How Action Learning and System Dynamics Sets MIT Apart

Leadership Profile: Johanna Hising DiFabio, Assistant Dean, MIT’s Executive Degree Programs

Having spent her career in the area of adult learning and leadership development, Johanna Hising DiFabio says, “The MIT Executive MBA program is one of the best environments in the world for this. She credits the Institute’s commitment to action learning, which is reflected throughout the MIT EMBA program.“ As a result, the program fundamentally changes the way students approach challenges and opportunities. It pushes them to rethink how they’ve done things in the past, to apply new lenses like System Dynamics to problems, and to create and drive positive change.” We asked her to tell us more about Action Learning – and System Dynamics — and how they add value to this program as well as what drives students to this program.

What makes this program unique?

Three things set us apart. One is that we have one of the most experienced cohorts in the country and possibly the world. Students are tackling similar issues across different industries, so they learn as much from each other as they do from faculty.

Second is our focus on Action Learning. Research shows that adult learners learn best when applying knowledge. We’ve worked closely with faculty to build a curriculum that incorporates Action Learning. Students come to school on Friday and Saturday and apply their knowledge at work on Monday. Students also have opportunities to apply their new knowledge in their home organizations through class projects. The richness of their experience is that students realize they could have used that knowledge for a past problem and it would have led to a better result. Or they have a situation and level of responsibility at work today and can apply this knowledge to reach a better outcome.

Third, we teach the science of management, incorporating System Dynamics, which shows how everything is connected in business. System Dynamics helps us understand, design and manage change. It models the relationships between the parts of a system and how those relationships influence the behavior of the system over time. In addition to the Introduction to System Dynamics course, students use these concepts in other classes like Data, Models and Decisions, Organizations Lab (O-Lab), and Global Organizations Lab (GO-Lab).

You can read about Action Learning and System Dynamics in many of our students’ MIT EMBA Insights blogs. For example, Chris Penny, MIT EMBA ’17, recently wrote about how he is using System Dynamics to try to disrupt the traditional model of nonprofits in Africa.

Why should mid-career executives consider coming to MIT’s EMBA Program?

As alumnus Noel Zamot, MIT EMBA ’16, once said to me, “This program is for students who want to go from success to significance.” In other words, it’s not for people who need an MBA, but for people who want an MBA. Our students will be successful without this degree, but they seek the knowledge and network we offer to go quicker, do better, think bigger, and make a greater impact.

What types of students does this program attract?

Within our cohorts, we tend to see two types of students. The first are people who started out their careers with a focus on what mattered to them (or their parents) at age 18 and on making money. They now realize that they want to do more than just earn a salary. They want to make an impact. They turn to our program because MIT Sloan’s mission “to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world” resonates.

Another type comes from technical backgrounds like engineering, science, or medicine. They have a specialized background and have risen within their organization to a level where they now have general management responsibilities. They want an MBA to help them with the business fundamentals instead of relying on instinct. They are here to learn the science of management and appreciate our Action Learning and System Dynamics approach so that they can use it now.

Do you use Action Learning and System Dynamics in your role?

I’ve sat in on just about every class – some multiple times – and apply what I learn to my job, just like students. That could mean adopting visual management techniques to running this organization or using System Dynamics to make small, incremental changes and listening to feedback from faculty and students. It’s important to adapt and iterate based on observations and feedback because we want to be the best executive MBA program in the world.