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“MOOCs, Business & Management: A Professor’s Perspective” interviews Prof Rolf Strom-Olsen

rolf-strom-olsen [1]Professor Rolf Strom-Olsen is the Academic Director of the IE Humanities Center and an Associate Professor in the MBA Program of IE Business School. He received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University, his M.A. from McGill University and his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. A Fulbright scholar and a Social Sciences Research Council fellow, he has been teaching at IE since 2009.

Starting in January 2014, Professor Strom-Olsen will teach the MOOC (massive open online course) Critical Perspectives on Management [2] via Coursera. In addition to his academic background, he brings with him valuable experience from the private sector. He was the co-founder of a digital publishing start-up and has also served as a board member of several medical research companies.

We interviewed Professor Strom-Olsen to find out more about him and his course.


Can you tell us more about your course? What are the course’s main aims?

RSO: My MOOC is adapted from a class I teach at IE Business School, which is mandatory for all students pursuing their MBA. In its particulars, the course takes on a number of basic questions that are central to management practice – questions such as agency costs, sustaining competitive advantage, and resource allocation – and subjects the orthodoxies that have emerged around these core issues to critical scrutiny. But my course tries to approach these questions in creative ways, so we will be looking at a variety of material – from the bible to the shipping container – in order to approach these questions in new ways and challenge some of the underlying assumptions that inform our current management thinking.

At a more fundamental level, that is what this course is really about – challenging students to figure out for themselves how to construct robust frameworks that they can use to foster their own critical thinking. I hope that students who take the course will be able to better interrogate the world around them, including challenging many of the mainstream orthodoxies that have sprung up around the practice of management.

What are your favorite aspects of the course? Is there any topic in particular that you are looking forward to teaching?

RSO: Well, the course has already been created, so at this point I am looking forward to seeing how students engage with the material. In the past, I have found that students often disagree with specific aspects of the course, but there is a lot of value in that disagreement in that it fosters reflection and debate. Moving it into a MOOC environment means that the scope for discussion expands accordingly and I am very interested to see how students respond to the themes and challenges of the course in their online engagement.

And this, I think, is really my favourite aspect of the class – namely being part of an experience in which students, who initially may be somewhat skeptical at what is, after all, a significant departure from the normal method of business school teaching, warm to its implicit methodological and critical challenge.

To whom is your course addressed? Are there any professional audiences in particular whom you think can benefit from this course?

RSO: My course is addressed to a very general audience that has any interest in the questions surrounding the modern firm. The course is not oriented towards the details of firm management, things like cost-accounting, or project management, or calculating future cash flows. Instead, it is seeking to pose broad questions about how firms operate, how they take decisions, and the larger consequences – both for the firm itself and for society – of those practices. As such, I hope that it will have broad appeal. That said, I think it is useful for people who are currently (or hope to be) part of a management structure, in that it invites a rethinking of what are many commonplace management strategies that will be familiar to many who are in that environment.

For students interested in learning more about business & management after your course, are there any other MOOCs or resources that you would recommend?

RSO: My class is intended to foster critical thinking about the “what” and “how” of management. This is hardly a skill that can be taught in any formulaic way – hence the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of my class. I would advise students who like my class to look beyond management classes and consider also signing up for any of the many excellent courses being offered in the humanities or other social sciences. I am a historian by training, and my class, while it is concerned with management, is steeped in the tradition of humanist methodology. So students are likely to find that courses in history, philosophy or similar fields are rather more closely akin to the kinds of critical methods that inform my course. The reason I think this is so important is that management should not be reduced to anything formulaic. The strongest skill a manager can have is the ability to ask the right questions by evaluating different approaches to problems and marshaling new ideas. Those skills are best developed by embracing the kind of wide critical apparatus that comes from learning a broad variety of material.

As published in mooctivity.com [3]