Humans of Haas: Dr. Sara Beckman
Dr. Sara Beckman is a teaching professor at the Haas School of Business who currently directs the Product Management Program for the Berkeley Center for Executive Education. She also teaches the course Collaborative Innovation which integrates Art Practice, Theater and Dance Performance Studies, and Business perspectives on both collaboration and innovation. Beckman’s research focuses on design thinking, diversity’s role in design and innovation teams, and systems mapping. Beckman also has extensive experience in the industry, having worked in the Operations Management Services group at Booz, Allen & Hamilton and ran the Change Management Team at Hewlett-Packard.
Since your background is largely in industrial engineering, how did you tie that skillset into the field of business?
I would largely characterize industrial engineering as the study of the optimization of processes, so companies like Amazon are massive industrial problems to understand how to get things into warehouses, put them into a box, and send them to you. At Haas, there is a group called the Operations & Information Technology Management Group consisting of a few industrial engineers by trade, so I’m not the only one who does that kind of work. I have always lived on both sides of industrial engineering and business because I don’t have a business degree. I come from industrial engineering and then ended up at a business school because business schools teach operations. Then I went to work for Hewlett Packard where we talked a lot about helping people design products that are actually manufacturable, as well as developing a product development process for R&D. I was in the early days of both academic and practical conversations about how to integrate teams better to design products and services, which is what ultimately led me into teaching product management.
Do you have any advice for students like me and many others who are looking to enter the field of product management?
Good product managers have to have a well-rounded understanding of business constructs, organizational behavior, marketing, and qualitative and quantitative research. You have to also understand accounting and finance because you have to be able to show evidence that the business model on the product that you are overseeing will ultimately have some positive impact on financials, as well as other outcomes, whether environmental or social. In the case of physical products, you have to know operations and how to work with supply chains. You should also not only love the product but also, even more importantly, love the notion of helping the customer solve the problem that your product is solving for them. A good product manager has that outside-in view of what the world looks like from the customer’s perspective and how to bring that to the company.
Beyond all that, you’ll notice that product managers have interests all over the place. They read books. They go to the movies. They observe the world. I think sometimes in business we put blinders on and always think about the next class to take. I would say, while you’re on the wonderful Berkeley campus, take classes outside the business school too. Take classes that are just fun so that you can learn about the world in a bigger way since product managers need that broader view of the world to bring the life of customers alive and help the company use technology to make the lives of customers better.
How has teaching online been and how have you made the most out of it?
There are some elements of teaching online that I love, for example, just having everybody in the same size box on the screen. There aren’t people in the back of the room, or the front of the room and so to me, it’s kind of fun to involve everybody in conversations. I love having the chat because people can have conversations during class as opposed to sitting passively in some sort of lecture. I use a lot of interactive stuff like the breakout rooms.
Another part of being online is when you all are out in your breakout rooms, I’m just sitting in the main room waiting for you to come back. I know that I can drop into breakouts, and I often do that, but there are times when it’s just nice to wander around the room and then watch what the teams are doing. In-person, you can kind of watch students and then decide if you should drop-in, as opposed to all of a sudden, your face appears on the screen. I miss the buzz of the classroom and the ability to just look across the class and see what’s going on and have more natural interactions.
I also teach a lot of classes particularly for executive education that had people from all over the world who, for various reasons couldn’t either afford the time or the money or to fly all the way here for a class. It’s pretty exciting to be able to have people from all over the world because the zoom is global.
On the flip side, I teach a class called collaborative innovation, which is joint with theater and public policy. It’s a studio course with six hours a week of class time where people are mostly engaged in working with peers with one another. There are like 18 different majors in the class. For example, there’s a theater module where you co-design a performance with people from other majors and in the art practice module, you co-design a piece of socially engaged art. In my module, you co-design a business model for a Berkeley-related startup. The idea is that you’re learning to do what we call frame and solve problems from the perspective of multiple disciplines. Because so many of the dynamics of the class are interacting with your peers and physically building things or making performances, it’s really hard to think about how one would translate that to an online environment.
Previously you worked at Hewlett-Packard and now you are researching as a professor. What are some of the similarities and differences between industry and academia?
When I first left school, I went to work for Booz, Allen, and Hamilton which was a consulting firm that consulted for a whole bunch of large companies from United Airlines to Atari. It was super interesting to learn about all these different companies. After that, I wanted to go back to school for my Ph.D., and I ended up doing my research at Hewlett Packard, first in the data systems division, and then the corporate manufacturing function. Ultimately, I ended up going to Berkeley.
I kind of had two jobs for many years because I like abstract thinking and the academic world is a great place to do that, but I also like the reality of practice. I liked sitting between these two worlds. I think that’s probably why I still like being in an academic institution, but I do a lot of teaching for executives and companies. That lets me keep in touch with the practical, applied world. But, I can still take a step back and say, wait a second, here’s a different way to think about this. I’ll go on Google Scholar and just start reading things to get anchored in what different research is shown about. Sometimes I’ve described myself as having one foot on each of two moving cars, and I’m always trying to figure out how to stay balanced. In the academic world, I’m seen as too practice-oriented, and in the practitioner world, I’m seen as too academic because neither world really fully appreciates the other, which is a gap I’m trying to bridge.
Currently, one of the largest workplace problems is that many employees feel that there isn’t enough time to have engaging conversations, instead of constantly cranking out work. Why do you think that is and what are some consequences of that?
There’s some interesting work that’s being done on agile product development approaches, which shows that we’ve stopped thinking about what problem we’re trying to solve. Evidence has shown that investment is being driven more and more to derivative products and away from breakthrough products. That’s because there is a return on investment, right? You could prove the ROI when you’re investing in the iterations on a derivative, but ideas in the form of a pie in the sky may not have a return on investment. Therefore, companies try to reduce the break-even time on new features. When you start to do that, you want the break-even time to be shorter and shorter in the marketplace, so you introduce more and more incremental products. Whereas many big things that might take years to return, which may have bigger returns, might take a longer period of time. I think that we’ve become too driven by profit and value to shareholders, leading us to have a smaller view of the potential of what a business can do.
There are people from Harvard who’ve written about what the original purpose of business in society is: was it always about making money or was there a different role? Even the last couple of weeks and everything happening with Facebook questions the role of a social media company in our world today. I think we’re in a place where we’ve got to figure out the responsibilities of regulators because technology’s changing so fast and the consequences are bigger and bigger. It’s going to force us to understand what our values are collectively, and there’s a lot of opportunities to build the world in a different way.
I have my fingers crossed that you all will make it a better world, and it’s better to be productive and look forward to figuring out what we could do better.