ won't provide it. If you want to interact with people regarding topics you are passionate about, come to Google+.

27 February 2012

On Cinemas

The film industry has been clamouring for the past 10 years or so about declining revenues and profitability, something they claim is due to piracy.

Cinemas however should not suffer from most of the effects of film piracy. Cinemas represent a premium offer in terms of quality, comfort and selection. Sadly, they have grown distanced from this representation, thus reducing the value of their offer, and subsequently diminishing the impact of their unique selling point. Whereas films sell stories and how they are told, cinemas sell an outing, making concerts and sporting events direct competitors, whilst differentiating them from TV, DVD/Blu-Ray or on-demand video.
Simply put, whilst the home viewing experience has improved over the past 20 years, cinemas have not.

Going to the cinema is not necessarily a pleasant experience, even before the price is factored in. Upon finding a cinema that is showing a film you want to see at a time you're available, you has to go to the cinema without being certain of getting a seat 1. Then you have to watch 20-ish minutes of adverts, trailers and PSAs, something that regularly amounts to a quarter or even a third of the actual film once you deduce the flying logo sequences and credits. The seat you're sitting in is at best moderately comfortable, and of questionable cleanliness, but that's quickly a secondary point in your mind when other patrons start talking, texting or eating noisily. If you need to go to the toilet, you're going to miss some of the film 2.
Of course, the high prices are not a massive draw either. Apart from thinning the number of patrons, they also make those that do attend less likely to purchase refreshments. Watching a two-hour long film in a room with 300 other patrons without refreshments can be somewhat uncomfortable, so again that decreases the value of the cinema's offer.

Another aspect that affect viewers' interest is partly outside the cinemas' realm, but is symptomatic of wider industry problems : films seem more repetitive and formulated than before, with sequel/prequel/trilogy making ever-increasing shares of films shown by cinemas. Per se, there is nothing wrong with developing a well-received universe/film, nor with film-makers wishing to tell a complete story through independent segments. Problems arise when film-makers fall into the trap of making sequels that serve no purpose regarding the story, or awkwardly tie what is quite obviously an independent and unrelated story into a franchise by dropping in the same protagonist and shoe-horning references to the previous films. Not only does this dilute the film's universe, but it also prevents meaningful character development.
Cinemas suffer from this because it gives viewers the impression that they are just viewing a poor mix of two stories, and doesn't really create much anticipation for the next film in the series. Spider-Man 3 was a huge box office draw on the basis of two well-built films, but ruined the franchise so bad the only way to generate interest in the storyline again is through a re-boot. Superman can tell you that reboots are risky, and Batman shows that even if a reboot is well done, it's not necessarily a great box-office draw. In any case, cinemas get burnt for showing poor films, even when in the short run it seems like a winning proposition.

Cinemas should be actively promoting and improving the quality of the experience they offer. Tackling problems related to noisy patrons is difficult, but if other entertainment venues manage it, there should be a way for films to do so too. Seats that are more comfortable might be more expensive and reduce capacity, but the current quality is not comparable to sofas and couches one might have at home. Film selection should be a core value proposition element, rather than just "latest releases". Film times are a difficult point that I doubt cinemas can overcome, but they should be more upfront regarding booking and advertising. One should be able to purchase a ticket on-line for a decent seat in advance and be notified of when the film will start, not the adverts or trailers.
Cinemas should not look at piracy to explain their lack of revenues and profitability, but instead look at their own performance. They have failed to evolve whilst the world around them has substantially changed. By accepting their role as little more than "seats" to which the movie studios push the latest films they have made, they created the conditions that lead to them lacking the ability to improve the experience they offer. Cinemas are not going away, but they are going to change. Smaller cinemas which offer a good experience are better suited to face the difficulties the industry is currently in. Rather than engage a futile crusade against piracy, cinemas and the film industry need to re-think their to-customer strategy, and identify exactly how they are creating unique value. 3D is a useful differentiator in some respects, but if it continues to be abused with cheap "in 3D" versions, then that effect will be diminished and eventually lost.

1 : Particularly a good seat.
2 : Having an urgent need in less than 120 minutes might be the patron's fault, but as the population ages, if cinemas wish to tap into the senior market, films that run for 180 minutes or more will inevitably need an interval.

23 February 2012

On Sciences-Po

Lately a large number of articles have arisen in the French press to discuss the policies of one of France's most prestigious higher education organisations : Sciences-Po (IEP Paris).

For those that don't know much about this college, suffice to say it is a highly competitive organisation, founded in the late 19th century. It focused initially on political education, administration and what one might call "civic humanities". The explicit goal of the institution was to breed a new generation of governors and administrators that would help France reclaim a position of power in Europe, at a time when Great Britain and Germany were considered to be serious menaces to French ambitions. This policy was barely changed until the 1990s, despite some broadening of scope to include public finance, sociology, foreign languages as well as a small research department. Despite a limited number of students (around 1,000 in total), Sciences-Po provided massive numbers of successful candidates to the ENA (National School of Administrators), which is the fast-track to reach high-responsibility positions in the French civil service. A testament to the college's success is that since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1959, there have only been 8 years (1962-68, 1972-74) when neither the French President nor the French Prime Minister had attended Sciences-Po.
Since the 1990s, however, the school has been urged to reform, largely under the pressure of greater student mobility between top colleges worldwide, but also in order to remain a prominent institution in France and Europe 1 .

