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Action Learning: A Commitment to Impact

Johanna Hising DiFabio is the program director of the MIT Executive MBA program, in Cambridge, MA.

I’m often asked what makes MIT’s Executive MBA Program so unique. While many reasons come to mind, I think the biggest differentiator is our commitment to Action Learning (applying what you learn to the real world). Having spent the last 15 years in the adult learning space, I believe this is the most effective way for mid-career executives to learn and retain new knowledge. The program delivers Action Learning in multiple ways.

First, we provide an iterative learning process. Students attend class every third Friday and Saturday, and apply what they learn to their jobs on Mondays. It’s an incredible dynamic.  Students come with years of experience and a drive to broaden their capabilities. So when they are exposed to new ways of thinking about strategy, innovation, and operations, they bring back these new tools to have an immediate impact on their organizations.

Second, faculty ensures class materials are relevant and applicable and the homework assignments are focused on application. With that in mind, instead of just applying a new framework to a case or fictitious company, our students often apply that framework to their own organizations.

A good example is Organizational Processes in which students select a process they would like to improve in their companies. Students then identify and analyze the dynamics and “root causes” that they believe are responsible for the problem as well as possible changes that could alleviate those problems. They create an implementation plan, including tactics, metrics to monitor and evaluate, and steps to formalize the change. Students also experience this type of learning in Competitive Strategy, where one of the assignments asks students to apply industry analysis tools, such as value creation/capture and Porter’s Five Force Analysis, to their organization. Students define their industry, identify the buyers, determine how those buyers are willing to pay for their products or services, and identify determinants of industry profitability.

In any class in our program, you’ll find examples of students applying what they learn to provide immediate value to their organizations. As a result, our Executive MBA (EMBA) program is just as beneficial to students’ organizations as it is to them. In the first semester alone, we frequently hear how our students’ action learning projects lead to significant improvements at their companies, sometimes in the form of great financial savings. During this 20-month program, organizations reap the benefits of sponsorship whether it’s through time off to attend classes or financial support.

The third way we integrate Action Learning in our program involves courses like Organizations Lab (O-Lab) in which students spend five months working on an individual project in their own organization, applying all of the frameworks tools, and knowledge from the EMBA courses they have taken so far. They find a challenge or problem and then fix it, working with an internal sponsor and stakeholders to institutionalize the change. We’ve been extremely impressed by what our students have accomplished in O-Lab.

Our overall goal is to develop innovative leaders who can positively change the world. Through Action Learning, we show students how they can do this from day one. The entire MIT Executive MBA team of faculty and staff is deeply committed to this process, and to connecting education to practical application.

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Johanna Hising DiFabio