In this section, Dr. Sastry shares insights about balancing the course content, as well as setting goals at the start of the course.
Balancing Management and Healthcare
There is an ongoing balancing act in this course because if you try to do it all, it is really overwhelming for everyone: the students, the staff, and the instructor! Some years I have focused more on management, and other years I have focused more on healthcare; I don’t know that I have reached the right balance yet. I try to talk about the management and leadership pieces as bookends and recognize that in the middle, the students are focused on other aspects of the course. One strategy we use is asking students to create and commit to a learning contract in which they articulate what they expect or hope to learn as a manager, leader, or professional. At the beginning of the course, the students define what they are going to work on and how they plan on doing it. We have a few touch points when students check in, and students write a reflection essay at the end of the course.
On the healthcare front, we very quickly dive into thematic classes on specific issues and cases. There is not that much room in this course to give an overview of healthcare, healthcare delivery, and differences in health issues across settings, so I have assembled various reading lists. I actually send the students a holiday reading list in December and tell them to read at least one book off this list. I also have curated reading lists and collections of materials that are well tagged so that as the projects dictate, teams can dig into relevant readings and background materials. Increasingly, there are also online videos and interactive databases that students find useful. Because I cannot teach everything during the regular course, the content that students explore is driven by project needs.
Many of the students are eager for a real test of their skills and abilities. They might have been project managers before entering graduate school, but now they want a project that is totally different and will let them test their skills and put their professional and educational background into practice. Student goals generally fall into three categories: within the team, cross-cultural experience, and personal management.
Some students have a lot of work experience under their belts, and they realize that they always tend to play a certain role in a team. They might be really good at problem sets, or writing, or Excel. They might want to try something new or to capitalize on those skills within a team. Most students also share a common goal of taking skills they have developed in other classes and turning that into real impact in the world.
Students also think about how to manage and work across settings and across cultures. I have found that students want the exotic. They want something different. They want stories to tell. Many of them realize that Africa is going to show incredible growth in markets and that there are innovations afoot in Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere that we can learn from. These developments might not be immediate, but at the end of the course, all the students will acknowledge the potential in these markets. Many students recognize that healthcare is an incredibly important part of the economy here and globally, and that real frontline experience in healthcare will be useful no matter what industry they enter.
Others talk about personal management practices, and this is a great class for working on that because there are several assignments that require consistent effort and attention.
For me, the goal of the course is to ensure that our students are equipped to take action and can do so in a way that is effective, rigorous, and beneficial to the world. A course like this gives me an amazing platform for trying new things as well. One year, I made all the students make videos, and then learned that most MBAs are really not good videographers–so scratch that one. But you know, why not try it? I am lucky to have the good will of my students, staff, administration, and partners in the field to be able to try out some new approaches. It is very rewarding to be able to do that while also having a real impact.
There are open questions in the field that research can address and that practice can feed into. This course is a great opportunity to broker some of those issues. I can inject some of the larger research themes and questions into academic discourse, which is the major vantage point to have–to be able to see both sides.
But at the end of the day, the first priority has to be the students’ learning. That is my job, and that is why the students are here. I am convinced that in action learning, student learning and the partner organization’s needs must be aligned, though they are not completely parallel. If we solely serve the needs of the organization, we would be a consulting firm or a non-profit. But if the students’ work does not serve the organization, is neutral, or even detrimental, the students may not learn as fully from the experience either. There is definitely a bit of tension between the two, and there is no way around it. If you want to do these intensive action learning projects, you have to develop an orientation toward both student learning and benefits to the partnering organizations. It serves the students to do that.
Just as the project involves the student and the host, we aim to evaluate outcomes from these two vantage points. Our ability to ensure benefits to the partners comes from careful project development. Before we even show the projects to the student, we do a lot of discussion, thought experiments, and comparisons of past experiences. Is this a good project? Do we think it will help the partners? After the course, we conduct a quick survey to evaluate the work done. For several of the past years, I have also been able to return to every site and conduct on-site interviews with key stakeholders that we then record and analyze. So, we continue to check whether we are delivering benefits to the partners.
We would love to be able to better measure student learning, short-term and long-term. This is something Sloan as a whole is also working on. If we are trying to bolster skills in action, on the site, or in the workplace, where do we see that? How do we measure that? If these are future skills that emerge only a year from now, two years from now, or in the student’s next job, then that is a difficult thing to quantify.