By Michael Blanding
Published May 03, 2011
Rigorous and intensely hands-on, Tuck’s new Research-to-Practice Seminars are giving students a seldom-seen look into origins and real-world application of faculty knowledge.
In the end, it comes down to stuffed cabbage. Fourteen second-year students are seated around an outsized conference table in assistant professor Adam Kleinbaum's Social Networks in Organizations Research-to-Practice Seminar. Morning light slants through a stand of pine trees outside the window as students grapple with a fundamental business problem—how to teach new information to employees within a company.
Though the term social networks is most commonly associated with online networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, Kleinbaum's research deals with networks in the physical world—ones made up of relationships between people within the same firm. More importantly, it explores how the design of those networks affects measurable outcomes, such as product innovation and firm performance.
On this February morning, Kleinbaum's students are discussing a research paper that questions whether "strong ties"—people who know each other and work together closely—are better at transferring information than "weak ties," people who work more casually together. "One of the paper's main premises is that weak ties are good for codified issues, things that can be easily articulated says Adam Reeves T'11. "And it's just the opposite for strong ties, which are better for knowledge transfer when things are not easily articulated."
"And just to step back, what do we mean by codified?" asks T'11 J.R. Maxwell, who leads the discussion as Kleinbaum looks on.
"The way I thought about it, that means something that is written down," Reeves answers.
"It's probably something about simplicity too," offers another student. "Something that is implicitly understood is more likely to be written down."
“We were looking for ways to get students close to the research that faculty do when they are not in the classroom.”
The students go back and forth for more than 10 minutes as Kleinbaum, seated quietly at the table, gives them room to hone and test the hypothesis. One student, who had spent time working in Japan for Nissan, argues that cultures with "high-commitment" management policies use strong ties to transfer even simple information, although those ties become weakened when a firm adopts more Western management practices. Another student with a background in financial services points out that, due to strict regulations, his industry has rigorous training on practices already documented in manuals.
Lauren Nichols T'11, however, brings the discussion closer to home. She says the subject matter reminded her of cooking. "I thought, if you want to make Rachael Ray's 30-minute meal, it's all written down, you can easily do it," she says. "But if you want to make my grandmother's stuffed-cabbage recipe, you need to learn a little Polish." Her classmates nod as Kleinbaum runs with the analogy.
"And probably any of us could email you Rachael Ray's recipe," he says, "but probably most of us do not have access to your grandmother."
"And even if I did have access to her, I probably couldn't make it because I don't know Polish," says Reeves, to laughter around the room.
"In a way, this is a funny analogy," Kleinbaum continues, "but it makes sense. Strong ties make it easier to transfer information but they're less optimized to finding it; weaker ties make it easier to find information but harder to transfer it. There is a very real difference in language in companies, and sometimes you can't understand information if you don't understand the language."
Kleinbaum is summarizing research implications that his students arrived at on their own over the course of the 90-minute discussion. But he could also be describing the purpose of Tuck's Research-to-Practice Seminars themselves. Launched two years ago, the intimate seminars are designed to teach MBA students critical-thinking skills, to test ideas against both theory and data. Even more striking than the seminars' unique format—which differ from more traditional MBA courses, in which large amounts of fairly codified information are transferred—is the way they peel back the layers on a particular body of research.
"There's a lot of research that shows that complex information is difficult to transfer among people who don't know each other well, who don't speak the same language," says Kleinbaum. "That's a really nice parallel to what we are doing in the Research-to-Practice Seminars. We get to spend so much more time getting to know students and learning where they are coming from. And that has a positive impact on their ability to translate and apply the conceptual material we address in class."
The seminars rely exclusively on research-based materials, not case studies, textbooks, or other sources of distilled knowledge. Typically, a faculty member will introduce two papers relating to a particular area of research before turning the discussion over to students, who will wrestle with the paper's underlying ideas while relating it to their own work experience. "I tend to be more hands-on during discussions of the research," says Kleinbaum. "But when it comes to the practice part, I am very eager to hear about the applicability of the research to their own lives and careers, and I tend to sit back much more and listen to them."
