Talk at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on Behavioral Finance

In March 2023, I will be guest speaking to DBA students at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology about implementing behavioral finance initiatives in corporations, an area that I have worked in for more than a third of my three-decade-some working career. Much thanks to Prof. Anirban Mukhopadhyay for inviting me. While the details are still to be worked, I plan to cover a number of case studies relative to retirement, FinTech, wealth management, and investment management firms. In addition to covering some perspectives on implementing behavioral insights teams, I also plan to provide some behind-the-scenes perspectives on applied research studies, such as the one Hal Hershfield, Shlomo Benartzi, and I worked on with Acorns (linked here at Marketing Science).

While organizations and companies have come a long way in terms of implementing behavioral economics, we are still in a relatively early phase with some organizations falling behind or missing out. 2023 will be a big year of change for me. Will it be for you? Please feel free to reach out to explore possibilities. Perhaps we can help one another in either academic (e.g., I have two new behavioral courses under development) or corporate settings.

Four Classroom Teaching Differentiators in a World of TikTok and Other Digital Innovations

A strategic issue that many professors face within the university is how to teach in a world when one is both competing for attention in the Digital Age and also trying to justify value-add over other methods that people can use to educate themselves. For example, people can read books. They can watch videos on TikTok or YouTube. They can take classes remotely or even do self-study using online platforms. At the core when it comes to the classroom, professors compete against other learning resources that scale dramatically and are delivered at lower cost. I am all for further development of those types of resources and educational models, recognizing their benefits, challenges, and limitations. With that as context, I wanted to share some thoughts about how a professor can differentiate themselves when it comes to the traditional classroom and adding the most value.

The digital world doesn’t necessarily scale that well when it comes to compassion and developing interpersonal relationships, so I think a first key differentiator for professors can be to try to foster a good environment that connects real people together. That means focusing on multiple connections. Connect students to one another, perhaps via icebreakers. Encourage higher-level connections by fostering team-building and having people share their wants and desires. Set up a safe environment where people can learn. Invite constructive feedback. This past week I told students that I really “loved” how some of them were really blunt about their dislike for one of the assigned readings. They provided feedback that they weren’t sure how it was relevant, and so I did my best to frame things in the proper light (e.g., some pain is good for them, here are the essentials to take away beyond the classroom). Where students are receptive, I also try to make some time for students to meet me and one another outside of the classroom (e.g., meeting for coffee, drinks, breakfast, potluck dinner).

A second idea for differentiation is related to personalization (which is something I teach in my applied behavioral economics course). While professors often have responsibilities to follow specific instruction plans, I think there may be increased opportunities for students to be able to personalize (portions) the type of instruction they would like to receive. I recently held a class that allowed students to choose one of four doors that they could open, and then I led the class discussion in a direction based on what door they voted to open. I have heard through the grapevine (i.e., in this case Reddit) about other professors creating “liquid syllabi” where students can completely edit and provide suggestions to a syllabus via Google Docs and the like. I am not sure how workable that type of approach would be in reality. However, there seems to be value to customization and personalization of instruction, which is something else that digital platforms may not be able to do as well. I also think that being able to provide feedback to students on their work is a point where professors can differentiate themselves. However, given the size of classes, number of assignments, types of assignments, etc. there can be limitations on scaling this.

A third idea is around just-in-time education and providing bite-sized snippets of education (TikTok excels at bite-sized snippets). There is so much out there for students to learn. As professors learn where students’ interests lie, what their aspirations are, and where they are having trouble, it may be possible for professors to provide mini content or crash courses on material. As an example, I have often told students that they will likely see Scrum/Agile project management methods when they go into the working world. Perhaps one of the most brilliant books I have seen is the format of the book, Scrum: a Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction by Chris Sims and Hillary Louise Johnson. The book is about 50-pages long with simple to-the-point language, a lot of cartoon-style drawings. It can be read in 20 minutes. For a classroom setting, I’ve even digested down this book further into a 2-4 minute crash intro to be delivered at the point when I sense students might need or want such information. While it may be harder for professors to compete against the digital world when it comes to delivering bite-sized, engaging information, perhaps there are opportunities to combine approaches from the digital world into the classroom (e.g., more use of Cameo, TikTok, YouTube, digital exercises/games).

A fourth area of potential differentiation is to provide students with opportunities to connect with the outside world. This could be by having guest speakers, offering unique case studies, facilitating access to projects in industry, or helping students develop new skills that can be used when they leave school (e.g., learning tools like R or Python). On the flip side to this, universities appreciate when alumni and companies can help to enrich the student classroom. Possible ways to help include donating money, sponsoring/hosting student projects, guest speaking, and offering to provide materials that can be used in the classroom. I am very thankful to people at companies like Acorns, Personal Capital, Telefonica, Vitality, Voya, and others for helping both me and my students with their learning journeys.

One of my aspirations in life is to give back to students and enrich their lives in some way. I am evolving my thinking on the best ways to teach in the classroom, so I welcome ideas and feedback. At some point, I also hope to think about how to extend teaching beyond the traditional classroom. Perhaps a topic for a future post.

Podcast Interview on Behavioral Investing: Managing the Emotions Behind Our Decisions

Last month I chatted with Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer at Wilmington Trust, N.A., a subsidiary of M&T Bank (NYSE: MTB) as part of his podcast series, Capital Conversations. For me, it was an interesting conversation to have had for a number of reasons, and three perspectives really captured the direction of my thinking. 

The first perspective was that as a society we have really been under a lot of stress for the past two years, a type of stress that I have not seen in my lifetime. So while investment markets are not currently very volatile, it is a good time for many people to get a fresh start and re-assess their situations.

