“Organizations can achieve long-lasting competitive advantage by leveraging the way they manage people,” said Prof. John Paul MacDuffie, who teaches Managing the Enterprise.

Wharton students in the MBA Program for Executives on both coasts meet Prof. John Paul MacDuffie during Orientation week and then again in their first-year core course on Managing the Enterprise. During Orientation, he helps introduce the program and launch learning teams, and in class he focuses on the human and social capital aspects of management. What incoming students may not know is that Prof. MacDuffie is a world-renowned expert on the global automotive industry and the emerging mobility sector. His research focuses on the impact of human resource systems and work organization on economic performance (from studying Toyota Production System and high-performance manufacturing), collaborative problem-solving within and across firms (and the impact on supply chain resilience), and how strategic choices affect competitive dynamics and industry evolution.

How is the Managing the Enterprise course structured?

This is a unique course in our MBA program because it is taught by three faculty with separate yet interlinked modules. My module is human and social capital, and Prof. Nicolaj Siggelkow and Prof. Zeke Hernandez focus on strategy and global strategy. My module starts with motivation as a fundamental topic because it affects every individual and the effectiveness of every organization. This topic resonates with EMBA students, who are motivated to come back to school in the middle of successful careers to take on new challenges or make changes. We also cover a range of topics from compensation and reward systems to career paths and job design. The second part of the class is about the most important policies and practices used to manage people. In the class on hiring we talk about biases, whether they are human or in algorithms used to filter candidates, and how to overcome them. In the class on performance appraisals, we talk about how many organizations are redesigning their processes, particularly to fit the “work-from-home” era. And we close with classes on the design and implementation of human resource systems that integrate with strategy for competitive advantage.

What are the main takeaways for students in your module?

First, I want them to know the importance of motivation for themselves and for their entire organization (bosses, peers, and subordinates). Everyone is motivated by different things and motivation has many layers. Understanding your own motivation and being able to motivate others is crucial. Second, organizations benefit from being systematic in how they think about managing human and social capital as a system — not just designing a single HR policy in isolation but examining the complementarities among HR policies to ensure they comprise a well-aligned system. Hiring needs to go with rewards, rewards need to go with job design, and performance appraisal needs to go with culture. Third, organizations can achieve competitive advantage by leveraging the way they manage people. Those complementarities within a well-designed HR system, supported by culture, are difficult for others to imitate. This can be a longer-lasting form of competitive advantage than a new technology or marketing plan.

What do you like about teaching EMBA students?

They are older and have worked from eight to 15 or more years, and they bring that experience into the classroom. They have typically moved up in their organization to a level where they are doing more supervision and making the choices about policies that affect how a lot of people are managed. They are at a point in their careers where they are more aware of their own motivation and goals. Furthermore, they are highly motivated by the module topics, and they engage fully in class discussions that are nuanced and get to the heart of important management dilemmas. I also enjoy the format of the EMBA program. Students work all week and come to class with their heads full of what they were dealing with at work, and then they go back to work with their heads full of what they learned in class. The opportunity, which the EMBA format provides, to pull those worlds together is wonderful for learning.

What do you like about teaching on the San Francisco campus? How is it different from the Philadelphia campus?

I study up on where students work and their prior experiences, plus I learn a lot about their perspectives and the context of their work during class discussions. Students in Philly tend to come from different educational backgrounds and have worked in different industries than students in San Francisco. Teaching on both coasts helps keep me updated, and that diversity in backgrounds means the class discussions can be quite different. Seeing where the discussions converge vs. diverge across the two coasts is really fascinating.

How are you involved in Orientation?

I am one of the first faculty members students meet, and it is an honor and privilege to welcome them to Wharton. I help facilitate the initial ‘getting to know you’ activities. I also help get the learning teams going. The first day starts the process of team building and it continues throughout the week. I have students reflect individually on the characteristics of their past successful small group experiences and then meet as a team (for the first time) to compile a list of common characteristics. I also ask them to think about the biggest obstacles that such groups can encounter, so they can create strategies to overcome those obstacles. For example, when will they meet and how will they organize those meetings? Do they want to assign roles based on backgrounds, strengths, and skills? Or do they want to rotate roles over time? How do goals of individual team members vary and how should that affect the team’s goals? These are incredibly important things for any team to sort out in the beginning. I also help run a social identities workshop with Prof. Siggelkow, which helps students build bonds faster than they would from just sharing Orientation Week experiences.

Why is Orientation an important week for EMBA students?

It is not called Boot Camp by coincidence. This marks a break from their normal routine. Orientation is carefully designed to introduce students to every aspect of the program. On the first day, they look slightly nervous and are dressed up and formal. On the last day, everyone is excited to come back for the next class weekend. They feel launched and are underway. All of that happens in one super-intense week!

What research projects are you currently working on?

I run the Program on Vehicle and Mobility Innovation (PVMI) at Wharton’s Mack Center on Technological Innovation. Boundaries are getting blurred as new technologies enter the vehicle and mobility space. We need to understand that the advantages of tech companies in charting the digital world are different from the knowledge auto companies have built up about the physical world. Automobiles are heavy, fast-moving objects that operate in public space and can cause severe damage. There are not many digital products with those characteristics. I have done research on the global automotive industry for many years and now I am focused on understanding the new competition — and sometimes the collaboration — between auto companies and tech companies vis-a-vis innovating in the mobility space.  

I am also the president of the Industry Studies Association, a group of scholars who believe the context of each industry is essential to understand, often via primary data collection and interaction with managers and engineers, to increase the validity and applicability of our research findings. And I often do collaborative projects with peers globally, as we are all trying to understand the mobility future. In addition, I connect with other people at Wharton and Penn on energy and climate issues. I just moderated a webinar on electric vehicles for Earth Day, co-organized between PVMI and the Business, Climate, and Environment Lab (BCEL) at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. Right now, many factors — new startups, automaker strategies, government policy, technical advances, geopolitical competition — are converging to create more momentum for electric vehicle adoption that we’ve ever seen before. It is an exciting time to work on these topics!

— By Meghan Laska

Posted: July 26, 2021

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