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MIT Sloan Module: A First-Year Capstone
Jul 13, 2020

Text by Tim HESLER, GMBA Class of 2017; Photo by Xiangsheng YANG, GMBA Class of 2017

In late June, the Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA Class of 2017 had the opportunity to experience MBA life across the Pond. In the wake of the semester’s conclusion, approximately half of the GMBA class trekked to Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in an elective module at MIT Sloan School of Management. Joining the first-year students were two distinguished SEM alumni as well as Tsinghua SEM Associate Dean and Professor QIAN Xiaojun, Senior Manager of Global Collaboration and Admissions Doris XUN, and Corporate Relations Director Fany CHEN. As Tsinghua SEM and MIT Sloan marked 20 years of a tightly knit relationship, four of MIT Sloan’s top faculty and several other members of the broader Sloan community challenged the thinking of the GMBA cohort along a variety of dimensions, with a particular emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship.

During the first two days of the course, Professor John Akula facilitated a discussion of key legal frameworks essential to the aspiring entrepreneur’s tool kit. Himself a practicing attorney of many years, Professor Akula injected a particularly practice-based legal perspective into classroom dialogue. Professor Akula walked the cohort through a variety of frequently litigated corporate contractual provisions and their implications as construed by courts in various U.S. jurisdictions. Meanwhile, he also solicited cohort expertise for comparative purposes between judicial interpretations in China and those in the U.S. Ultimately, he brought those observations to bear in the context of early-stage agreements with corporate partners and new employees – both extremely salient for startups, especially those planning to predicate their ventures on the cross-border marketplace.

After laying a foundation of legal analysis, the cohort continued to expand its view of entrepreneurship as a process with the insight of Professor Bill Aulet, author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup. Perhaps one of Professor Aulet’s most striking points was the implication behind an economic downturn constituting a statistically good time to start a new venture. As Professor Aulet suggested, a downturn creates an ideal season for pulling in relatively inexpensive but capable labor while developing “frugal corporate muscles.” Once those frugal muscles are built, if coupled with an otherwise well-constructed corporate culture, then even as the economy recovers, much of the existing labor force will often remain loyal without forcing a company to abandon those frugal muscles that have built the company’s success. Retaining a lean operational orientation, Professor Aulet noted, can be critical not only to survival in downturns but also to fully thriving even in more forgiving economic seasons.

Professor Nelson Repenning, meanwhile, offered an introduction to dynamic work design, considering response mechanisms when things don’t go as planned – as is often the case in a startup context. Professor Repenning offered a layman’s overview of a body of neuroscience research that has distinguished two processing modes of the brain – conscious and automatic – and suggests that humans tend to save their conscious processing capacity, which is limited, and offload as much responsibility as possible to automatic processing. 

In the context of dynamic work design, Professor Repenning suggested that work done by humans, no matter how automated, is still a fundamentally human activity. Thus, he put forward four principles for dynamic work design: (1) reconciling action with intent, for example with pattern matching; (2) structured problem solving; (3) using optimal challenges with reasonable targets (How much gap between activity and intent can we successfully manage, and is there sufficient time to tackle gaps when people fall short?); and (4) connecting the human chain. As one simple application of the final principle of connecting the human chain, Professor Repenning suggested that in well-designed work, people know and have regular contact with those who supply the inputs to their work as well as those who receive the outputs.

As Professor Jake Cohen opened the morning of the module’s final class on Friday the 24th, he temporarily dispensed with the scheduled M&A case discussion in order to address a global development of emerging import. Just a few hours prior, the UK’s decision by popular vote to withdraw from the European Union had become official as the votes were tallied. Professor Cohen explored the potential ramifications of “Brexit” alongside the class, offering not only answers but also open-ended, thought-provoking questions on the future of European and global commerce.

The cohort also welcomed a variety of guest speakers throughout the module and in turn conducted several local site visits. Professor Akula introduced a variety of MIT alumni, including Wan Li Zhu, a leading figure in the Boston angel investing community. Wan Li graciously offered two solid hours of insight into angel financing and witty exchange with students. Panel discussions with players from MIT spinoffs Woobo and XtalPi offered unique angles into technology commercialization. Finally, the cohort was also treated to site visits at: (1) 11-year-old Carbonite, a cloud-based data backup and security company; (2) the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, complete with its full range of resources for MIT affiliates across a spectrum of stages; and (3) CIC Cambridge, an entrepreneurially oriented workspace that offers the advantage of being home to more startups than anywhere else on the planet. 

As the cohort engaged with MIT faculty, staff, and the greater institutional community over the course of the module, students grew in their appreciation for SEM’s long-standing relationship with our sister school in the Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA partnership. The module’s heavy emphasis, even in its classroom components, on moving beyond theory to application and stepping outside the traditional confines of academia, was refreshing and inspiring. Ultimately, the module served as both an apropos capstone to a year of integrated MBA study and an optimal pivot point for students returning to Beijing for a second year of increasingly focused immersion in China’s own hotbed of innovation.


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