Business

Lessons from life: Learning to make experience count

Linda Ginzel on a legendary research paper by Harry Davis and Robin Hogarth

By Linda E. Ginzel     
July 01, 2013

From: Magazine

"The genesis of the paper can actually be seen as an example of its own framework in operation." —Linda E. Ginzel

For me, "Rethinking Management Education: A View from Chicago" is very much like its authors. It is inspiring, challenging, and upon acquaintance becomes a presence in one's life that forever facilitates personal growth.

I first read this paper the month it was published, as I was settling in as a new Booth faculty member in the summer of 1992. It showed me something I'd never seen in my prior MBA teaching experience at Stanford and Kellogg. With an approach that is still unique to Booth, two faculty members¡—Harry L. Davis was the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Professor of Creative Management and deputy dean for the MBA programs, and Robin Hogarth was Wallace W. Booth Professor of Behavioral Science and director of the Center for Decision Research—had created a framework for what they were trying to accomplish in the classroom:  to help students become self-sufficient learners in order to achieve higher levels of personal performance.

In a description of traditional MBA education, Davis and Hogarth explained that students arrived with "domain knowledge," which is the real-world knowledge—such as knowing industry standards or a company's specific operating procedures—a person acquires on the job. Faculty provided formal instruction to transmit "conceptual knowledge," such as discipline-based theories. Those two different knowledge types meshed in the classroom, and graduates went on to use their combined knowledge to manage firms big and small.

However, the authors argued that business schools needed to challenge themselves in order to remain relevant for an ever-changing business community. And the paper contained a revelation: while MBA graduates were well-armed with domain knowledge and conceptual knowledge, they needed certain skills in order to make the most of what they had gained in the classroom. Meeting this need would be the core of a new approach that augmented Booth's traditional strengths by focusing on two new types of skills, what Davis and Hogarth called "action" and "insight" skills. 

By the paper's description, action skills are similar to those of negotiation and interpersonal influence. The authors explained them as skills "that enable individuals to set goals, to 'sell' others on the value of those goals, and to work with and through others in their implementation." There is no reason why the acquisition of action skills should be left to chance. "'Hard' science can still be used to impact 'soft' action skills," they wrote.

Insight skills, they explained, are reasoning skills you need in order to learn from experience. The authors asked readers to consider two scientists, Herbert Spencer, an early proponent of evolution, and Charles Darwin. Darwin used insight skills to learn from experiences, and he exercised those skills when he took note of data points that seemed to contradict his theories. Spencer, however, was unable to learn as much from experience. Without the skills that would help him to gain insights, he selectively accumulated data that supported his theories. "Darwin's insights have endured. But how many have heard of Spencer?" the authors asked. 

The authors suggested that business schools could arm students with an understanding of and appreciation for those skills, and they believed this could be done in part by providing opportunities to acquire and practice those skills in the classroom. 

The genesis of the paper can actually be seen as an example of its own framework in operation. To start, it represents a synthesis of its authors' considerable conceptual and domain knowledge as both academics and stewards of education. In filtering, shaping, and communicating these insights, the authors also relied on lessons learned from their own experiences. 

At the time, Davis and Hogarth were working with colleagues including Joshua Klayman, now professor emeritus of behavioral science, to develop what they called "laboratory education," which includes Leadership Exploration and Development (LEAD), New Product Laboratory, and Management Laboratory where students work in teams, tackle real-world assignments for companies, and are coached by faculty and alumni.  

Davis and Hogarth continued to develop and promote their ideas beyond the Selected Paper Series, which was distributed to an audience they hoped to empower. For Hogarth, many of the ideas in the paper formed the basis for his book Educating Intuition (University of Chicago Press: 2001). In addition, his early experience with laboratory education laid the foundation for his future development as an internationally renowned management educator. 

For Davis, who this year is celebrating 50 years on the Booth faculty, the concept of students as active learners who take charge of their own personal development has been central to his teaching over the years. He has spent the last five decades helping Booth students become life-long learners. Recently he teamed up with Terri C. Albert, senior associate director of the James M. Kilts Center for Marketing and adjunct associate professor of marketing, who has a PhD in quantitative psychology and is now responsible for incorporating experiential learning into selected Booth courses in marketing, operations, strategy, and social enterprise. With the very framework this paper described, laboratory education continues to provide real benefits to both companies and students. 

Twenty-one years after publication, this paper has been updated to include a "Retrospective and Look Forward" in which the authors expand the definition of action skills to include "the vast array of skills involved in transforming the 'mental' decision to do something into a successful, practical reality."   

I read this paper at a critical time in my career development and it continues to inspire and inform my approach to teaching. I ask all my students to read the paper, incorporating it into the first class assignment in each of the three MBA courses I teach. It serves as an introduction to the importance of action and insight skills, and I rely on it to present a useful framework for how to learn the right lessons from experience, both inside and outside the classroom.