Politics intrudes elsewhere in the B-school landscape this school year. At MIT Sloan School of Management, Simon Johnson, the Ronald A. Kurtz professor of entrepreneurship, is teaching a course (with Andrew Lippmann) called Viral Political Action aimed at dissecting recent social, behavioral, and political analysis — and going a step further. The goal, Johnson tells P&Q, is to create “a new set of grassroots tools and applications to enable diverse populations to become politically active mobilizers,” with class projects serving to put those new skills to the test.
“This course is about ways in which people influence, communicate, persuade within our current political system, mostly focused on the U.S.,” Johnson says. “The basic point is that modes of communication and what works in political campaigns have changed quite a lot in the past eight or 10 years, so we’re taking stock of that. But we’re also encouraging and making possible and guiding students to build technologies that will enable them and their friends and the causes they care about to be more thoroughly heard by more people.”
Echoing the Washington Post‘s recently emblazoned maxim, democracy, Johnson says, thrives on an informed public and collapses when propaganda distorts truth. Examples abound in the last two years alone, and more will surely arise: As Johnson points out, there are 469 House and Senate elections in 2018, and in the U.S. of the 21st century, politics never truly takes a pause. But Johnson’s seminar is not intended to be merely a lively discussion of events and tactics; he measures success by whether students in the course manage to help ensure that the results of the forthcoming elections “reflect the true will of the people.”
BIZ STUDENTS ‘HAVE INTERESTING IDEAS THEY WANT TO BRING TO THE POLITICAL SPHERE’
The two-part seminar involves weekly dinner discussions with occasional invited speakers and a project in which groups will design and test viral organizing apps — learning about the rise to prominence of new techniques for organizing and mobilizing political action by doing them. “Students will learn the dynamics of public opinion and action in 2017,” according to a course syllabus. In the first session in the second week of September, Viral Political Action drew 45 students from across MIT, Johnson says.
But how does all this fit into an MBA’s business education? In a couple of ways, he says.
“Business these days is obviously very concerned with social media and with roles and places in society,” Johnson says. “If you’re a CEO, you want to be able to persuade people that you’re a sensible, good person and your company is doing smart things. In addition, I think a lot of our business school students have really interesting ideas that they would like to bring to the political sphere, and we have plenty of people who are politically active — including the people with heavy technical backgrounds — who would benefit from some business smarts in their team.
“Business students are particularly good at making things work, scaling up, expanding footprints. The technical people are good at inventing stuff. But when they get together, the technical people learn to think really hard about, ‘What does the customer want?’ In this case, this is not about money or buying things, it’s about helping someone to take an action to call a member of Congress.”
‘IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU BELIEVE WORK IS MEANINGFUL?’
UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business sits at the epicenter of campus political activity, meaning there is no shortage of opportunities for students to air their views or flex their activist muscles — for many, the definition of meaningful work. That’s a dynamic that interests Michael Katz, lecturer in management of organizations and founding director of the Interpersonal Development Program at Haas, who this fall is teaching a course titled, The Pursuit of Meaningful Work.
For some MBA candidates, Katz says, it’s about the money. For others, there has to be something more. His course asks, “In what ways do you believe work is meaningful?” — and how you answer the question impacts whether and how you thrive in your career, “support your team with their own professional growth, and develop employees across an organization,” Katz says. Already in this young school year, the discussions, in a class of 40 students, have been lively.
After all — what makes something “meaningful”? “It took two sessions to get past (the term),” Katz tells P&Q with a laugh. “It was less about parsing it and arguing about definitions, and more about, ‘Why is this important for me?’ And that’s where some parts of the conversation went off the rails. It’s definitely not a bad thing.”
THE KEY TO DEVELOPMENT ACROSS AN ORGANIZATION
Those initial class discussions included snarkiness and fear and a wide range of feelings, Katz says, but no one lost sight of the importance of the subject. For one thing, outcomes in the areas of professional growth and development of employees directly impact engagement and retention, Katz notes. Now that it’s back on “the rails,” his course will explore research on meaningful work, connecting it to management practices and talent development programs, with a goal of giving students the knowledge necessary to understand and diagnose what drives employees’ engagement at work, the skills to build alignment and commitment in teams, and the strategies to effect personal and professional development across an organization.
The course involves cases, including one on Microsoft, simulations, group exercises, lectures, guest speakers, and peer coaching, Katz says.
“I was very interested in making a course in which students engage with their colleagues in a more developmentally oriented relationship,” he says. “What I realized in that process is that there’s a step that I think we often miss in teaching, and that’s about meaningfulness in the workplace and why it’s important.
“What ended up happening was, this is almost like three courses in one. The first third is around self-development and meaningfulness for oneself. How do we experience it? Where do we feel ourselves thriving? Then we move into systems, the organization and how you lift people in working on projects and all those sorts of things — how that affects the way we experience meaningfulness for ourselves and for others. And then it moves to building a system with learning and leadership development and any of these kinds of things that are deliberately built to help people find meaningfulness.”
See the list of 132 new courses at 21 leading business schools at the bottom of this article.