Tuck's Research-to-Practice Seminars arose three years ago out of Tuck's most recent strategic review process, Tuck 2012. "One of the themes of that review was to increase students' access to the thinking and knowledge of faculty," says senior associate dean Bob Hansen. "We were looking for ways to get students close to the research that faculty do when they are not in the classroom."
As with most business schools, the majority of high-level faculty research is largely invisible to students. While Tuck has long provided students with opportunities to assist in research-related activities and take part in independent studies, their reach has been limited. At the same time, says Hansen, actually doing research may not be the best way to expose students to the way research is done and how it is applied in a practical sense—especially for the majority of MBA students who will put their education into practice once they graduate. "Our students are not going out to do this kind of research," says Hansen. "That's why we came up with this format."
"If there is one thing the business world has learned over the past few years, it's that we may have taken a few too many things for granted."
"We wanted a way for our faculty to share with students not only best practices but also their approach to creating knowledge," adds Dean Paul Danos. "One should continuously inform the other. At Tuck, our research faculty teach a high percentage of courses, and we just wanted one more dimension to keep the research-and-teaching linkage together."'
Hansen served as chair of the Tuck 2012 Access to Faculty Task Force, which sought concrete ways to expose students to faculty knowledge. "We batted around a lot of ideas but zeroed in on the idea of a seminar very quickly," he says. As committee members explored the concept, they came up with the idea of faculty members pulling back the curtain on their research to students in small-scale settings. At the same time, the seminars would offer students a survey of prior research in the faculty member's field. The intimate environment, the committee determined, would achieve several goals simultaneously: giving students more opportunity to interact with faculty, offer a "deeper dive" into subject matter than is possible in larger settings, and—most importantly— provide students with insight into the ways in which faculty research affects the world of practice.
"There is a myth out there, perpetuated by the media and even by some academics, that a lot of business school research isn't relevant," says Hansen, "that it's a lot of navel-gazing or 'how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?' But if you look at our faculty's research, you will find that to be categorically untrue. We have faculty on the frontiers of their fields who are consulting with organizations and helping them use these ideas."
Hansen continues: "We realize the success of our students is key to our school's success. And we've always believed that you teach MBAs the same stuff that you want your faculty to be researching." There aren't many other business schools where you can do something like this, even on a small scale, and to be offering it on the level we are is truly unheard of."
From three Research-to-Practice Seminars offered in the 2008–09 academic year, the program grew from to six seminars last year and seven this year. The school hopes to expand that to 10 to 15 seminars per year. "They are not for everybody, but eventually having somewhere between 100 and 150 students taking seminars would be about right," says Hansen. So far, students have responded enthusiastically to the new curricular offering, which allows them to select courses that align with their own interests. Recent seminars tackled managerial issues ranging from international entrepreneurial finance and merger and acquisition strategy to managing multidisciplinary teams.
Lauren Nichols confesses that she was initially unprepared for the volume of work she encountered in Kleinbaum's social networks seminar. "Usually, if we are given a 30-page paper, we read it looking for takeaways, but that is not what this course is about," she says. "You aren't just learning surface facts. You're going through the academic exercise of how you get to them. For me, it was a good reminder of how to learn." While Nichols has no designs on a career as a researcher, she says the seminar has helped her rethink her approach to management problems. "It reminds us as managers that the questions we ask and how we arrive at a conclusion are important," she says. "If there is one thing the business world has learned over the past few years, it's that we may have taken a few too many things for granted."
Enthusiasm for the seminars, adds Hansen, extends to the faculty, who enjoy the freedom to explore their research in a rigorous academic setting. "It's a great space for examination," says associate professor Ron Adner, who teaches both an elective and a Research-to-Practice Seminar on innovation strategy. "In a typical course, everything has a fair amount of refinement. Here you're stepping back into the lab. In the big elective, I show them what I've already thought about, but in this course I show them what I am thinking about."