When Richard Descoings was appointed in 1996, reforming the institution was a central point of his project. The college was judged "too small", "not sufficiently international", "too limited in scope", and perhaps most damningly of all "a prep school to the ENA". His ambition was to establish Sciences-Po as the European Harvard : a school centred around administration (business and civil) and social sciences, but where students would also be cultured and have a broad scope of knowledge outside their field of studies.
In order to do so, he has implemented over the past 15 years a policy of increasing student numbers, increasing research staff, developing international partnerships, lengthening courses and developing new subjects and programs. The efforts undertaken have been great, and in many respects the college today has no link to the institution that existed prior to the 1980s.

Recently, dissenting voices have raised difficult points regarding Sciences-Po's administration, objectives and the manners undertaken. Started in the early 2000s, the policy of partnerships with high schools in underprivileged areas has always been contested as going against the republican ideals of equality of chances. The reform of the entrance procedure that will be implemented in 2013, in particular the removal of the General Knowledge exam, has lead certain commentators to believe the school is lowering its level. Furthermore, the revelation of Mr Descoings' salary and bonuses, as well as the composition of the school's budget is creating a certain amount of unease regarding the institution's stability. With the lengthening of courses and the growth of the research departments, there is also the emerging topic of evaluating these courses, selecting teachers to adequately staff them, and at the same time strengthen the bridges between education and research.

The institution's response was predictable, mainly downplaying the importance of the reforms and making arguments from the position of authority the school itself grants the authors. Whilst the college is clearly not in immediate peril, the situation is not as rosy as it would like to paint it, and deserves serious consideration. Many of the changes undertaken are being defended with clumsy arguments, and dissenting voices are being silenced without regards to the points they are making. If Sciences-Po wants to deeply reform itself, it must be open with regards to its success in these reforms, and also accept discussion about what these reforms mean for other aspects of the school.

The rapid increase in student numbers

A first point to consider is that the educational environment that Sciences-Po projects is no longer what the students live. 
Until the 1990s, a graduation class was between 200 and 300 students, which meant that students with similar interests were able to quickly get to know each other, participate in projects together, and select the specific training they wished to pursue. Teachers, with groups of 20-30 students a semester, would still be able to reach a significant proportion of students, meaning that only 3 or 4 good teachers were required for each subject. With 14 2  two-hour sessions per semester, there was enough time to develop subjects in-depth, and for each student to engage in constructive debate with the teacher or other students.
Today, with a graduation class of 1,300 to 1,500 students, students that know even a quarter of the promotion are a rarity 3 , and with this comes a rapid decrease in chances of meaningfully engaging with people that share the same interests. Classes are something of a pot luck selection, where students often have to settle for subjects they aren't the most interested in because those that interest them were full within minutes of the course registration tool being activated. Likewise, more students has lead to a need for more teachers to tutor the small groups 4 . The sheer fact of finding teachers that are not only competent in their subject, but also good educators on such short notice has lead to a somewhat more variable quality in the teaching. Whilst the teachers remain excellent, the fact that many of them have only taught for two or three years, are not trained educators, nor research specialists in their field but rather professors means it can be sometimes harder for students to gain the necessary tools to engage the subject in a meaningful manner. In the same time, Sciences-Po has reduced course hours to 12 two-hour sessions per semester for "full credit" courses, 6 two-hour sessions for "half credit" courses, and in some rare cases as little as 3 two-hour sessions 5 ...

The rapid growth of student numbers at Sciences-Po is a very real problem the school needs to face. It is investing heavily to expand its current campus, but the reforms need to be much deeper than simply purchasing more classrooms.
The library, touted until a dozen years ago as a genuine jewel that enabled students to have access to the largest collection of social sciences literature in continental Europe, is woefully in-adapted to the current number of students. Even with the opening of the new library, the entire experience is Byzantine. Fewer and fewer books are on display, because of the need to increase study space, but that study space is still so small most students abandon the idea of using the library after 1 or 2 semesters. One could further digress on the experience of loaning a book, it would only reinforce the fact that the library is no longer a jewel but rather a thorn in Sciences-Po's crown.
Teacher vetting and course construction need to be improved. Far too many teachers ignore what the students are learning in other courses, and the notion of prerequisite courses is conspicuously absent. Asking non-educators to intervene is in many respects a refreshing proposition, one that enables students to have a different perspective on a topic. Sadly, not everybody is a good teacher. It can be because of various reasons, but the system of "checks and balances" 6  is flawed, since it does not address the level at which the course is taught. It is a system that rewards teachers that gently nudge their students forwards, but punishes those that push their students hard. However, Sciences-Po's concern should be the quality of training they wish the students to acquire rather than the ease with which the students and teacher achieve that level of quality.
Another point to address is how Sciences-Po identifies students that are under-performing. The current system is a mix of end-of-term exams and in-course tests. In most cases, the in-course tests rely strongly on group work, with only a minor part of individual submissions. This means that students who lack motivation or work ethic can let themselves be carried throughout many of the courses on the work of other students in their group work. If all the students knew each other, these students that don't work would be identifiable by seeing that other students avoid them for group projects and subsequently they would perform poorly in these tests. However, given that students don't know most other students they are in each course with, they either repeatedly partner with the same people whom they had a decent group project before, or they attempt to make face value judgements. In both cases, this makes it much harder for under-performing students to be identified, and can lead to not only discouragement on behalf of other students in that group, but also allowing students that have not acquired sufficient knowledge of the subject to pass the course.
A final point I would like to mention here is that the rapid internationalization of the student body poses genuine concerns. Today, 40% of all students are admitted through exchange or international study programs. Per se, this is a wonderful opportunity for expanding students' cultural horizons, bringing new voices to the table and opening the path for deeper, more genuine, international understanding. In practice though, certain exchange students do not have good command of French (which is still the primary instruction language), lack expected knowledge for courses they follow, or are restricted to a limited battery of courses, and thus have limited opportunities for socializing with the larger student body. Currently, the institution still acts as though foreign students were not only a rarity, but a group that also had proficient command of French and shared the knowledge expected of other students. Whilst this was likely the right position to hold in the early days of Sciences-Po's internationalization, when it attracted a small number of students that were highly competent and had prepared their exchange, this position needs to be reformed to take act of the current situation.

