When Mikolaj Jan Piskorski first began looking into social networking at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in the early 2000s, colleagues were skeptical. When he showed them MySpace, they inevitably thought his academic research “cute” and “very nice.” “The typical reaction to my work was ‘you are crazy,’” he recalls. “’This is really funny. Teenage girls will really love it, but nobody else will take it seriously.’ At the time, it was a big bet.”
Nearly ten years later, that early research and his thoughtful and passionate teaching of the subject has made Piskorski a superstar professor in the strategy group at the Harvard Business School. As he quickly points out, there are now more than 500 million people on Facebook, a company with a valuation of $50 billion. As the resident Harvard expert, the Polish-born Piskorski has written many of the definitive cases on social media from eHarmony, Facebook and Friendster, to LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Zynga. Of the 20 case studies he requires students to read in his highly popular course, Competing with Social Networks, he had written all but one.
But it’s not merely that he teaches a subject considered hot; he brings lots of intellectual firepower to the topic and a dedication to teaching that makes his classes captivating to everyone in them. Piskorski says he first glimpsed the impact a teacher can have on his students when he went to high school in the United Kingdom. In Poland, where he was born, there were 45 students to every teacher. In the U.K., there was a ratio of six students to every teacher. “It was just an amazing, eye-opening experience,” he says. In fact, it ultimately convinced him that he wanted to spend the rest of his life teaching others.
“It’s the close student-faculty connection that really drew me to teaching,” he says. “It’s a good way to get deeply interested in people and help them develop. I love to explain things to people.”
At Harvard Business School, he says, the explanations are often part of an elaborate intellectual dance. “I do think that what particularly attracted me to the HBS environment is the fact that we never actually explain anything,” Piskorski says. “We just keep asking questions. Even if somebody says the right thing, we’ll still pretend we are confused. We won’t clap and say bravo. Most of the time, we’ll try to persuade you that you’re actually wrong, though after ten minutes we might say you had the right answer. We want you to understand how you came to that conclusion.”
Teaching lessons from popular online companies to 20-somethings can be a challenge because they’re more directly involved with media and the Internet. “I am old in comparison to our students,” he says. “Our students are way ahead on a lot of these things. This is a distinct disadvantage I have. I have to spend a lot of time with these companies to stay ahead of my students. So you have to be very thoughtful about how you will actually give them a different point of view, over and above what they can derive themselves. I spend a lot of time thinking not only about the case lineup, but the unifying framework for the cases.”
During the first couple of classes, students who take his course may feel they are sitting in Harvard’s department of sociology. “The unifying framework for the class comes as a big surprise for many students because it is predominantly about the offline world,” says Piskorski. “Fundamentally what human beings care about is human interaction in the offline world. The online world is an extension of that.
“I ask my students about the history of social networks, about how their social relationships developed over time, and how satisfied they are about those relationships. The first insight is that we all have different experiences. Some of us have been surrounded by human beings since we were five and our primary relationships today are with these same people. Others may not have had any friends at all until their early 20s. The exercise shows us that you cannot use your own experience to infer anything about social relationships and people. There is a tendency for people to presume that everyone is like me.
“We do the same for the structure of social relationships. There are people in relationships that are completely integrated. All the friends and family know each other. And then there are other social relationships where one friend has never met another friend of the same person. So they see that different kinds of people have different relationship needs. And finally, we look at the satisfaction with their own social networks. The biggest surprise is that the kind of relationships they want to change most tends to be their relationships with family. There are two reasons for that: One, you fundamentally care about your family, and two, it’s something you inherit and can’t change.