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MBA for Professionals Celebrates Commencement, Steve Bass of OPB Serves as Speaker

   

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On Saturday, January 19, the Willamette University MBA for Professionals program celebrated the commencement of 61 students from three cohorts (two from Portland, one from Salem).  Over 400 guests attended the ceremony.

Steven (Steve) M. Bass, President and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), delivered the commencement address.  In his remarks, Bass reminded graduates that effective managers are prepared to evolve in reaction to market and technological conditions, citing his experience working in the changing world of media and news.  He noted that the nature of their work will look very different throughout their careers.

Twelve students, along with Bass, were inducted as lifetime members into Beta Gamma Sigma, the national honor society of AACSB-accredited schools of management. 

Read the complete transcript of Bass' speech below.


Presented by Steven M. Bass at Willamette University
Saturday, January 19, 2013
Mary Stuart Rogers Music Center - Salem, Oregon

Congratulations to you and to your families who supported you.  You’ve done it the hard way … weekends, weeknights while also working and possibly juggling family responsibilities as well.  It’s a lot of sacrifice for all.  So be sure to thank those who helped make it possible for you to celebrate this occasion today.

Being here with you takes me back to my days at the University of Wisconsin Graduate School of Business.  I didn’t attend my graduation, so this is my first opportunity to wear the University of Wisconsin colors.  This gives me great pride, plus I’ll have a cool picture to post on Facebook!

I’ve been out of school now for thirty years. My first job was with the university’s public broadcasting station.  I had a rotary phone and a typewriter on my desk. We typed and circulated inter-office memoranda.  We used phone books and sent letters.  No cell phones, no email, no Internet. 

The pace of business was slower back then.  It took longer to do just about everything, and it required more hands to get it done.   The world changed at a steady pace and while it seemed at the time that the pace was quick, it was nothing compared to today.  You’re entering a business world vastly different from the one I entered.

The knowledge I acquired in business school prepared me well for that world.  It didn’t prepare me for what I’m facing today.

Some of the subjects that I studied, like corporate finance, haven’t changed much.  I still use a textbook from 1979 to calculate the net present value of a future annuity on the rare occasions when I have to do such a thing. 

But the organizational change cases we studied were from a more orderly world.  The strategic planning class I took focused on a process that might take 18-months to complete and result in a plan with a time horizon of five years.  None of it involved the disruptive, seemingly overnight kind of change that we see today. 

Today, disruption is the norm and the unexpected is to be expected. 

Just to give you one example, Sony was once the dominant media and consumer electronics company.   Sony invented the Walkman in 1982, which allowed people to play whatever they wanted on a tape and later a CD. Sony owned record companies and movie studios.   If any company seemed destined to take advantage of what was to come, Sony was it.  Today, Sony is valued at less than one-tenth of what it was in 2001. 

During that same time, a small computer company called Apple became the world’s biggest company.  Apple introduced the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.  Each one was a revolution.  Apple didn’t own a record label or a movie studio.  They didn’t invent the portable music player.  But they reinvented the entertainment business despite having no traditional footing in that sector.

We live in a world that’s been turned upside down by a combination of faster chips, cheaper storage and connectivity.   The edges between formerly disparate businesses and industries are blurring. 

Mobility is the next big thing in information, banking, news, entertainment, and just about everything.  Regardless of your industry, today you have to have an app for that.

In the midst of all this mind-blowing change, I lead a 90-year old, non-profit organization that operates radio and television stations and creates video, audio and digital content.   We’re rooted in the old world while transitioning to the new one.

OPB began in 1922 as a physics department experiment at Oregon State University.  We were cutting edge back then, using AM radio to transmit information and entertainment to a largely rural population.  That legacy radio station – KOAC AM 550 – is still on the air serving thousands of listeners. 

For much of OPB’s history, you needed a government-issued broadcast license and a lot of expensive transmission equipment to reach an audience.  Or if you were a newspaper, you needed a massive printing press.

These provided huge barriers to entry and consumers had the choice of only a few sources of information and entertainment.  It was an orderly world for a few competitors and us.

But that’s all changed.  Video and audio can be streamed and downloaded onto a smart phone or a tablet computer.   Radio and television broadcasting are still important, but there are other ways to see and hear things whenever you want and wherever you are. 

Video cameras and audio recording equipment, which used to cost thousands of dollars, are now bundled in a smart phone.  The capabilities that used to be reserved for professionals are now available to millions at a fraction of the cost.

Roy Amara, a past president of the Institute for the Future, once said, “we tend to overestimate the effect of technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” 

Not long ago, I found a great video on YouTube that illustrates this point.  It’s a story from a San Francisco TV station from 1981 about the San Francisco Chronicle’s introduction of an online newspaper.  There were only 2000 home computer owners in San Francisco in 1981. 

Even fewer of them had a dial-up modem that would take two hours to download a newspaper that had only the text of the stories but no graphics or pictures.  It was crude and slow but was a harbinger of the future that was dismissed by most people running the nation’s newspapers.

Thirty years later, the traditional business model of newspapers is under incredible stress.  It’s taken quite a long time.  But the impact has been far more devastating than anyone imagined.  Newspapers haven’t yet successfully transitioned to a digital model and it remains to be seen if they can.  This is having a very bad impact on journalism in communities all across the country.

The challenges of newspapers, coupled with the move toward opinionated talk programming on radio and cable television news channels, leaves a public yearning for better access to better information; information based on reporting, facts and data, rather than just punditry or opinion. 

This may be OPB’s “Apple” opportunity.   More people now look to OPB and other public broadcasters to play a more significant and far-reaching role as a primary source of news and information, rather than one that is supplemental or secondary to other sources. 

Seizing this opportunity to broaden our public service mission comes with risks.  We need to invest and grow at a time when the economy isn’t robust and when the modest amount of government funding we receive is at risk.   We’re choosing to invest even if it would be safer not to, using a business model based largely on the support of individuals, 116,000 of whom band together each year to fund our operation. 

I’ve worked in public broadcasting for over 30 years in 6 different organizations.  I’m working in an entirely new industry than the one that I started in.

When I sat at that desk with the rotary phone and the typewriter, I worked at a television station.  Today, I lead an organization of reporters and storytellers whose job it is to “give voice to the community, connect Oregon and its neighbors and illuminate a wider world.”  We share those stories on any device that the consumer wishes to use.  Whatever the platform, we aim to be there providing a public service.

Thirty years from now, it’s likely that the job you’ll have will bear little resemblance to the one you have now or shortly will have.  Even if you’re with the same organization, it will have to be a different one, or it won’t have succeeded.   You need to be an active participant in leading this evolution.

As you continue along in your careers, MBA in hand from a prestigious institution, remember that there are no safe harbors to protect you from change.   When you began here, you may have thought of change as something that just happened.  Now, you likely to see change as inevitable, as something to create, and if possible, something to bend to your advantage.

A favorite quote of mine comes from John Shedd who said, “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.”

You’re now leaving the harbor and headed for sea.  There will be some smooth sailing, and times when you’ll just have to lash yourself to the wheel and ride out a fierce storm.

But you’re ready for the journey.  Make the most of it.  Best of luck and congratulations again.

Steven M. Bass, President and CEO of Oregon Public BroadcastingSteven M. Bass, President and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting