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MBA Skills for Hacking COVID-19

A photograph of Zoe smiling into the camera

Social entrepreneur Dr Zoe Lawson, an MBA alumna and member of The Open University Business School Alumni Council, describes how her OU study experiences are helping with an ongoing project in her adopted Switzerland.

I was awarded an OU MBA with distinction in 2015 and found my learning journey immensely rewarding. Since then, I notice that I’m continually presented with opportunities to practise the knowledge and skills that I gained. Most recently was a nationwide hackathon (I’m based in Switzerland) to find solutions to the myriad of problems thrown up by the COVID-19 crisis. Similar to no doubt many other people, I felt powerless in the face of this pandemic and thus jumped at the chance to get involved and potentially help in some small way. I signed up and quickly forged a team with six strangers, all interested in looking at ways to combat the fake science news related to the pandemic.

Over the course of a weekend, we worked intensely and generated a mobile gaming app prototype that tests the user’s critical thinking skills and develops their knowledge of the science around SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. We submitted our idea and were delighted to be chosen as one of the highlighted projects, beating more than 560 other teams and receiving 1,000 CHF (£850) as a prize to continue our work. The next step was to enter a newly-created virtual business incubator as a way of formally supporting the project to achieve its goals. Incubation support is provided for 25 weeks and is currently coming up to the halfway point.

So how has my OU MBA helped me?

I have drawn on a variety of MBA skills during this process and continue to do so, both explicitly and in more implicit ways. In addition, my experience of the OU’s distance learning approach has proved invaluable, since the hackathon was conducted entirely online and the business incubator is also exclusively virtual. Working in remote teams with other people whom you’ve never met before is how many OU student journeys begin. Over time, we get opportunities to meet our fellow students face-to-face at day schools and possibly residential schools but as most OU students and alumni know well, the majority of learning is conducted online in a virtual environment. These skills served me well during the hackathon event and in the continued execution of the project. I’m prepared for the inevitable technology glitches, which I’d experienced from time to time during my OU MBA and which don’t alter the fact that work still needs to be completed and deadlines still need to be met.

I remember the periodic feelings of isolation that distance learning can sometimes bring, and I also remember how the process taught me to be self-sustaining – a quality that has been useful in taking a virtual project from inception to delivery. Another skill I honed during my distance MBA was discipline. Discipline is obviously important for anyone studying to a deadline but I think it takes on a new importance when that studying takes place remotely, often at home. It’s all too easy to turn the computer off and Netflix on, especially when you’re having a bad day or things aren’t running smoothly. I remember those feelings well; my brain tired from calculating another Weighted Average Cost of Capital and the temptation to switch to playing Candy Crush Saga (which I mostly managed to resist)! That memory has recurred multiple times recently; especially when I’ve felt unsure about continuing the project.  I recall the discipline I managed to muster back then and which I need to muster now and in the coming weeks and months too, if this project is to deliver.

Aside from the practical, experiential skills that my MBA has equipped me with, I am also drawing on some of the academic theories I learned during the course of my studies. Although the hackathon is a Swiss effort, many of the people involved hail from outside the national borders, me included. In our team of seven, just two are Swiss natives. I’m no stranger to multi-cultural team working; I’ve lived overseas for more than 10 years and worked for several international organisations. However, I return time and again to the research of Geert Hofstede, a social psychologist whose ‘Six Dimensions of Culture’ model I learned about in my elective MBA module on intercultural management. Hofstede’s model looks at facets of a nation’s culture, namely power-distance index, individualism v collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity v femininity, long-term orientation and indulgence v restraint. While care must be taken to avoid falling into stereotype traps, the model is nonetheless a good guide when working in international teams and understanding the viewpoint of others from different cultures.

Another business tool that has been useful in my COVID-19 hackathon experience is Tuckmann’s Team Development Model. Many people are familiar with this as the ‘forming, storming, norming, performing’ process that teams go through when they are created to execute a task or project. It has been helpful to bear this in mind as our project progresses and refer to the fact that the ‘storming’ phase is totally normal in new teams as members establish themselves and there is disagreement over decision-making.

Overall, my MBA experience has been invaluable in helping me rise to the challenge of leading a newly-formed virtual team – hopefully to its ultimate conclusion in the creation of a new mobile gaming application to demystify the science of COVID-19.