Can We Tackle the Big Problems?
| Peter Klein |
Russ Coff, Emory University strategy professor extraordinaire and former O&M guest blogger, sends this special report:
I’m reporting live (but jet lagged) from the Israel Strategy Conference that Peter had mentioned earlier. A theme among the keynote speakers (particularly Jay Barney and Anita McGahan) has been how we can apply our theories to tackle more meaningful problems.
Jay delivered a tearful account of his personal efforts to apply resource based theory to help a small village in Bolivia. There, the women wove clothing (scarves, hats, etc.) and carried them each week to a larger town where they joined women from other villages to sell identical goods. A variety of factors conspired to reinforce the village’s continued poverty (inefficient production, low quality, and undifferentiated products). Jay’s MBA students quickly concluded the only rare resource the village had was access to them. They devised a plan to produce grey scarves with a red “O” to sell on OSU’s campus. While the project has met with some success, it is fair to say that a major lesson for Jay has been how hard it was. I cannot here go into all of the problems they experienced but they included quality, a lack of understanding of what would add value to their customer, and unexpected norms for work, effort and incentives. Assumptions from the west could not be easily applied in Bolivia.
Anita described a host of world problems on the horizon including the end of oil, healthcare, demographic shifts, distribution of wealth and resources, and economic volatility. While these are daunting problems, in her view, it will be possible to “innovate our way out.” As researchers focused on strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship, we ought to have something to say about solutions — especially when compared to other approaches like pure economics that typically have a narrower understanding of these problems. Anita’s message is to continue our research but to consider these problems as possible opportunities.
Common to both Jay and Anita’s approaches is to highlight these problems to students and ask them to think creatively about solutions. In both cases, it was a challenge to apply our extant theories to solve the “big” problems. Both would also conclude that there are no alternative approaches that seem better suited to address these challenges.
I hope to rise to the challenges they pose. However this is a tall order for me personally. Beyond injecting these problems into the classroom, what opportunities do you see for applying your existing research to address such big picture issues?