Caitrin O’Shea (MBA ’15) applied principles from one of her supply chain management courses on the job soon after graduation, using lessons in systems dynamics in her new role almost immediately and gaining a leg up in her career as a result.
The lessons came from Associate Professor Ann Terlaak’s management and human resources class “Challenges and Solutions in Business Sustainability.” It’s a required course for the graduate certificate in Business, Environment, and Social Responsibility (BESR), which Terlaak leads as director of BESR at the Wisconsin School of Business.
“Most problems are complex, so if we teach our students to analyze complex problems, that will be relevant, no matter what they end up doing for work,” says Terlaak. “The fact that my students go on to apply those analytical skills is reflective of the type of student we attract, how we try to teach, and our focus on building skills that are useful in the business world.”
Because an understanding of system dynamics has such wide applications, Terlaak’s students easily go straight from theory to practice in the workplace.
“My company, Excellis Health Solutions, is in the business of helping companies within the pharmaceutical supply chain prepare for the requirements of the U.S. Drug Supply Chain Security Act (DSCSA),” says O’Shea. “At an industry consortium event, I saw a wide disconnect between the potential value of serialized data being discussed compared to the corporate status quo bias.”
O’Shea started hearing her colleagues and clients talk about what was and was not mandated by the law, and found herself wondering how the conversation would play out if they looked at it through a systems lens.
“In Professor Terlaak’s class, we spent a lot of time analyzing complex problems—none have simple answers, and none follow simple cause and effect patterns,” says O’Shea. “After wrestling with something as complicated as how corporate America could meaningfully and economically tackle climate change, understanding how one law affected one industry seemed like a challenge I could tackle.”
O’Shea decided to approach the DSCSA problem by thinking about the industry as an organic system and how upstream decisions have downstream consequences.
“I started sketching out the industry as it is today on a piece of paper, looking for reinforcing and balancing loops that are created by pushing off regulations,” says O’Shea. “What I ended up finding is that pushing off the regulations creates an internal positive feedback loop, which I call ‘The Putter’s Loop.’
After O’Shea shared her insights and showed her sketch to her manager, he set up a meeting with the CEO, and the two of them asked her to write an article for a paid placement in a trade publication. The goal was to publish the piece before the next major industry event.
“It is helping the conversation to move past, ‘What am I legally required to do?’ to ‘What would be the most responsible thing to do?’” says O’Shea. “The best part is that doing the responsible thing means making money, but more importantly, it also means improving patient safety.”
“It’s one thing as a professor when students at the end of the semester say they liked the class, or it changed the way they thought, but it’s a completely different level of reward when they then demonstrate it outside the classroom,” says Terlaak. “It is encouraging that I hear back from students every time I teach the class, often just a few months after they have taken it.”
O’Shea credits Terlaak’s course with dramatically impacting the way she analyzes complex questions at work.
“We spent a significant portion of time looking at reinforcing and balancing feedback loops, and understanding how these feedback loops affect every part of complex systems, whether this is to understand why we had a gas shortage in 1979 when really there was no shortage in gasoline, or how various climate feedback loops cause the climate dynamics that we experience today,” she says. “The class radically changed how I approach problem solving.”
Terlaak says she focuses her teaching on providing students with new ways of analyzing complex problems.
“Issues of sustainability are so complex,” says Terlaak. “Once you have learned the skill of analyzing complex, interdependent systems, you can apply it anywhere, so to me, the fact that Caitrin applied that skill in a different context shows me that she really understands how this way of thinking actually works.”
O’Shea says she analyzes issues in multiple ways after taking Terlaak’s course.
“Not only am I trying to be two steps ahead of the problem with its unintended consequences, but I’m also trying to be two steps behind it,” she explains. “Everyone in business school will talk about root cause analysis, but going the next step to understand the motivations of that root cause can yield some pretty powerful insight.”
Terlaak is also teaching an undergraduate version of the graduate course O’Shea took.
“Having students demonstrate that they can apply what they learned in the classroom is one type of reward for me. Another type is if the class helps students who have an interest in sustainability get a job in business and sustainability. A student from my undergraduate course recently emailed me to tell me that the class was critical for her landing a job with the IPM Institute of North America working on a sustainability auditing project.
“Sustainability is my passion, so if this class helps place students who share that position in related jobs, then this is rewarding because it will help make the business world a place where sustainability is considered,” she says.
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