Faculty Q&As

Ten Questions: Faculty report from the frontier of management

John Carroll

1. One might say that you're an expert in danger.
Well, my work is centered on a combination of issues of safety management, organizational learning, and cultural issues in high hazard industries. Chemical or nuclear power plants, for example. The kinds of learning practices that occur in these industries are different from other industries. Trial and error in a nuclear power plant just doesn’t work. It's crucial to anticipate what can go wrong, to identify precursors to problems, to jump on the little problems before they become big ones. The organizational practices and skills that are standard for any organization — being attentive, communicating, paying attention to mistakes — are a life and death matter in this kind of environment.

2. Do workers in these environments become immune to risk?
The space shuttle Columbia is a good illustration of this. If you asked a lot of the experts, they’d tell you that space travel is a very high-risk venture, but there is a temptation, when there haven’t been any recent disasters, to think, ’It's just like driving a car.’ It isn’t. The same risks exist in chemical plants, medical environments, and nuclear power. We’ve learned that nuclear power is a very risky operation. Quite a number of plants have discovered problems — serious problems — especially in the last two years. The lessons that get learned from these problems are relatively narrow. It's turning out this way for the Iraq war. We were guilty of overreaching. There's a temptation to say when we succeed, ’Boy are we brilliant,’ and be blind to the risks.

3. How are you helping to lessen the level of risk in these environments?
I work on self-analysis and self-improvement in organizational learning in nuclear power, chemical plants, and in hospitals, on both the doctors’ side and on the nursing side. Health care is a complicated system and we're hoping to help the people in that system who are trying hard to make improvements and to see more ways forward. In nuclear power plants, of course, the safety issue is crucial. There is no question that over the course of the last 15 years, safety has improved dramatically — a result of a huge effort on the part of industry and government. Unfortunately, the international collaborations that existed have been scaled back in the last couple of years. It's an open question about whether that's made these industries less safe or whether it's a proper balance of resources. After all, you can spend an infinite amount of money on safety, but no matter how much you spend, there's still risk. At what point do you say ’that's enough?’

4. Your research on risky decision-making has been incorporated into the curriculum. Can you give an example of what students should think about when faced with real decisions involving risk?
A good example is the inoculation of first responders to small pox. Sadly, there have been deaths. If you vaccinate, though, there will be some cost to human life. But it's an interesting thing about human nature — people are willing to accept errors of omission but not errors of commission. There is a sense that it would be better if lives were lost as a result of not inoculating than if they were lost as a result of inoculating. People don’t look at the lives saved from vaccination. This mindset has to be figured into the mix when evaluating the problems associated with risk

5. How did you end up in the business of risk — or, rather, the business of averting risk?
I started out in social psychology and social cognition, then did work in the criminal justice system. Around 1990, a professor from nuclear engineering started talking to me about a large-scale project he was organizing on efforts to improve safety in the worldwide nuclear power industry. He thought that a project of this magnitude was more than just an engineering project. It had to involve management policy and other disciplines.

6. Interdisciplinary work seems to be the wave of the future.
Definitely. You can’t do engineering solely by creating technology. You have to appreciate and work with the human side: who will use it, who will build it, how will it influence organizations? So they need to bring in another batch of scientists and economists to address these issues. That's what ‘interdisciplinary’ is all about. We're learning to let the problems guide us to which experts from which disciplines need to be involved in the solution. The world presents problems that present opportunities for innovation — innovation is not just fixing things that go wrong.

7. What is the burning issue that everybody should be thinking about right now?
Leadership. And leadership is now a key element of the MIT Sloan curriculum. Of course, we can’t put everything it's necessary to know about leadership into a set of course requirements. It's important to learn leadership by doing . . . to have the benefit of structure, but to learn experientially. We're building a new leadership program that rests on our commitment to leadership as an educational principle. But to fulfill its mission we have to demonstrate leadership as well as teach it. At MIT, the idea is to get the knowledge out there to change the world. MIT is in a position to generate that knowledge. I think we see our role as a world resource, a knowledge producer for the world. We don’t think about giving away our competitive advantage. Part of the mission of our teaching programs is to increase the sum total of human knowledge.

8. What about innovation? Where does innovation fit into this larger picture?
Sloan is a great place for innovation in a lot of domains — innovation in teaching, for example, and innovation in research. MIT Sloan research is changing the world. As an international institution, MIT partners with business and industry in remarkable ways, ways that most other universities do not.

We have to produce a curriculum to answer varied expectations. The MBA students are preparing to get into a business environment and need to be effective right away. The tension arises between offering standard practice and cutting-edge research. We have to illustrate the reality — that if an employee follows the cutting edge, he or she might either be promoted to CEO or fired. We need to balance expectations about innovation and the realities of the present business world.

9.What do you like most about MIT Sloan students?
The students are an exciting mix, from a wide variety of backgrounds, countries, and cultures. I see a tremendous drive among students wanting to bring productive change back to the countries they're from. They want to go back and help their countries’ economies. They want to — and they do — make a difference. There are a lot of activities on campus that give the students the opportunity to give back, the Socially Responsible Business Club, for example. These are win-win opportunities. They are building skills and helping people. Thinking about societal good gives students a more balanced perspective.

10. And of course societal good is a “real world” issue, and MIT is nothing if not “real world.”
At MIT, we are working with real problems as well as with theory. At an engineering school you build theory by solving problems. That spirit is pervasive throughout MIT. MIT Sloan, as a business school, has the same ethic. Theory is linked to world problems. Because there are so many innovative people dealing with new challenges and rapid change, the world of practice often leads the world of theory. There are great opportunities to develop theory while finding opportunities for new products, new business concepts, new ways of leading people, and new ways of linking business, government, and society. The MIT $100K competition is a good example of this.

Related links