September 29, 2020
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This is part three of a six-part series on using empathy in the classroom. 

Immersive experiences change us—our perspectives, the way we think and how we solve problems. Whether it be a trip aboard or an in-depth conversation with a client or colleague via Zoom, being able to imagine experiences beyond our own can open up a new world of possibilities.

Employing empathy can also greatly enhance curricula, sparking imaginative and creative solutions. TL Hill, managing director of Fox Management Consulting and the Translational Research Center, shares his experiences about how essential empathy is to understanding and generating research insights.

Hill describes the use of everything from novels to ride-alongs with subpoena servers, from interviews to factory visits, to enhance evidence-based insight generation in Fox Management Consulting live-client capstone classes.

Within the capstone course, closely supervised student teams provide research-based strategic solutions to companies and nonprofit organizations across a range of industries. In a few short weeks, students must learn enough about the inner workings of an organization, dynamics of an industry, and trends in the economic, social and technological environment to provide new insights and identify solutions that change the strategy of the company.

“It’s incredibly hard work. Students read a lot, there is a tremendous amount of data to analyze. It can be tough to keep the energy up,” says Hill. “We found that bringing empathy into the classroom in the form of observations, day-in-the-life experiences, stories and participation provide the imagination and the energy that is essential to making this strenuous classwork.” 

Four examples from the experience of Hill and his students helped to illustrate the power that empathy and imagination can have in transforming a project.

Assumption-busting observations 

In a recent project with a large municipal transit agency, a group of students created a plan to help the organization embrace data-driven decision making.

“The students came in thinking about artificial intelligence, machine learning, implementing cool new systems—and then they visited the control center and they see the complexity and it’s just amazing,” says Hill. “But then they noticed that employees are using CRT tubes from the last century and making phone calls on landlines.”

After observing the control center, the approach to the project shifted. Rather than a strict focus on technology, students incorporated strategies to improve processes, behaviors, reward structures and training. “The experience challenged the team’s assumptions about this being primarily a technology problem, and the project became much bigger and richer, and the focus shifted to people and processes (as well as cutting-edge technologies),” says Hill.

A day in the life 

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can help you see the cracks in the pavement. In another project, students were consulting for a private equity company. One of the students decided to spend a day with the project’s subject by riding along to serve subpoenas.

“She saw the tension, the tedium, the paperwork requirements and the moments of real danger in this job,” says Hill. “That one day made all of the phone calls and financial analysis come to life. She identified a couple of tweaks in the processes and software that essentially became the engine for the entire project.” 

Open hearts, open minds and expanded financial analysis 

In early 2020, a group of FMC students worked with Philadelphia CeaseFire-CureViolence, an organization that has reduced gun violence by treating it as a public health issue. In the process, CeaseFire has learned funding is hard to sustain and can become political. The MBA team’s project was to identify the parties affected by gun violence and the organizations that might be able to fund effective preventive measures.

Reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson transformed the students’ perspective. The book opened their eyes to the ways that the death penalty and mass incarceration are used to reinforce racial inequality and injustice—and how these systems impact the quality of life within entire communities. More specifically, the book gave the team examples and stories that helped them to identify seven concentric circles of personal, social and economic cost. 

“This understanding informed a very sophisticated social return on investment (SROI) analysis that they were able to bring successfully to the city and the state,” says Hill.

Touching the earth to see the possibilities 

After a pessimistic start on a project for a sustainable farming business association trying to fund itself through a membership model, a group of MBA students decided to get their hands dirty. Students visited and compared conventional versus sustainable farms. They talked to farmers who are committed to sustainability and saw the benefits of that approach in person.

“That experience—that empathy—ignited a passion,” says Hill. “Passion about how the earth smells different, the food tastes different. The team began to see almost a spiritual connection to a different way of life—a way of connecting food, health and happiness.”

After that experience, students began to see the data they had collected in a new light and found a different path forward. The team identified ways to use social media and other marketing tactics to build a contributorship model that offered non-member supporters a concrete way to support and interact with a more holistic and sustainable way of life.

For more information, view Hill’s PowerPoint and video presentations on imaginative empathy’s impact on insights, as presented in the 2020 Academy of Management Annual Conference.

This series is sponsored by the Fox School’s Translational Research Center (TRC), Fox Management Consulting (FMC), Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), Department of Strategic Management and Fox Experiential Education; Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching (CAT), and Flinders University’s New Venture Institute

CapstoneCureViolenceEmpathy and ImaginationEmpathy in the ClassroomFox Management ConsultingJust MercyLiteraturePhiladelphia CeaseFireResearchSocial Return on InvestmentTL HillTranslational Research CenterZoom