MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Embracing the “hacking” mindset in executive education

Annual workshop of UNICON at MIT

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean of MIT Sloan Executive Education.

The word “hacker” may be one of the most prominent shibboleths in today’s pop culture. Depending on your familiarity with the world of technology, “hacker” can conjure up nightmarish visions of a cyber criminal stealing your credit card—or compromising presidential elections. It can also refer to a curious tech tinkerer finding fresh and novel ways to solve a problem. For MIT students, a hacker is involved in the clever, harmless—and ethical!—practical jokes, like installing a gigantic sail on top of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) or dropping stuffed beavers (MIT’s mascot) on the field during a Harvard-Yale football game. MIT hacks have nothing to do with computer hacking, by the way, and over decades, have become a cherished part of the campus lore. Jokes aside, at MIT, hackers are definitely seen as a benevolent force and a hacking mindset as something to cultivate. Especially if you want to spur innovation and encourage new ideas in your team or organization.

In July, MIT Sloan Executive Education hosted the annual workshop of UNICON, the global consortium of university-based executive education providers. This year we brought our hacking culture alive in pursuit of new ideas, specifically about how to harness digital transformation for the future of executive education. We have been a member of the consortium for decades and, this year, I have the honor of serving as its Board Chair. So, it was especially gratifying to welcome our UNICON colleagues to MIT campus and introduce everyone to an intense, two-day long “hackathon” experience, where we dove deep into the topic of digital transformation—and technologies driving it—as it pertains to what our member institutions teach and how our business works.

Learning from scientists, inventors, and professional “hackers”
During this time, participants heard from a roster of seasoned tech industry experts.
Dr. Lisa Amini, Director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, gave a presentation about machine learning and shared intriguing insights about the evolution of data science and the role of data scientists. 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. 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.

Harnessing the power of collaborative thinking
The first day of the hackathon started with learning and transitioned to hands-on 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, creativity, and enthusiasm were electric.

Getting hands and heads deep into technology “toys” and tools
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 groups’ “hacks,” in 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.

Practicing what we teach
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.

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 by working together to find new ways to address industry-wide challenges helps us all.

Read the full version of this article on the UNICON site.

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