Practical Challenge for Social Good

Submitted by: Sisi Zhu (US), Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Summary: Management education needs a refresher on ethics and integrity, to prepare leaders to make the most positive impact in society. Through practical projects, students will execute real life problem solving and planning, truly ingrain the sense of responsibility for decisions, and put their leadership and teamwork abilities to the test. On a larger scale, this practical challenge will help communities in need around the world, and benefit the image of institutions contributing to the greater good.

Full Description: The MBA Oath started by a group of HBS students begins, “As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good by bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can build alone.” In today’s connected world of business and economy, management students need to understand the extent that their actions will impact the world around them, and not fall into a pattern of destructive self-aggrandizing behavior. It is crucial that future managers should be ingrained with a sense of responsibility for the decisions they will be empowered to make. While business ethics courses can be a valuable start, learning in the classroom often falls short of making a lasting impression.

The solution is to include a real world practical experience as a required part of business ethics study. During this program, working teams of students will be deployed to public sites and/or corporate entities in need. The students will be tasked with alleviating a major problem for a very real group of people, such as helping a school face budget cuts, or a local business stay in operation. The purpose of these exercises would be to: provide assistance to a community, bring to life the decision making process and outcomes, and test the students in their leadership and teamwork ability in a real life setting. In the long term, this program would elevate the public opinion of the graduate management community, and challenge students to consider their decisions for the greater good.

The impact of sending thousands of management students to help out the local communities in need would be tremendous, not only on a local and community level, but potentially on a global level as well. Depending on the project, various benchmarks can be used to measure impact, such as the resolution of the immediate problem, direct improvement in quality of life for the community, or societal trends of education, income, and safety. The end-goal of this program is to better the situation of people in need around the world, through sustainable, responsible decision making and planning. In concentrated efforts bit by bit, students will help relieve some of society’s trouble spots and offer their collective brainpower for the greater good. Students will turn their knowledge of management, optimization, ethics, and teamwork into a concrete, lasting experience. A kickoff discussion of program guidelines could be started by a coalition of professors, community leaders, and professionals at a global summit. At the core of each institution’s program, there needs to be a committee to determine appropriateness of projects and a liaison with each site to oversee progress and potentially speak on behalf of the students. These project liaisons could be trained staff members or local professionals screened by the institution. Once an institute’s program successfully launches, committees and liaisons would be invited to pass on their experience to initiate the program at other institutions.

Pilot the program first as part of a course offering at major institutions. The projects will be pre-selected by professors or through an application process reviewed by a committee. Precautions will need to be taken to evaluate the safety and potential risk of taking on certain projects. Once a liaison relationship has been established at each project site, student teams can be assigned and briefed on their assignment. During the course of the semester or several weeks, the liaison will maintain contact with the students remotely, and perhaps visiting the site on occasion. A professor or staff member will be responsible for overseeing project liaisons and also visit each student team during the project. Upon roll-off, students will evaluate each other on performance and leadership, as well as complete a final group presentation describing their successes and challenges. The liaison will maintain periodic contact with the project site for 6 months afterwards to assess long-term impact and solicit feedback for improvement. If appropriate the next set of students could continue at the same project site where the last group left off. Though setting up such an initiative will require resources and additional training, there would be minimal materials or classroom space needed. Students could help offset the amount by contributions similar to the cost of textbooks or printed material. Over time, this program will also generate positive PR and possibly attract external sponsorship.