Hacking Executive Education with MIT and UNICON
Peter Hirst Blog
Understanding digital transformation—and technologies driving it—is a key theme in our teaching at MIT Sloan Executive Education. So, it is logical that when we hosted an annual UNICON member workshop in July, we dove deep into the topic, as it pertains to what our member institutions teach and how our business works. More specifically, at UNICON, we have been thinking about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) and related technological innovations for the future of the executive education industry. The conversation began at the team development conference in November 2017 in Monterrey, Mexico, continued to gain momentum at the Directors’ Conference in Oslo in April 2018, and evolved into a full-on “hackathon” here at MIT in July 2018, to give UNICON members an opportunity to experience some of these technologies first-hand.
AI, robotics, and virtual reality are certainly topics that many of us in executive education are talking about, but often in abstract terms. In this, we are much like any group of forward-thinking professionals whose core business is not necessarily in technology, but whose industry is increasingly affected by advances in technology. At MIT Sloan Executive Education, many of our programs deal with related business issues like platform strategy, managing technology, and digital transformation. For example, one of the new online courses we launched last year was about the business implications of AI. So, when it transpired that MIT Sloan would be hosting UNICON’s workshop, being Board Chair for the current academic year, we proposed to organize the event as a hackathon, which we called Hacking Executive Education, instead of a conference or a traditional workshop format.
Learning from experts
An important part of our vision was to give our colleagues a real, roll-up-your-sleeves experience of some of the nuts and bolts of the technologies we tend to talk about on a much higher level, and to use that experience to both inform and inspire our thinking about products, solutions, and implications for our own industry and for our clients. With an oversized digital clock counting down from 24 hours, we set about hacking executive education over two intense days. (Departing somewhat from a “true” hackathon style, ours took place over the afternoon and late into the night on one day and then resumed for the first half of the following day.)
During this time, participants heard from a roster of seasoned tech industry experts. Linda Thakeray, the imaginatively titled Director of Awesome at The Garage— Microsoft’s official outlet for experimental projects—shared her extensive experience in leading hackathons at Microsoft and gave us an insider’s view into the tech giant’s hacking culture, which is perhaps partially responsible for its success as it continues to reinvent itself to meet consumer demand. Coincidentally, Thakeray was literally running back and forth between two hackathons happening at the same time—ours and Microsoft’s own event in their building up the street.
Dr. Lisa Amini, Director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, gave a presentation about machine learning, cloud object storage, and key approaches to building AI. She brought up an interesting point about the evolution of data science and the role of data scientists. Not long ago, AI-powered analytics relied very significantly on programmers selecting the best algorithms and teaching computers how to solve problems, whereas now, AI is better at selecting algorithms and teaching itself. This effectively transforms data scientists from computer programmers who knew a little about business problems into business people who still need to understand how the algorithms work. Dr. Amini pointed out that one of the most important emerging tech challenges is that AI is becoming a “black box” and its human operators don’t really know how it’s coming up with recommendations. It might as well be saying to us, “Trust me, I am an AI.”
Dr. Aurélie Jean, CEO of In Silico Veritas, led the group in a Python coding exercise, which, for most in the audience, was their first ever experience writing code. Marsha Gordon, Director of Communications for App Inventor at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and Evan Patton, Lead Software Engineer at CSAIL, guided us through building a simple cloud polling app.
One of our goals for these sessions, in addition to learning about the technologies, was for everyone to meet real and very experienced data scientists and hear their perspectives on technology and its implication for business as well as, somewhat unexpectedly, their perspectives on leadership and management.
Of course, this wouldn’t have been a true MIT experience if participants didn’t get a chance to “play” with some cool technology. All sessions were recorded with 360-degree cameras and immediately uploaded to Oculus Go VR headsets for participants to review and relive segments of the day. Hackathon facilitators took notes on digital white boards, which were projected onto a large screen for everyone to see. During breaks, people could print a variety of MIT souvenirs on our state-of-the-art 3D printers. Technology was put to use to demonstrate individual group “hacks,” including telepresence robot racing and a VR treasure hunt. And, we experimented with technology to make the jobs of our workshop support team a little easier with a chat bot that helped field questions people might have during the two days, and to collect feedback and comments from everyone in the room via an instant polling app at the event’s conclusion.