The diversification of courses

Although Sciences-Po has the nickname "ante-chamber to the ENA", today that name is no longer justified. Only around a quarter of each graduating year attempts the ENA entrance exam, with far more students pursuing business careers. It has reached a point that even the name is something of a misnomer : Sciences-Po graduates only rarely enjoy careers in politics or political sciences research positions. Even spreading large and including social sciences and administrative functions, half of each graduating class at most would fall into the scope of "political sciences".
Sciences-Po's current course composition is roughly one third business-oriented (finance, strategy, marketing, communications, human resources), one third administration-oriented (international/European/public policy, urbanisation, territorial management), and one third of other or hybrid courses (journalism, law, corporate and public management, arts and politics). Given that Sciences-Po has clearly designated HEC and Dauphine 7  as its main rivals, it seems likely that the importance of business-oriented courses and hybrid business-public administration courses will increase in the coming years.

Beyond the name, however, Sciences-Po needs to identify what these courses are intended to lead to, and solidify them in order to achieve these objectives. Certain courses have already been consolidated, mainly through the effect of time, but the multiplication of courses, the vague objectives these courses are given and the lack of objective measure of quality risks to dog how certain graduates' degrees are perceived. Sciences-Po's objective of rising into the very small group of ultra-elite educational institutions will not be possible as long as graduates are incapable of articulating the purpose of their degree, and school administrators so vague regarding the course that it can excuse any student's lack of knowledge on a given topic.
Inviting professionals and non-educators to teach classes is very interesting in this respect, because although it can provide opportunities for students to be shown a different perspective, it often comes with the downside that the class is something of an outlier to the course. Courses need large amounts of coordination between teachers to provide a coherent increase in level, one that does not neglect any facet of the subject being approached, nor relies on topics that have not yet been addressed. At the same time, educators teaching fundamental aspects of these courses need to be able to delve into the specifics that justify them, with great precision and attention to detail. Sadly, these are difficult conditions for people who have another full-time activity to fulfil. Sciences-Po's current core team of teachers is insufficient, and despite increasing over the past decade, it has not increased as fast as the number of students. Furthermore, to develop a coherent course, teachers and administrators need to proceed in an almost iterative manner, identifying successes and finding how to replicate them, whilst eliminating failures. The current administration's policy regarding the rotation of teachers and administrators is actively preventing this from occurring. Courses are given three, four semesters to prove their worth, and then are hit by changes. There is no notion of course stability, with a clearly referenced list of courses from one year to the next, nor any way for students (current or prospective) to see which courses develop which notions.
A further problem is the lack of interaction between research departments and students. In my entire time as a student at Sciences-Po, I believe I only had one class that was taught by a person doing research. I had other classes that were taught by people with Ph.D.s or Doctorates, but they were also rare. Although it might be different for other students, I genuinely never felt during my studies that I was in direct contact with cutting-edge research in the field. The organisation of research is by definition difficult, since it requires extremely in-depth vision of topics, and great responsiveness to changes in that topic. However, for a school that has set its aim on being one of the best in the world, Sciences-Po's efforts remain underwhelming.

If Sciences-Po wishes to become a highly-recognised educational institution, it needs to offer a clear vision as to what each course leads to. Courses should be given years to find the "working formula", and the teachers should be the one determining which courses provide education in which notions. Research staff needs to be given increased opportunities to interact with students, and the proportion of full-time teaching staff also needs to be increased.
This seems difficult without a deep re-evaluation of the required notions for various courses, and perhaps a certain degree of specialisation in the early stages of a students' time at Sciences-Po. However, as it stands, I fear that the specificity of Sciences-Po versus HEC or Dauphine be diluted, and the idea that Sciences-Po only prepares for civil service survives. Without a clear vision of what the needs both public and private organisations will have in the coming decades, Sciences-Po will gradually become a mish-mash of degrees that bear little to no meaning in either domain. The current administration should fight against this, and make clear their vision of the needs in both spheres.

The development of research

In many respects, social sciences research is a tricky question. Authoritative journals are rare, ground-breaking papers non-existent, and the contours of each topic always susceptible to change. Unlike "hard sciences", the softer sciences exist in a sort of limbo where facts are open to dispute, and peer evaluation is perceived as the only evaluation possible.
Sciences-Po further suffers from several difficulties it has but no choice than to accept : the French language has receded in scientific matters, and therefore is no longer the language of the most important publications in any field, as a recently-developed centre, it has little history of publications to build upon, as well as a history of training actors rather than analysts of public policy.

Nonetheless, the arguments put forth to defend Sciences-Po's research credentials are suspect at best, if not outright dishonest. The institution points out that it has over 250 full-time research employees 8... Out of over 3500 teachers. Even then, the evaluation of these research employees is based on... The opinion of other research employees in the same field9.
Sciences-Po has undertaken a long-term commitment to research, and it is likely that the effects of this commitment will only be visible in 20 or 30 years. However, it seems disingenuous of the administration entrust the organisation of research to people whose abilities have been deeply compromised such as Prof. Latour. Indeed, the administration's main claim to improving research is based not on quality of output or availability of means, but on increase of quantity 10. The research departments boast of prizes received that sound brilliant at first, but that further research shows are not as meaningful as intended. Certainly a research department that is on a solid path, with clear research objectives and direction would be able to find more meaningful metrics of progress? Sciences-Po's publishing efforts are still extremely difficult to understand, with most of the research department's work being published elsewhere 11.
There seems to be real evidence that the research department is improving in quality year on year. Yet the energy depleted to defend the research departments' credentials at such speed and with such ferocity is liable to raise a doubt in one's mind. If the research department is really improving, producing insightful work in an innovative manner on novel topics, then defending it in the media seems to be but a secondary concern. Facts speak for themselves. The institution's haste to push reports with inflated rankings 12 is disingenuous as it smothers any chance for debate. If Sciences-Po wishes to be the European Harvard, it must accept open discussion regarding its research, and let the research prove its worth by itself.

