I was interviewed by Widget Finn for the Times, and she wrote the following article:
The disastrous debut of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was a nightmare experience for all involved, but for Gabriel Mesquida it has proved a valuable live case study for his MBA dissertation.
Mesquida is a programme manager for Aena, the Spanish equivalent of British Airports Authority, that is in charge of the expansion of Barcelona’s airport. He is responsible for the coordination of projects in the information systems, communications and security programmes. His dissertation for the distance-learning MBA that he is doing at Henley Management College is on managing airports for the future, so he is watching carefully how the Terminal 5 saga unfolds.
He says: “Our terminal is similar in size to Heathrow, which is considered the plane capital of Europe, and I visited T5 several times when it was under construction. I was impressed, at the time, by how much detail they were going into over safety and they were scrupulous about everything.”
But when the terminal opened it became apparent that there would be other useful lessons to be learnt – including how to manage a meltdown. “An MBA has a foundation of theory but it should be practical, so having a live case study means you can watch events as they unfold and draw conclusions from them.”
The conclusions may be different when the case study is current rather than from a textbook comments Dr Richard Barker, director of MBA programmes at Judge Business School. He says: “One of the benefits is that you don’t know the outcome, which simulates the management situation more effectively. With a five-year-old case study there’s a result to the story which is difficult to escape. You can look at different options that management had at the time but knowing what happened influences your ability to assess the case.”
Mesquida is already putting into practice some principles of leadership from his MBA that were highlighted in the Terminal 5 episode. He says: “Resources are important, but people are far more so and leadership is everything when you have a flock of people wandering around a huge new infrastructure. However carefully you prepare, the unexpected can happen, and that is when your staff should have the flexibility to use their initiative. If the company has a blame culture people will be reluctant to take risks or do anything except cover their own backs.”
Durham University Business School uses live case studies in boardroom simulation exercises where students focus on a real company. Dr Julie Hodges, director of MBA programmes, explains: “They look at the strategic data, where the company is now, what challenges and issues it’s facing, then students come up with recommendations based on the information.” But textbook cases also have their value. “These give an historical perspective so that the issues can be put into context. More data is available and we can identify the medium and long-term lessons.”
Textbooks’ case studies are polished, tried and tested so they are easier from a teaching viewpoint. Barker points out that they are also pigeonholed into subject areas. “They may be labelled a strategy or marketing case, which isn’t always obvious when you’ re trying to deal with something in the boardroom.”
He can predict some of the labels that will be put on Terminal 5. “I see it as an operations management case – make sure your operation works before you start overloading it, or a people management case – train your people properly and handle recovery situations effectively.”
Mesquida agrees that more lessons will emerge from Terminal 5 as time goes by, but together with his MBA learning, it is already shaping his decisions for Barcelona airport. He says: “We need performance indicators and a more systemic approach. Stakeholders and users shouldn’t have the impression that you’re out of control or they’ll feel abandoned. They must be kept fully informed of what’s happening and how you plan to remedy the situation.”
Terminal 5’s launch onto the world stage may have been a fiasco but, clearly as a learning resource for business students, it will run and run.
Thank-you Widget 🙂