My Favorite Course
Want to work for Zappos, the online shoe and apparel store? Get ready for a battery of tests at Zappos HQ to assess your intelligence, personality and creativity. Oh, and if on the way in from the Las Vegas airport you blow off the limo driver’s friendly chitchat? Too bad—that was part of the test! Zappos includes the limo driver’s recommendation in deciding whether to hire you. And if you get the job, after four weeks, Zappos will offer you $3,000 just to go away, figuring if you don’t really want the job, they don’t really want you.
That’s the kind of stuff we study in my favorite course, BUS 302 Organizational Behavior. I’ve taught it for 15 years, and every single time I fall in love with it all over again, because it helps students realize that life is not really about what you can achieve on your own, it’s about what you can achieve with other people. There’s nothing wrong with heroes—but heroes by themselves don’t achieve much that endures.
We start with the concept at the heart of every organization—division of labor. And because liberal-arts students should get used to thinking critically and imaginatively, we look at the division of labor in unexpected places: in ant colonies with specialized workers, soldiers, nurses and egg-layers; in the Old Testament story of Moses and how he learned to not try to do it all himself (his father-in-law, Jethro, who advised him to start delegating, is probably the first management consultant in history: see Exodus 18); in basketball teams; and in Adam Smith, who begins his great study of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, with a snapshot of a humble pin factory: “One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head.” And because humor is one of the best ways to learn, we throw in a classic short video, about a World of Warcraft raiding party ruined by one over-eager member, the immortal Leroy Jenkins.
Once students are used to thinking about the division of labor, we look at the flip side: how to coordinate labor. I build my course around three interlocking coordination concepts: culture, structure and leadership. We start with culture, an ancient and hard-wired way by which humans forge strong groups. We’re all culture experts, growing up as members of particular nationalities, religions, regions, sports teams, churches and so on. But it’s hard to develop critical perspective within a culture, so we read short, sharp texts by scholars like Geert Hofstede and Edgar Schein, and study companies like Zappos.
After culture, the second big concept is structure (think Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor and scientific management), and especially bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has a bad name—often, deservedly so. But it remains the only way to build effective and enduring large organizations, because it’s all about rational control, clear lines of authority and accountability, and large-scale coordination. Here the reading can be pretty tough—we read chunks of Max Weber, the classic German sociologist, and Alfred Sloan, the celebrated CEO who reorganized and rescued General Motors in the mid-20th century. But we also let our hair down with great anti-bureaucracy rants from the likes of GE’s former CEO, Jack Welch.
The last big concept we study is leadership. We look at leadership across a range of endeavors—business, of course, but also the armed forces, sports and non-profits. We read a couple of chapters from Machiavelli’s Prince about love, fear and avoiding hatred, and a fascinating book by a Navy captain, Michael Abrashoff, on how he turned his ship, the Benfold, into “the best damn ship in the Navy.” Actually, leadership is woven into just about everything we study. Part of the fun of the course is helping students understand how culture, structure and leadership interconnect to shape the organizations that play such a large role in our world, and our working lives.
By Professor Michael Harvey
Michael Harvey chairs the business management department and is a member of the local school board.