As Sciences-Po develops its research departments, it should consider broader interaction between research and education, including outside of the "research masters". There should also be a genuine answer to the question how legitimate the institution will be in the long term teaching business-related topics, yet lacking a business-oriented research department.
The improvements brought to the research facilities are certainly a wise long-term investment for the school, and they need to be given the best conditions of success. The current organisation is complicated and often unclear, with five administrative departments tasked with linking research and education, eleven quasi-autonomous research departments, seven 13 "chaires" tasked with fostering international as well as public-private cooperation, three 14 international research partnerships and a research methods department. Add on top of that the coming partnership with other Paris universities as part of the IdEX project to which Sciences-Po has committed providing for an autonomous cross-topic research group, and it's not quite clear what vision the current administration has regarding research. This vision might already exist, but if so it needs to be articulated with much greater care and strength, in order to avoid a dispersion of efforts without clear goals.
Regarding the internationalization of the school, the research facilities also have a part to play. Language of publication is certainly a very real issue for Sciences-Po's identity, but also the composition of research staff. A school that boasts 40% of its students being "international" can hardly escape the question of what proportion of its research and teaching staff are also "international". The institution has taken great steps to broaden the scope of research outside of France, and in this respect is perhaps ahead of the curve other universities are on.

The budget issue

Without looking specifically at Richard Descoings' wages, bonuses or other benefits, the question of how the school manages its funds is salutary. It reveals a deep change relative to the 1980s, and must open a debate regarding their sources and their use.
Sciences-Po is funded mainly through state donations, even though their weight in the institution's overall budget is decreasing 15. At the same time, the policy of increasing student numbers, developing research activities and international partnerships has lead to a significant increase in the overall budget. Since the 1980s, the school has regularly increased tuition fees, but many questions remain as to the validity and purpose of these increases.

Tuition fees in France are a particularly difficult subject. Universities have a very limited tuition fee that is designed to promote higher education in all the social strata, much in the same way that anybody who has achieved the Baccalauréat is allowed to register for courses in state universities. Grande Ecoles 16, due to the fact they were often created in order to certify students who would then go on to fill civil service or military positions are often also financed by the state. Sciences-Po's state donation was established because the school's ambition was to provide high-quality civil servants and politicians. Now that only a third of students follow this ambition, it seems more complex for the institution to request more funding from the state. At the same time, tuition fees in France have never been high since there was never a significant development of grants and student loans. As such, Sciences-Po's rising costs are a very real concern for students, in particular those from the middle class who are not covered by state grant provisions. The administration has taken the welcome position of establishing different tuition fees based on the students' household tax returns. The creation of a Foundation to collect funds will improve the school's financial autonomy, but is a long-term project that will need to convince alumni of the validity and strength of the education the college provides.
The school points at the successful insertion of graduates into professional life as a justification of the tuition fees. However, it seems somewhat premature to judge the quality of education received after as little as a few years. By conservative terms, it will be by looking at students 20 years after they graduate that one will have an idea of how well the college prepared them for their professional pursuits. That is the time-frame that Sciences-Po should keep in mind when considering the professional insertion and success of their students. Although examples of graduates who had outstanding careers in business management are not the rarest thing at Sciences-Po, many of the examples have caveats such as the fact that the business was state-owned at the time of appointment, or that the ties between politics and business are sufficiently important in the sector for the graduate's success to not be merely down to his ability to manage the business. Some genuine "success stories" exist, but they are quite rare, too rare for the school to be able to extrapolate from that small group of individuals a general rule regarding students' careers. Furthermore, with the changes in courses that have happened since the 1990s, such a position obfuscates the reality of what students today are being provided in terms of training and opportunities.
The administration also points out that "competing" colleges are just as expensive in France, if not much dearer abroad. This is a valid point, but one that cannot alone justify the school's policy. Indeed, if Sciences-Po holds so dearly to this comparison, one can just as well point out that other Grande Ecoles have much lower attendance rates of foreign students, whilst abroad most competing colleges do not depend on state funding to meet their annual budget.

Sciences-Po should encourage students who are undertaking business studies to bear a greater "burden" of the costs of the school, and assist them in finding secure, long-term funding to this effect. Public policy students should be the main beneficiaries of state funds, as they are the ones the funding is intended for. Foreign students' tuition fees are already quite high, but it is appropriate for the administration to consider raising them, although doing so would be most appropriate if the amount of support the student benefits from as well as the type of courses followed are taken into account.
Furthermore, Sciences-Po should try to "increase" the value it brings to students and graduates. Membership to the alumni association, which currently requires an annual membership fee, should be made free and automatic for all graduates. This would enable the school to have better communication with graduates in order to hasten the funding of the Foundation, but also provide for larger graduating years to maintain a degree of cohesiveness. Greater interaction with researchers during courses and work with the students to define clearly their personal professional objectives could be interesting ways for the college to demonstrate its purpose and specificities.

