By Columbia GSB December 26, 2013 Leave a Comment

Columbia University and Business School alumni, faculty members, students, and staff came together on Friday, November 8, to answer a “big, big question,” per the symposium title: Can my company, university, or organization change?

Hosted by the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, the public research symposium featured opening remarks by Gita Johar, senior vice dean and the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business, and Damon Phillips, the James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy.

“It’s very hard to embrace change,” Johar said. “But given today’s dynamic business environment, it’s imperative for organizations and individuals to evolve.”

That is often easier said than done, according to Phillips. While modern leaders frequently anticipate change, he said, efforts to adapt to it fail more often than they succeed. “We want to have a dialogue where we can tap into the richness of different perspectives and learn from one another,” Phillips said. “Can we get from the what of change management to the how?”

In the morning’s keynote address, Duane Bray, partner and global head of talent for IDEO, who also leads their strategy on people and culture, spoke about the challenges confronting firms and universities seeking to change. He emphasized that individuals should be open and capable of evolving throughout their careers. “Students need to be prepared to change over time,” Bray said. “It’s not a given that you’ll work with the same company for 50 years anymore.”

After Bray’s presentation, Bruce Kogut, director of the Bernstein Center, moderated a faculty panel to contrast three disciplinary perspectives on change. Elke Weber, the Jerome A. Chazen Professor, explained that a fear of change causes people to default to the status quo and that manipulating people’s neural activity locates exactly the regions in the brain responsible for a status quo bias.

Joseph Porac, a management professor at NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, elevated the obstacles to and opportunities for change to organizational structure and innovation; and Ray Fisman, the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise, Finance, and Economics, explained that economics sees culture as a mechanism to coordinate behaviors and discussed laboratory experiments and examples by which cultures can sometimes change.

Introduced by University Provost John Coatsworth, the lunch keynote speaker, Anthony M. Marx, CEO of New York Public Libraries (NYPL) and past president of Amherst College, provided an animated discussion of creating cultural change at the NYPL, where a host of stakeholders tried to sway the organization’s shift. Marx spoke about taking the NYPL from passive service delivery to a proactive education model. “You need to create or inform popular demand. You can’t just assume that your customer base will understand the change,” Marx said. “You have to inform and try to feed that demand.”

Professor Todd Jick orchestrated the afternoon panel, which included two famed industry experts: Lauren Chesley, director of change execution at Verizon, and Nancy DeViney, vice president of organizational change management at IBM. They were joined by Steven Mandis, adjunct associate professor of finance and economics at the School. Mandis also has extensive industry experience, as a former executive at Goldman Sachs, a McKinsey consultant, and an advisor to the top leadership at Citigroup. He gave an insider’s account of cultural change as organizational drift.

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