Interview with Professor Ian MacDonald

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Professor Ian MacDonald is teaching at the Department of Management Skills at IBS. One of his hobbies is cycling and he not only rides bikes but collects them too. Occasionally he is also a DJ!

Ian, you are from Scotland, what bought you to Hungary?

I came to Hungary 24 years ago. I was running a small consulting business in London but it was not the best time to have a consulting business there due to an ensuing economic recession. I had two friends who were here and they suggested I should come to Hungary. I was told that it was a wonderful place, rather like London in the 60s. And I said ok, so I came to Hungary, spent here 10 days and thought, I could work here. The second time I came for a month and the third time I came for good.

What business did you do in Hungary?

It was a consulting business. I had a Scottish partner and we decided it would be good to find a local business partner in Hungary which we did. We found some companies who wanted to be more productive. We worked for a number of clients including an old shoe factory (MINO Cipőgyár) and other former-state companies that were trying to reinvent themselves.

The first major project we undertook was for a farming cooperative Zöldmező TSZ, in Püspökladány. This was the first time that we installed a management operating system but the TSZ culture was complicated, somewhat chaotic, and achieving real change was difficult. We did our studies, analyses, and we found that the cooperative sustained almost 1,000 people, of which approximately 600 were employees. However, in reality the organization could only provide real work for about 300 people. We discovered that it’s rather impractical to tell the owners (members) of a TSZ to fire themselves!

As things progressed, we found that the various companies that we were talking to invariably expressed a need for marketing services and corporate finance advice. There was both a shortage of money and a shortage of marketing ideas and expertise. So we decided to invite two further British partners to join us, a Retail and Marketing Consultant and a Corporate Financier from Barings Bank Merchant Bank. At that time, 1992, we had 10 Hungarian employees and the four partners.

Our company organized one of the first tours of British institutional investors with a view to raising finance for one of our clients (Globus). This was successful and enabled the company to continue its regeneration and development without giving up control to a foreign competitor.

What else did you do in these years?

I enrolled to do a Masters’ Degree in Training and Performance Management at Leicester University, mainly by correspondence. Then I worked for a year in an English-language nursery as a teacher, looking after two-year old children. After working with corporate executives for many years, that experience was like a therapy - children are the most grateful people to work with, when you do something they like they always express their gratitude with a great big smile. I really needed that at that time in my life.

You also studied at ELTE.

I still study at ELTE at the Department of Media and Communication for a PhD. My research topic is, “If Powerpoint is the medium, what is the point?” Originally I was interested in studying the impact of culture on presentation styles. I’m the author of a publication called the Presentation Skills Profile (HRDQ, 1997), which is the biggest selling questionnaire of its kind ever. I realized that HRDQ, the company that published the Profile, was selling it worldwide, including places like Hong Kong. I was curious as to whether the underlying model was applicable in such places given clear differences in culture. So I began to analyse how and in what ways culture affects presentation. I ultimately concluded that the culture of global business influences this as much, if not more so, than country cultures, particularly in multinational companies.

Why at the Department of Media and Communication?

I expressed an interest to study for a PhD in Communication and, to be honest, I was misdirected. However, I just decided to progress with my studies and see where it would take me. I’m glad that I did.

The title of my research is inspired by Marshall McLuhan and his famous thought, “the medium is the message.” This is perhaps best understood in education as, “the way I teach you, rather than the content, will determine what you learn” and it is often reflected in the somewhat narcissistic nature of many executives in today’s world of business and work. It seems that humility and a willingness to accept uncertainty is in rather short supply just when we appear to need it most! We certainly need to address this issue in today’s approach to education since we will undoubtedly require a new type of executive in the future.

You also perceive a difference between Eastern and Western type of thinking and this is also important in how you see, for example, Prezi’s future. You wrote about it several articles. (Read one here )How do you see it now?

Last year when Adam Somlai-Fischer was here at the Alumni Eve, he said that Prezi’s most exciting market was Asia. This was not the result of a preconceived strategy to exploit those markets. Nonetheless, it’s a good feeling for me that I forecasted this development and it demonstrates that an awareness of culture can be used to develop effective marketing strategies.

I think Prezi has a bright future but, like PowerPoint, if it is to be applied successfully in education, teachers must be made aware of its pitfalls and drawbacks. Essentially, Prezi should be used sparingly and selectively when it can aid communication and learning.

Is it exclusively because of the way of thinking or are there other reasons for the growth of the Asian market?

I think there could be many reasons for this but Prezi certainly encourages a more holistic way of thinking and that is more characteristic to the East than the more linear thinking of the West.

What do you use in your class, PowerPoint or Prezi?

I don’t use either of them, well at least not very often.

Why is that?

The use of presentation software reveals much about a teacher’s underlying assumptions regarding education. After all PowerPoint and Prezi primarily facilitate the telling of information and, by nature, that limits interaction and involvement. That may be fine and well if one is teaching lower-order thinking skills such a memory recall and understanding but I believe, as McLuhan did in the 1960’s, that we’ve left the age of instruction and we are presently in an era of discovery learning. That is by nature active and involving. I think all presentations should be a dialogue between the presenter and the audience and that furthermore, it should stimulate discussion between members of the audience. We need to create space for such discussion.

You can tell a lot from a similar example of how furniture is arranged in a class room. I enjoy asking my students, “what are the premises upon which their classroom was designed?” The underlying assumption, that students quickly identify, is that it’s the teacher who is the most important person in the classroom and also the primary source of knowledge. This ignores the possibility that students can learn perfectly well from each other, particularly if they are expertly guided by the teacher.

We need to keep in mind that our goal is to prepare students for their future.

Will we need memory in the future?

There are so many tools that can help our memory these days and this surely diminishes the importance of this skill.  What we really need today is more practice in analytical thinking, collaboration, creative problem solving, appreciative and critical-thinking. The way to develop these skills is through practice, you cannot learn them passively from a PowerPoint slideshow!  Practice-oriented means to me, working on real problems or simulations of real problems which should, by definition, anticipate future challenges.

Even today, most assessment simply asks students to repeat what teachers, and/or their approved text books, have stated. That is merely a test of memory – does the student remember? – or, at best, understanding. These days I’m interested in more dynamic forms of assessment.

What does that mean?

Why are we asking the same questions from each student? Why don’t we ask students about the barriers they would encounter personally in a given situation?

I work with many international and Hungarian students and I often frame assessment questions that explore their knowledge and understanding of who they are and how they relate to others from their own and other cultures. Edward T Hall, who was a close collaborator of Marshall McLuhan, said that the reason to study somebody else’s culture is first and foremost to learn about your own culture not to learn the culture of others. The latter, he suggested, would be near impossible given the way culture is learned.

So a great assessment question could be, “what did you learn about your own culture by immersing yourself in Hungarian culture?” That I believe is a dynamic, reflective, type of assessment. It is entirely consistent with the current need to advance transformative approaches to learning and encourage deeper reflective thinking.