The third perspective is that people are really different, and sometimes it can matter a lot. We understand some of these differences better than others (such as innumeracy and its impacts). There are other differences (like capability and confidence mismatches relative to new technologies, like cryptocurrency) that are less understood. As another example, the younger generation thinks about finance and life very differently than older generations. How to better address individual behavioral differences and situations will be an ongoing opportunity where people will need help.

The second perspective was that there are so many different behavioral elements at play when we think about different people, the interplay of fast, automatic thinking versus slow, reflective thinking; the digital world, and the numerous challenges of finance. It is unlikely that we can find one silver bullet, behavioral solution to fully address all problems. That said, we can put in place processes to help ensure that we make the best decisions we can for the things that really matter, while also avoiding some of the major obstacles that happen on a regular basis, such as overconfidence,  natural biases in forecasting the future, thinking in narrow frames, and others.

Thanks to Tony Roth and the Wilmington Trust team for hosting me for the podcast.

Video teaser

Giving Students an Opportunity to Customize Their Classes

This past week I tried an experiment of allowing students to customize a portion of a 2.5 hour class. Students were given an option to “open” one of four doors, and then I would lead the class discussion in a direction based on what door they voted to open:

  • Door 1: Experiential activity (P2P-related)
  • Door 2: Agile/Scrum crash course (team-related, something you will likely encounter in business)
  • Door 3: Chapter 1 & 2 quiz “show”
  • Door 4: Idea on prospecting for research host

As an example, for Door 3 students could put me in the hotspot by having me present a short piece of research and then quiz me based on concepts in Chapters 1 and 2 of the course book.

The voting didn’t quite go as I expected it would. Students chose Door 1 over Door 3. Perhaps list item primacy effects? Perhaps they were caught off guard by being given this choice in the first place?

You might be thinking, “what was behind Door 1?” Well students got to role play that they were fishing together. They got to try different communication modes based on concepts from improv (e.g., “Yes, and”). The goal of the exercise was to help people develop better team communication styles as an early part of the process of forming project teams.

Regardless, in the end I think students had a good experience. Only time will tell I suppose.

Should Consultants Charge an Upfront Fee or Charge at the End of a Project?

This is an answer to a question I was posed on Quora.

I’d avoid collecting money entirely (i.e., 100%) on the backend except for the shortest and smallest engagements.

Here’s one anecdotal story: I once managed a business advisory practice as part of a large, international and diversified products and services firm. To get this practice off the ground we subcontracted to a number of consulting firms to fill in for delivery gaps we had. And some of these firms didn’t collect their fees that regularly since we were a massive firm with worldwide recognition and history. We always paid our bills, no problem. However as additional context below the surface, the company I worked for apparently had a variety of issues, in particular high levels of debt caused by years of merger and acquisition activity. The CEO had hired one of the big MBB firms are part of efforts to turn our company around.

One day the CEO announces that the company would proactively declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy even though we had cash and lots of assets. What did that mean? The consulting companies that I used as subcontractors could not be paid. The telephone calls I had to make hurt to make. At the time that damaged my reputation even though the whole situation was something that occurred at a much higher level. I do wonder what happened to the fees that were owed to the MBB firm that was helping at the strategic level. Were these paid off before the bankruptcy? Or did they get in line like I had to waiting for my severance pay to make it through the the courts? I have a bad taste in my mouth after that whole experience, especially since the CEO got a parachute whereas suppliers and trench workers comparatively did not.

There are many other examples that I could come up with. However, consulting firms have cash flow considerations to make. And they take some risks, so it is quite fair to pay consultants up-front or along the way in a timely manner. Things can happen that slow things up. For example, if you are doing business internationally, the client may need to do tedious checks on corruption and money laundering that can take time for larger deals but they may be able to release some money up-front to cover the consulting firm services being floated. Or other (probably rare) things can cause complete train wrecks such as working with a distressed firm that might declare bankruptcy out of the blue.

So as a consultant perhaps I have some baggage, but I’d avoid opting for the “complete payment after you’re done” option unless you acknowledge, however remote, the risks, uncertainty, and potential unknown unknowns that there are.

Reflections on My Roles and Purposes as a Teacher (A Personal Manifesto)

As we prepare to head into the 2022 fall semester at Cornell, I wanted to jot down some key thoughts on my roles and purposes as a teacher.

  • I care about my students and want to help them to learn something, go as far as they they are willing and able to go my classes, and be better prepared to achieve their goals in life.
  • While I have training as an academic and respect and nurture those skills, given that most of my students will be on professionally-destined tracks post-Cornell, I hope to bring to bear my experiences and insights from working for many years in the commercial world. In my past classes, students have told me that this is one of my big differentiators as a professor.
  • Being part of a university requires me to grade students. Admittedly, this process makes me uncomfortable. Comfort and grades aside, I will try to provide students with as much feedback, support, and encouragement as my role will allow me to do.
  • While I know a good deal about some things, I don’t know everything. In fact, I know close to nothing about many things. I have limits, and when I run into them, I will try to leverage my resourcefulness to try to point you in the right direction.
  • We will learn things together. I will learn from you, and I hope you will learn some from me, the other instructors, teaching assistants, and your classmates. We have a connection as aspiring people and through Cornell. Let’s make the most of our limited time together, through the good and the bad.
  • The fall is upon us, and I am ready to be on “team you”.

Case Examples of Empirical Research Methods As Related to Consulting Firms

Since many of my students aspire to work in consulting after they graduate, the purpose of this post is to round up some examples in the consulting space as related to research methods. This post will be updated from time to time.