As an institution, Sciences-Po has undertaken a revolution in the past 16 years. So much that it is almost worthy of a new name to break with traditional ideas and pre-conceived notions surrounding it. However, this revolution is not complete. The debates that have recently arisen are in some respect merely necessary discussions regarding the path taken towards the new objective, but some are more fundamental and question the school's vision of that objective. The current administration needs to lay out with even greater clarity than before their vision for the college, and this beyond mere statements of ambition in the vein of "a European Harvard". There needs to be a clear, cohesive and strong view on what in fine Sciences-Po will do. This vision needs to be broad, including research, internationalization and course definition, but also precise enough to address the consequences of the large number of students, teacher qualification, as well as funding objectives. The institution's participation to the discussions that have been raised over the past months has almost always been defensive, lacking vision, misleading and more concerned with style over substance. This is not what Sciences-Po was founded to do, and I hope it is not representative of the vision the current administration has.

1 : The perceived risks were that the mandatory L-M-D system the EU was setting up would "lessen" Sciences-Po's prestige, and that the rise of business schools such as HEC would end up draining top talent that would previously have attended Sciences-Po. Furthermore, the state's decision to reduce the number of civil servants, as well as the privatization of state-owned businesses meant there was greater uncertainty regarding the opportunities for "purely political" students. Budgetary concerns also contributed, but in a less pressing manner.
2 : I do believe it was 14, although I have read in certain reports that it was 16.
3 : In absolute terms, this isn't a problem. Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge... Many high-level institutions have thousands of students in each graduating class. However, they are organised in a different manner, with more focused undergraduate courses, fewer hours of class presence, and greater focus on students' extra-curricular activities.
4 : Groups have risen to 30-35 students per teacher.
5 : I say rare, but in 5 semesters at Sciences-Po, I attended 4 such courses. 
6 : Sciences-Po asks students to "rate" the teacher on various criteria at the end of the course, and likewise asks the teacher to share their opinion on the students. Prima facie this system is efficient, since it can identify teachers that are unclear, unstructured, difficult to engage with, and still give teachers the opinion to point out students that are not doing the required work, that are not participating constructively in class, or that are eager but lack knowledge of fundamental notions. 
 7 : HEC (Hautes Etudes Commerciales) and Université Paris-11 Dauphine are institutions that focus on business management and economics.
9 : Auto-evaluation in any field is positive, except when there is no ability for external evaluation of such a field. Physicists and mathematicians evaluate the "quality" of physics and mathematics research undertaken by any given university. However, there remains the ability for people outside of these fields to identify important breakthroughs in these fields. In social sciences, such breakthroughs are much rarer, if inexistant. As such, there is a very real risk of a self-confirming loop emerging.
10 : Richard Descoings and his staff seem to equate "more research staff" with "better research".
11 : It is somewhat interesting in this respect to note that -none- of the prizes Sciences-Po's research department boasts of are for individual works published by Sciences-Po. Whilst this could certainly be a policy on the school's behalf, there is no explicit mention as such.
12 : For instance, the AERES report that awarded Sciences-Po five "A+" grades and one "A" for the six research departments. It seems unclear if the report is commenting on the structure and organisation, the actual research produced, or other aspects such as the committed budget. Likewise, the meaning of these grades is unclear; how many institutions world-wide would achieve the "A+" ranking, and what does this denote in terms of research achievements to come?
13 : Three permanent and four temporary.
14 : Three clearly identified partnerships, although there are also "research exchanges" which are partnerships in all but the name.
15 : In 2000, state funds provided for 73% of the school's budget, and "only" 55% of the budget in 2011.
16 : Literally, Great Schools. These highly-selective courses were designed to train students for particular purposes. The first such schools were established to provide military and civil engineering training for students who would then serve the state or fill particularly dangerous positions. 

20 February 2012

On workplace gender inequality

Women make up 51% of the population in the developed world. Ancient social structures had confined them to a relatively limited set of opportunities, centred around matrimony. The 20th century saw the first break with this traditional social structure, and has lead to a more egalitarian view of gender roles and socially-acceptable opportunities.
There is still a gender gap however. At home, in education, in the workplace and in most other social constructs. Understanding these gaps is therefore crucial to design proper attitudes and methods to enable individuals to be free, as much as possible, of gender-defined predestination and selection of opportunities.
In this article, I shall only try to convey my opinion on gender issues in the workplace. Naturally, many aspects of these opinions and analyses branch into and from my analyses and opinions on connected topics, such as business organization and domestic gender role stereotyping. These are important topics I shall turn my attention to in a future article.

Women's roles in the workplace are still difficult to evaluate in a complete manner. Many facets are qualitative rather than quantitative and are still open to dispute. Empiric data shows that women participate in the economy in a similar proportion as men do, a great change to the situation a century ago. However, the methods of participation are still strongly differentiated by gender.
A quick analysis of gender differences in macroeconomic terms reveals that women are paid less than men at comparable levels of education and working hours, are less likely to achieve executive responsibilities, and are more likely to be in a precarious contract situation.
Furthermore, women's educational achievements have improved dramatically over the past 50 years. Today, more women achieve Bachelors' and Masters' degrees than men do in most developed countries.
Whilst qualitative, most people consider women to be better team players than men, in particular regarding consensus-building. On the other hand, men are perceived as being more directive and authoritative.

Given this data, one could only assume that businesses are all irrational*, or that the value of directive and authoritative employees is formidable. So formidable that it alone would explain the wage gap, make companies accept the costs associated with more secure contracts, and even compensate for reduced productivity linked with less well trained employees.

