Daniel ralph

Meet our inspiring Cambridge MBA professors: Danny Ralph

9 May 2023

The article at a glance

From taking a risk at Cambridge Judge Business School to founding the CJBS Centre for Risk Studies, we meet Danny Ralph, Professor of Operations Research, Academic Director of the Centre for Risk Studies (CRS), Director of Studies in Management Studies and Fellow of Churchill College.

From taking a risk at Cambridge Judge Business School to founding the CJBS Centre for Risk Studies, we meet Daniel Ralph, Professor of Operations Research, Academic Director of the Centre for Risk Studies (CRS), Director of Studies in Management Studies and Fellow of Churchill College.

Taking a risk at Cambridge

Danny Ralph, founder and Director of the business school’s Centre for Risk Studies, doesn’t think he’s taken enough risk in his personal life.

More than twenty years after arriving in Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), Ralph is full of admiration for the MBA students he teaches:

“They have already figured out they need more than their training and experience to explore wider possibilities in their careers and lives – and they are prepared to take a risk to get it! It took me decades to do that, I was too busy getting to the next step on the academic ladder. But coming to Cambridge turned out to be my first step towards the realisation that I might add more value by digging sideways than going deeper into my research area, which is optimisation.”

Reflecting on this, Ralph says that career progress and life development seems more random than planned.

“After my post-doc research at Cornell, I took up a post as Lecturer in Mathematics at my undergraduate university in Melbourne. My wife Amanda was a well-paid software engineer and we had ‘arrived’, the classic professional family juggling two careers and children. And then, very late one evening, Amanda started reminiscing about living overseas.”

That reminded Ralph of a message from Stefan Scholtes, founding director of the Cambridge Centre for Health Leadership & Enterprise and currently the Dennis Gillings Professor of Health Management and Professor of Operations and Technology Management at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Stefan had emailed me about a job opening at CJBS. I had consigned the message to my graveyard file – why would I risk a safe career in mathematical sciences to move to an unknown for me, a post at a business school in Cambridge?”

But Ralph had been struggling to find purpose in his research.

“I have always loved the techniques of mathematics but even as an undergraduate I was not convinced that solving someone else’s list of theoretical problems was a motivation. I had become increasingly interested in optimisation and the way it could be applied to solve problems in the real world. I was looking for purpose beyond the subject.”

Teaching and learning on the MBA

Looking back, Ralph sees that the Business School provided the interface he was subconsciously searching for. “A business school is like a mini university in its own right, with such a wide variety of disciplines and an eclectic environment. There is an enthusiasm about the place for engaging with society, be it business, government or not-for-profit.”

He admits to nerves on arrival. “I had a variety of the imposter syndrome when I was hired, but I trusted the wisdom of the business school. Still, I was scared – I had never had to teach people with mortgages before!”

Ralph says now that it took him a few years to work out which elements of his mathematical science background were most relevant to MBA students and a few years more to see how important it is to draw on the students’ own experience.

“The expertise gathered together in a group of MBA students is phenomenal. But it’s a struggle for each student to package their experience in a way that is accessible to the other students. That is why we write cases. Twenty years on, I am still striving to find ways to showcase what any one student has to offer to others.”

Ralph continues his conversations with his students long after they have left the business school. “I might use vignettes in my teaching from emails from students a year or two after they have graduated. Interaction doesn’t end in the classroom – I collect bits of knowledge from them to be replayed to the next intake.”

Founding the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies

Ralph describes the work of the Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies (CCRS) as the translation of basic research, providing a bridge to real world impact.

“Risk goes back to tribulations in the Bible or other holy books – floods, pestilence and wars, so when we set up the CCRS in 2009 in many ways we were trying to document the bloody obvious. A few years later we had embraced developing tech: our work on cyber security led to models underpinning insurance companies selling cyber insurance, and to cyber terrorism being included as an insurable peril in the UK.”

Four years after setting up the CCRS with three other founders from the Cambridge ecosystem, Ralph launched the Cambridge-McKinsey Risk Prize, open to all post-graduates at the University of Cambridge. Last year’s winner Rob Glew, a PhD candidate in Manufacturing Engineering, put forward a new modular approach to risk management in development aid in the context of Afghanistan.

Ralph does not, however, focus on quantitative models when he is teaching the MBA Elective on Risk Management and Strategic Planning. “This is deliberate. Despite my technical background, the course is about using information and imagination for scenario planning, not modelling. We challenge the strategy of an organisation by asking how it will adapt to different futures or worlds, and describing those worlds is the foundation.”

All managers deal with risk, but the tradition in the business world has been for the risk function to focus on the downside. Strategically, you need to look at the upside of risk. It has taken a while for that penny to drop in the corporate world.”

Ralph muses about renaming the Risk Centre as the Value Centre. “It’s Orwellian, I know. But you can make risk most useful to managers if the context is how to best achieve their goals.”

Cambridge – an enquiring eco-system

He encourages his students to challenge existing business models. “Our MBA students have very enquiring minds, and we want them to speak out, even when they are not the master of the subject. Because that is the way that businesses should function. This is more so today, in the 2020s, than at any recent time: you need an enquiring mind to anticipate that shocks to your value chain can come from almost anywhere on the planet.”

Ralph can think of no better place to learn to challenge the status quo than Cambridge. “What makes risk systemic are connections that are overlooked if not invisible. And where better to investigate invisible connections than Cambridge? Curiosity and serendipity – in the Business School, university, colleges and wider Silicon Fen – make Cambridge the ultimate sand pit for exploration.”

The Professor

Daniel Ralph, Professor of Operational Research

Teaches: Risk Management and Strategic Planning

Research interests: Management of systemic and emerging risks; business decision making; risk aversion in electricity markets; methods and models for optimisation problems and equilibrium system.

Visit Daniel Ralph's faculty webpage