Bringing Management Tools and Ideas, Collaboration, and Learning-by-Doing to the Challenge of Global Health Delivery

author: Anjali Sastry, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Sept. 10, 2010,   recorded: June 2008,   views: 3514

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The Latin motto on the MIT seal, mens et manus – mind and hand – encapsulates Anjali Sastry’s view of the combined theoretical and practical education that students gain at the Institute. She cites MIT founder William Barton Rogers’s 1860 exhortation for “the most earnest cooperation of intelligent culture with industrial pursuits” as the paradigm of learning by doing, the ideal way to gain and apply knowledge. This undergirds her approach to teaching in tandem with projects in which students practice, test, reflect, share, and thereby enact change for the benefit of an enterprise.

The need for practice is a constant theme in Sastry’s view of learning. Just as in music, sports, and chess, practice in management skills results in organizational improvement. That is why she considers it imperative that students have opportunities to apply theory to real-world situations. Such hypothesis testing is the logical and essential extension of rigorous study. It takes place in many forms: team projects, extracurricular activities, competitions, and internships.

Sastry endorses David Kolb’s “learning loop” model: concrete experience, observation and reflection, forming abstract concepts, then further implementing and analyzing. She ponders if this cycle can transcend classroom learning to engender change in the world. Her own research and consulting in health care delivery are based on such a stepped method. She stresses that an integrated, holistic perspective is also required. For instance, a malnourished patient will be unable to absorb drugs administered for AIDS; medicine is insufficient without food. As to the larger picture, she says “obviously we’ve got to tackle global warming and carbon emissions, but we also need to tackle poverty.”

Sastry reminds us to recognize our intrinsic biases in examining data, leading to flawed conclusions. “Humans are prey to a variety of very systematic and known challenges to their thinking,” she says. To reinforce the point, she displays a list of 42 types of judgment errors, but adds that we can train ourselves to catch these fallacies through conscious attention.

Another principle of Sastry’s canon is the need for sharing ideas, “community conversations” as she calls it. She believes cumulative individual knowledge alone is not enough to bear fruit. Experience must be evaluated collaboratively to build a body of useful wisdom. She asserts that this is where promise lies to ameliorate great issues facing society.

In short, Sastry’s formula, informed by system dynamics, is “Act. Review. Improve.” Finally, she recommends that we inculcate “a culture of hope” in our efforts: we must believe that change is indeed possible.

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