Simply put, neither of these explanations convince me.
Assuming businesses are irrational means we can stop our analysis here, since we don't have sufficient conceptual information to deal with irrational actors.
As for the value of directive, assertive employees, it seems complicated to assert that it is significantly higher than that of other employees once one considers that the vast majority of corporate positions consider these traits to be negative. In fact, most companies spend money training employees (of all genders) to be better team players... A fact that goes directly against this line of reasoning.

I believe the correct analysis is a third one. More complex, but also more accurate and in useful to predict future evolution.

Comparing wages today poses clear problems :

  • Most women don't negotiate their initial salary. This is a major problem, since even a small gap initially will compound into a larger gap. Take two similarly talented employees hired at the same time. Employee W accepted an offer at index 100, whilst employee M negotiated to achieve index 108. Even if W has an annual raise of 5% and M only has an annual raise of 4.7%, it will take 27 years for W to "catch up" with M. Given that people who don't negotiate their initial salary are also less likely to negotiate raises, it's relatively unlikely in the previous situation than W will consistently negotiate a greater raise than M. In fact, if the raises are reversed (M receiving 5% and W receiving 4.7% per year), then by the end of their careers, M's salary will be 17% greater than W's. As such, it is important to try to distinguish what part of wage differences are due to gender effects, and which ones are due to negotiation. 
  • Until the 80s-90s, educational imbalance in tertiary education means the pool of "like-for-like" individuals that are expected to reach executive levels today is limited for women. Average board ages in Fortune 500 companies today is over 63. This means that the people who are sitting on the board today finished their studies approximately 35-40 years ago. That takes us back to 1972-1976... When only 2 women for every 3 men attended college, and only 1 for every 2 that was over 22 (and therefore likely most Masters' degrees).
  • Women don't study the same things as men. There are various factors that can be considered to cause differences in higher studies for each gender, but before we look at them, it's worth pointing out that these differences were, and still are largely unrewarding for women. More men enrol in STEM (Sciences, Technologies, Engineering and Mathematics) higher education courses than women**, whilst more women enrol in Arts and Humanities courses. Businesses that require Arts and Humanities graduates have been growing very slowly over the past 30 years, whilst those that require STEM graduates have been growing much faster. This has contributed to disparate career opportunities for individuals that have achieved a same level of education (Master's degree, for instance), and in turn weighs on wages.
  • Entrepreneurship rates also strongly distort wage comparisons. Today almost half of all early-stage business employees or founders are women, but the proportion was much lower 30 years ago. Furthermore, entrepreneurship still has gender gaps. Men remain more involved than women in the very early stages of businesses, and organisations started by men are less likely to be not-for-profits. Since many board members or high-level executives achieved this position through involvement with an early-stage business, the under-participation of women in early-stage businesses also needs to be distinguished from a gender-based wage gap.
  • Lastly, wage comparison is unnecessarily "top-heavy". Because of the baby-boom in the 50s to early 70s, there are more people at the end of their career relative to those entering the job market. Whilst reducing the wage gap for all ages is important, it is worth pointing out that for younger women, the wage gap is within bounds that could reasonably be explained by factors previously mentioned***.
Despite the "tightening" of the wage gap, structurally there is still a strong motivation for it to continue to exist within these conditions. Women need to be more proactive in negotiating an initial salary, and there needs to be greater emphasis placed on outcome potential for various kinds of degrees. STEM curricula are challenging, but they do lead to fields of employment with greater opportunities. Reducing the quality of these curricula is not the right method, and perhaps "intermediate" courses need to be developed, ones that develop both certain facets of STEM training and Arts and Humanities. The under-participation of women in STEM courses can be attributed in part to gender stereotypes in education****, but I do not believe that the lack of female role models or famous women in these fields is a sufficient explanation. Were it the case, then many other fields including in the Arts and Humanities would be shunned by women. Other causes, including peer pressure, methods of teaching and perceived ability likely play strong parts in determining educational paths women undertake. I shall not address these points here.

Alongside the wage gap, there are other issues that affect workplace gender inequality:
  • Women achieve fewer positions of high responsibility, in particular board membership, director or senior executive levels. This is partly correlated to the lesser participation in early-stage businesses, as well as to the fact that people aspiring to high-responsibility positions today are generally over 60, and as such have had educational paths that are quite different from the current situation. Another contributing factor is that male-dominated fields of study are still considered preferable backgrounds for these positions in businesses. Engineers of both genders are much more likely to reach high executive positions than philosophy majors.
  • Work-home balance is still perceived by companies as being a problem rather than an opportunity. Women suffer disproportionate hold-backs in their career compared to the time they are unavailable due to family and personal commitments. In turn, this leads to greater disengagement on behalf of female employees, which acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy on the company's behalf, justifying the disproportionate hold-backs in their career.
  • Attitudes in the workplace to employees of different genders are still markedly different. Women are perceived***** in certain cases to be less capable, authoritative or valuable to the company. Strong legislation against the most visible of these attitudes, sexual harassment, was a good first step towards normalizing attitudes, but there are many other aspects that are more insidious and difficult to legislate against.
These issues are not the only ones women face in the workplace, but they crystallize a certain number of attitudes that are disappearing. Businesses need to realise that in a post-industrial world, where companies are facing great challenges regarding their identity, their behaviour and what kind of vision they can offer their customers through their products and services, the most strongly required skill-sets at executive levels are changing. High-responsibility executives need to be able to see beyond the technical aspects of their job and see how their involvement contributes to building the company in all directions. People with a background in Design, Sociology or Languages can bring vision to a company that extends beyond the "business as usual" confines of technicians that have risen through the ranks. Companies will also need to adapt to more modern work-home balances. Legislation could certainly help in certain regards, but the main factor businesses should consider is that people who are happy with their work-home balance are not only more productive, but they also produce higher-quality work. The generation entering the job market is a lot more prepared to change jobs than previous generations, and will do so to achieve a preferred work-home balance. Businesses that don't re-think deeply their approach to work-home balance are going to miss out on the best talent, a cost that is much greater than the savings they might make by improving productivity. As for attitudes, they are slow to change but they are evolving. In many respects they are still linked to political and ideological debates regarding women's role in society, as well as at home. However, I do believe that attitudes are changing quickly, and amongst people of the generation entering the job market, gender-defined attitudes are receding.