Hack participants and our telepresence robot AVA. Photo: ©MIT Sloan Executive Education
The institutions that most UNICON members come from are well-established, traditional schools. And, while people found the devices entertaining and fun, I was happy to hear that everyone also recognized the value of using technology in an academic learning environment for executive education.
“I think it is the nature of our industry that things are changing,” said one of our new UNICON board members Dr. Katharina Lange, Executive Director at Singapore Management University. “If we look at other industries and see how fast things have changed—for example, fintech and banking, AI-augmented diagnostic features in medicine—then it is only consequent that education reflects these changes, as well. This is why we see technology becoming more prominent in our teaching curriculum, be it part of the content or be it part of the channels and the delivery formats we employ.”
Dr. Katharina Lange and fellow participant in a small-group exercise. Photo: ©MIT Sloan Executive Education
Dr. Markus Frank, Executive Director, Head of Custom Programmes at University of St. Gallen, worries that if academic providers of executive education are not well versed in technology, we risk being supplanted by other kinds of providers who are. His concern is shared by all of us at UNICON, as we find ourselves competing for clients not just with one another, but with non-academic entities like consultants. “The challenge nowadays is less about content in terms of knowledge and dissemination of knowledge, but much more about context and process,” he said. “Any conference or workshop that introduces a new method, a new setting, a new approach to foster learning is a good conference and a good workshop. And that’s the case here. We need to come up with new ways to teach our clients how to apply what they learn. And we need to learn to use the tools from other industries, like technology, for example.”
Dr. Markus Frank, Shalini Bhatia, Director of Program and Business Development, Executive Education, at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a “hack team” member look pleased with their team’s presentation. Photo: ©MIT Sloan Executive Education
Bill Scheurer, UNICON’s Executive Director, emphasized the importance of prescience in the vision of the consortium’s board of directors and the work of its members, and that includes understanding the impact and implications of technology for our clients. “We have to be doing some scanning of our membership, scanning of the industry, scanning of our customers to try to determine what it is we can do to help our members solve the problems that they are going to be facing,” he said. “This kind of workshop provides a great opportunity to do some things that are unique, that our members are not getting elsewhere.”
Sharing knowledge to elevate the industry
The first day of the hackathon was about learning all afternoon and “hacking” late into the night, sustained by pizza, beer, and plenty of snacks. The second day was all about sharing. Hack teams with names like R2D2P(izza), Room to Grow, AVA AVA, and ROI Renegades pitched their ideas on how to tackle some of our industry’s most pressing challenges. Integrating robotics and data analytics to elevate customer experience, building a post-program engagement app, inspiring leadership with AI, using avatars to measure emotional response and calibrating offerings based on the insights—the ingenuity and creativity and enthusiasm were electric. What’s more, all these and many more fantastic ideas were born in only several hours, which was a great illustration of the power of collaborative thinking and UNICON’s spirit of sharing.
Some people might question why MIT would share, show and help those who might be considered our competitors. With MIT Sloan Executive Education being one of the founders and highly active members of the consortium, I hear this question often. I think the answer to this is in two parts. One: it’s just who we are at MIT. We want to advance the field and share that with others. The second part is that there is something uniquely valuable, even if sometimes hard to define, and important about university-based executive education. Helping elevate this industry helps us all. One of the two incoming board members, Dr. Camelia Ilie-Cardoza, who is Dean of Executive Education at INCAE Business School, put it well when, at the end of the first day, she said, “The network is really great for exchanging ideas, learning from partners, and sharing. Sharing practices, sharing concerns, it’s a great support network. So I really hope to be able to give back to our community and to the members of UNICON what I’ve learned during the almost 20 years that I work in the industry.”
Dr. Camelia Ilie-Cardoza and Dr. Guillermo Cardoza, INCAE Business School professor, conducting quick research. Photo: ©MIT Sloan Executive Education
It was fantastic to have an opportunity to “practice what we teach”: to share and to elevate in the context of what we hope might now become the UNICON annual “hack,” instead of “workshop.” It was a wonderful event and I am deeply grateful to our amazingly capable and resourceful team at MIT Sloan Executive Education, who planned, organized, and produced this immersive experience on somewhat short notice and at the highest level of professionalism. I am also grateful to all my colleagues and peers at UNICON who together made it an outstanding two days at MIT. I am really looking forward to the next major UNICON event—the team development conference at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and I hope to see many of you there.
editor’s note: This article is the second in a series of submissions by UNICON member institutions.