Adner's research and teaching efforts focus on innovation, strategy, and entrepreneurship, with a special interest in collaborative networks known as "innovation ecosystems" and how relationships between firms affect business outcomes—or as he puts it, "what changes when you no longer innovate alone." Although Adner has spent the last 10 years researching innovation ecosystems—he has a book in the works on the subject—he has found the seminar to be a useful sounding board. "For me, this is a chance to articulate ideas by seeing how students react to them." Adner's regular elective is a prerequisite for his Research-to-Practice Seminar, so students come into it having already established a common language that only deepens with the intensity of the seminar format. "We can hold a relatively high-level conversation from the get-go," says Adner. "I have enough confidence in them to show them research ideas in the raw, to give them the chance to dig beneath the surface to discover uncommon insight."
Confronting faculty ideas that are not yet fully formed can be a powerful experience for students accustomed to proven concepts that can be readily applied to practical business problems. In Kleinbaum's seminar, students enthusiastically throw themselves into the task. In the session on knowledge transfer, the discussion quickly veers into a complex analysis of how strong and weak ties function within companies—both in how employees could use their relationships inside a company to get the information they need and how managers could set up those relationships to train employees most efficiently.
From the elegant simplicity of the stuffed-cabbage analogy, the discussion quickly becomes more complex. Kleinbaum introduces a second paper, which examines how ties function between divisions as well as between individuals within a company, introducing more subtle theories about how strong ties, not only between individuals but also between extended networks of people, lead to an increased willingness and ability to share information.
"Does anyone see the Reagan's paper as being a shot at Burt?" asks one student, referring to the authors of the two studies. Kleinbaum then facilitates a long digressive discussion among the students to unpack Reagan's theorem in a whir of Greek letters, coefficients, and subscript letters on the whiteboard until students are able to see how it relates to prior research they have discussed.
At other times, Kleinbaum thinks aloud about issues he is grappling with in his own research. In a discussion about the concept of "range"—the diversity of an employee's knowledge within an organization—Kleinbaum admits that it's still up for debate how that helps or hurts in understanding new knowledge. "It's one of those concepts that hasn't been written about much," he admits, musing aloud on the calculations he did in a recent paper of his own. "It'd be interesting to see whether I'd get the same result if I used Reagan's formula."
That give and take about how ideas are formed is at the core of research. "In addition to new ideas, one of the things that is exciting to me about research is the social process by which ideas are developed," says Kleinbaum. "People build on each other's ideas and disagree with each other, and that contributes to a scientific society." Often, he says, the connections students make in class give him new ideas to explore in his own research. "It is a great way to refresh my memory about what a researcher said and to work on concepts in terms of my current thinking."
When one of his seminar students asks how race and gender might affect the willingness of employees to transfer knowledge, another brings up a research paper the group discussed weeks ago that shows that employees on the periphery of social networks were more apt to be competitive than collaborative with one another.
"I don't mind standing in the front of a room and being an expert," says Kleinbaum after the seminar. "But it is much more interesting and enjoyable to treat students as colleagues and engage them in ideas. I know this work better than they do, and I have thought more about it, but that doesn't mean they don't have a lot to contribute. When you see them bringing in research from previous classes and synthesizing that knowledge—that is very rewarding."
By the end of the seminar, the students arrive at a consensus: There is no perfect way to design a network—that both strong ties and weak ties are needed to transfer knowledge, and sometimes they need to change, depending on circumstances. In many ways, the same can be said for the way students learn at Tuck. Courses such as the Research-to-Practice Seminars call for a high level of trust and collaboration among students. The conditions that make this possible—small class sizes and close interaction with faculty who are both skilled researchers and enthusiastic educators—are two signature strengths of Tuck.
"People know each other here and are accustomed to interacting. That helped us from the very beginning," says Hansen, who teaches a Research-to-Practice Seminar on the economics of the recent credit crisis. "You need to have a certain openness in that setting. People need to be able to say, 'I read this paper but I didn't understand it,' or 'I think he's wrong but I can't express it too well.'"
It takes work to develop such skills, but they are more important than ever in an increasingly complex business world. "After my first week, it was clear that this would be one of the courses I'd remember 30 years from now," says Nichols.