Mutually beneficial partnerships

November 11, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Rob Huckman Ariel SternRobert S. Huckman, Albert J. Weatherhead III Professor of Business Administration and Ariel Dora Stern, Poronui Associate Professor of Business Administration pair student groups with local hospitals to address challenges related to access, adoption of new delivery methods, and the quality of care in their elective course, Transforming Healthcare Delivery. This applied work is rooted in a series of cases that have been written by Harvard Business School (HBS) faculty and articles that cover broader ideas from the literature and previous research.

The benefits: There’s a mutual benefit to students and the hospitals—students learn more deeply about healthcare with a behind-the-scenes look, and the hospitals get strategic advice about solving specific problems they face. In fact, after graduating from HBS, a few students have continued to work with the organizations with which they partnered, drawing on skills and tools they developed during the course.

The challenges: Students have varying backgrounds in health care and levels of familiarity with its technical jargon. Huckman and Stern try to address this variation as they facilitate case discussions. For example, when unfamiliar terms emerge in class, they pause to ask students using those terms to explain their meaning. A second challenge relates to the formation of project teams. Students are given the option of forming their own teams or of being placed on a team based on their preferences for specific projects. In the latter case, Huckman and Stern aim to construct teams with diverse sets of professional experience.

Takeaways and best practices

  • Narrow projects can be very effective. Encouraging partner organizations to narrow the scope of their projects gives students something they can accomplish in a semester’s time. Huckman and Stern ask project partners to resist the urge to propose big, earth-shattering projects that offer little in the way of tangible problems for students to tackle. Focusing on a problem that is able to be addressed by students in a limited amount of time also tends to make a project more useful for the organization.
  • Cultivate ongoing relationships with partner organizations. Not only do Huckman and Stern work closely with partner organizations prior to the start of the semester, but they also invite the sponsors of those projects to sit in on the students’ final presentations. After students present their findings and their classmates ask questions, the sponsors are given an opportunity to reflect on the discussion and provide updates on the hospital’s plans for the project. This provides all students an opportunity to interact with a range of partner organizations and make connections for future work or research.
  • Make it clear at the start that students will be working on group projects. By clarifying expectations during the first class of the term, faculty can help students be thoughtful about the types of projects they would like to pursue, how to structure their team’s work, and the roles that each member can play on a project team.

Bottom line: Huckman and Stern provide an opportunity for students to dive into tangible real-world projects with local healthcare organizations. These projects illuminate the messiness of real-world problems while providing students with opportunities to present solutions and work as a team to hone their skills in organizational and operational change.