Solving workplace inequality is a win-win proposition for all parties involved. It is not a question of reducing men's wages, nor of artificially inflating women's.
Fundamentally, it relies on helping young women choose their career path and education in a non-gender stereotyped environment, as well as helping businesses identify the opportunities they are missing by maintaining, even informally, gender inequality in the workplace.
I am personally against quotas, since they encourage perverse behaviour, and I feel they would only cover over the symptoms of the problem rather than address the underlying causes. However, I do believe that we are capable of solving these underlying causes.

* Or, their logic is obfuscated by some form of conspiracy, but I'm not going to entertain this notion, despite liking the X-Files.
** If one considers Psychology to be a STEM course, then the gender ratio is closer, but still imbalanced.
*** http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/08/for-younger-women-a-smaller-wage-gap/ women under 35 have a wage gap that is less than 10%, before correcting for types of job, level or type of education.
**** These stereotypes apply equally to teachers and students.
***** Again, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the attitude leads to greater deference and creates a confirmation bias, which in turn validates the à priori impression.

17 February 2012

English at ease in last 16 but the balance of power tilts Spain's way

A not-very-subtle opinion piece that tries to base itself on figures, but hey, that's not easy when you're writing the piece before looking at the figures.

"Nonetheless, the English clubs in the tournament have achieved reliability more than greatness. United have won the European Cup on three occasions, a tally that has them trailing clubs such as Ajax and Bayern Munich, never mind Real Madrid. The Anfield crowd also issues frequent reminders of Liverpool's record on that front."

Until 1997-98, only the national champion qualified for the tournament, as well as the holder of the trophy if they were from the same country. English clubs were banned for 6 seasons following the Heysel Stadium disaster, and didn't participate in 1955-56 at the FA's request. So, until 1997-98, that's 35 seasons (1956-57 to 1984-85 and 1991-92 to 1996-97). Afterwards, the numbers grew to two, three and then four teams that were accepted into the Champions' League. In contrast, Spainish and German clubs have played in 42 seasons (1955-56 to 1996-97) before non-champions were allowed to enter, and Italian and Dutch clubs 41 (Lazio was suspended in 1974-75 due to supporter violences during a clash in the previous year's UEFA Cup with Ipswich Town, Ajax was suspended in 1990-91 due to supporter violences during a clash in the previous year's UEFA Cup with Austria Wien).

English clubs have won 11 trophies (3 since 1996-97), Spanish clubs have won 12 trophies (5 since 1996-97), Italian clubs have won 12 trophies (3 since 1996-97), German clubs have won 6 trophies (2 since 1996-97) and Dutch clubs have won 6 trophies (all before 1996-97). By year in the competition, that means that upto 1996-97, the record of trophies per participation stands at : English clubs won 23% of the seasons they took part in the competition, Italian clubs 22%, Spanish clubs 17%, Dutch clubs 15% and German clubs 10%. Furthermore, one Dutch (1987-88), two Italian (1988-89 and 1989-90) and one Spanish win (1955-56) took part in seasons when English clubs did not compete, and one German win (1974-75) took part in a season when Italian clubs did not compete.

Upto 1996-97, since only the national champion and the trophy holder entered the competition the following year, a club that dominated its domestic league had more attempts to win the trophy than clubs from countries where the league was more competitive. A case example can be the Bundesliga, where Bayern Munich won 12 titles between 1963-64 (when the league was established) and 1995-96. Before the Bundesliga was started, the Oberliga champion was accepted to the European Cup, however, Bayern Munich did not win the Oberliga. In contrast, the most successful team from 1955-56 to 1995-6 (minus 1984-85 to 1989-90 due to suspension) in England was Liverpool, who won the league 10 times. However, Liverpool won the European Cup 4 times before 1996-97, whilst Bayern Munich won it only 3 times. Other clubs from these leagues support further this hypothesis. Aston villa (1 European Cup win, 1 Domestic League win), Nottingham Forest (2 ECs, 1 DL), Manchester United (1 EC, 7 DLs) on one hand, with Hamburg as the only other German club to win the EC before 1996-97 (1 EC, 4 DLs).

It seems fair to me to say that being in England meant clubs had much greater uncertainty about taking part in the European Cup in following years, as it wasn't a case of one, two or three clubs vying for the title (La Liga was won 23 times by Real and 19 times by other clubs between 1954-55 and 1995-96 ; only 11 Serie A were won in the same period by teams other than Juventus, Milan AC or Internazionale ; 17 Eredivisie for Ajax, not including the 1989-90 title, 10 for PSV and 8 for Feyenoord, 4 for all the other clubs). Liverpool and Manchester United certainly dominated (17 domestic league wins combined that qualified them for the European Cup), but 12 other clubs also won the League during this period, winning the league 18 times in total.

05 June 2010

AT&T's data pricing change

Correct me if I'm wrong since I'm not a US-based customer of Apple's products, and therefore haven't yet had to deal with AT&T.

You are paying AT&T $35 each month for them to provide a service (3G network) to a product they happen to sell exclusively and which is portrayed in commercials as being able to do such things as stream video, audio, or run rich content applications without a mention of being "limited" to WiFi or other kinds of networks.

Why is it that it's unreasonable to expect to be able to use the 3G network as advertised? I live in France, where Orange (the premier iPhone carrier) has had an unlimited plan since the beginning (or iPhone 3G launch, can't remember), and have excellent coverage. Sure, you can hook up to your WiFi network at work or at home if you feel like it, but if you do so, you're not only limiting the use of the phone (need to leave? well that download isn't following you anywhere, unlike on a 3G network), you're also paying much more than you need (why not buy into a much cheaper 1Gb plan?). I am paying for unlimited data. Not "unlimited data* (*over WiFi)". I don't use WiFi because it's not convenient for me (I don't have a home WiFi network nor a work WiFi network, and my main "data" use of my telephone is during my daily commute). Sure, I'd probably appreciate the speed increase. But it's not available, so why should I be "bothering" about my data use?

Every carrier in France has an unlimited data plan, mine is priced at €35/month. I could have chosen a slightly cheaper one (€30/month), but I appreciate the extra voice hours. Are they likely to disappear soon? Nope. Orange, Bouygues and SFR (the main 3 networks) have boosted their "unlimited" offers in the past few months, and are looking increasingly likely to start offering unlimited voice plans on their highest price tiers. In six months time, there's a new carrier that's launching (Free), who were the first ISP in France to offer unlimited internet, and they've already announced their objective is to sell a "quadruple play" offer (Cable TV access + Unlimited Internet + Unlimited landline telephone + Unlimited data mobile). Carrier quality? I've had a few data holes, but without moving or waiting more than 5 minutes they're cleared up. They're not very frequent (I haven't had a dropped call, for instance, although I've had 3 or 4 streams that have stopped and needed to be restarted), and they're not seeming to increase in frequency with the multiplication of unlimited data offers.

This plan is a gross attempt to con people into buying into the cheaper plans, and then sucking them dry on "overcharges". 200Mb data? Sure, I'm willing to accept that 60% (or whatever it is) don't use that much. But that's today. What about when iPhone OS4 comes out? Are people going to use their iPhones to "store" media content for the day from their computer/WiFi network and then only use a few tools on the go? Or are people going to adopt new data consumption models, with more streaming and web-based content? I'm pretty sure if you did the same analysis 12 months ago, you'd peg the figures at 150Mb and 1Gb. People are going to get stuck on a two-year plan for less data than they're going to use (only enough for the first few months), and since people will forget to monitor their data use or switch to the higher cap "for that month", they'll be billed overcharges that go well beyond the "saving" that AT&T is offering them now.

30 May 2010

Hidalgo or Domenech? http://bit.ly/9k8bWm

The main differences are :

As you stated, Hidalgo's teams played very well. The "carré magique" was typical fluid, pleasant football in a very "French" style. Domenech's "2 milieux défensifs" has been laborious since the first game, and is a complete anti-thesis of both good offensive football and good defensive football.

Hidalgo qualified France against harder opposition. Sorry if this might sound condescending, but Hidalgo didn't play Ecuador, China and Costa Rica and other third-rate international opponents half as frequently as Domenech does. Qualifying for international tournaments has become a relatively easier deal as well, a point I'll expand on. But when comparing records, it's worth keeping in mind that Domenech has padded his out with loads of crap matches that would have been a joke to lose.

Qualification for their World Cups. Seriously, Domenech's qualifications make Hidalgo look brilliant. 2006 World Cup? Domenech took 10 points from the first 6 matches of qualification (in a group with Israel, Faroe Islands, Eire, Switzerland and Cyprus), 6 of which were against the Faroe Islands or Cyprus. Although Zidane, Thuram and Makélélé had retired, they returned (apparently thanks to certain sponsors shared by Zidane and the French NT), and -only just- managed to qualify France on the last day thanks to a draw between Switzerland and Eire, whilst France beat Cyprus. 2010 has been just as bad, with a pathetic group stage where France finished 2nd despite being in an easy group (Serbia, Austria, Lithuania, Faroe Islands, Romania). As for the handball qualification against Eire, let's not even go down that path. Hidalgo lead the French NT in a time of no 2nd place play-offs and much smaller groups. 1978? 4 matches to qualify, against Bulgaria and Eire, winner of the group takes all. 1982? 8 matches to qualify, against Belgium, Eire, the Netherlands and Cyprus, top two qualify.

Qualification for the Euros. I only broke this away from the previous point as it was getting too long. Both managers have the same record in Euro qualifiers : 66% won, 16% drawn, 16% lost. And both faced pretty solid groups too : Domenech had freshly-crowned World Champions Italy, Hidalgo had soon-to-be 3rd in the tournament proper Czechoslovakia, Domenech had the underdog of the last world cup Ukraine, Hidalgo had not-brilliant-but-solid Sweden. In fact, they both finished 2nd in their group behind Italy and Czechoslovakia respectively. But since Hidalgo's group was only a 4-team deal, he didn't qualify. Domenech on the other hand had 7 teams in his group, so went through. The only problem is that whilst Hidalgo only had 2 "easy" matches (Luxemburg), Domenech had 6 (Faroe Islands, Georgia and Lithuania). And Domenech was super-boring with his team selection again. Sure, France scored 25 goals in 12 matches during the qualification. But 14 were in 3 matches against the Faroe and Georgia. The rest was 11 in 9. With 3 matches where France didn't score. Not terrible.

Of course, then there's the actual performance -at- the tournament (2006 is similar to 1982, except 1982 had more style and wasn't just one player running the show; 2008 is worse than 1980's non-qualification or 1978's first-round exit combined, given how badly France was spanked). Hidalgo has 1984's trophy on his mantlepiece, Domenech has diddly squat. That's a major difference.