01 Jun 2015
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Alumni Take Action to Improve US Competitiveness

Inspired by the research from the US Competitiveness Project, alumni commit to strengthening their local communities.
Re: Jan Rivkin; Michael Porter
by Erin Peterson

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When HBS launched the US Competitiveness Project in 2011, the American economy was struggling to recover from the Great Recession, Washington was in gridlock, and the nation was caught in the hype of a presidential election. Against this backdrop, Dean Nitin Nohria and cochairs Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin conceived of a data-based, research-driven effort to influence the national dialogue and shed light on the crucial issue of the ability of US companies to compete in a global economy while supporting rising living standards for the average American. Right from inception, the Project focused on the role of business leaders in this issue. For the HBS faculty team, that meant engaging with HBS alumni in multiple ways.

First, the Project launched an unprecedented survey of all alumni “to get their perceptions on how the US economy was faring,” says Manjari Raman, the Project’s program director and senior researcher. The initial survey, launched in October 2011, resulted in 9,750 responses, providing a deep and rich diagnosis of the US economy, and led to the Project’s first report, “Prosperity at Risk.” Since then, the Project has conducted an annual survey in order to expand its data and enhance the faculty’s understanding of key research topics.

The second phase of alumni outreach and involvement began in March 2012 with a series of “Paths Forward” events in New York; Charlotte; Washington, DC; San Francisco; Chicago; Detroit; and Boston. At each event, faculty members shared their latest research on US competitiveness and issued calls to action urging alumni to get involved in helping solve the country’s or their communities’ competitiveness challenges. “Hundreds of alumni attended these events, and since then many have stepped up in big and small ways to make a difference in their communities,” says Raman. “What is really exciting is that alumni engagement helped shape and inform new research on crucial areas of importance to the US economy.”

Laila Worrell (MBA 1998) and Ravi Chanmugam (MBA 1996), for example, provided more than 18 months of research resources from the management consulting firm Accenture to help HBS study the shortage of workers for “middle skills” jobs—those that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a college degree. “There are large pools of unemployed populations on one side, and companies that aren’t able to fill middle skills jobs,” Worrell says. “We focused our research on that gap and the failure in the talent supply chain that’s leading to that gap.”

HBS alumnus Matt Sigelman (MBA 1999) also stepped up to help understand the talent gap. As CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, he not only provided research resources for the full length of the research, he also provided pro-bono, unlimited access to one year of Burning Glass data to analyze the middle skills gap in America.

The joint report produced under the leadership of senior lecturer Joe Fuller— “Bridging the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills”—has generated much interest nationally in the role of business in closing the skills gap. The Walmart Foundation, for example, cited the research in its recent decision to grant $100 million over the next five years to not-for-profits working on closing the skills gap in retail.

Other alumni are also focusing on the middle skills gap, including Richard Kane (MBA 1968) and Bruce Bockmann (MBA 1967), who are leading HBS Club of New York members’ groundbreaking efforts to connect tech and health care firms with interns from community colleges. Working with LaGuardia Community College, for example, the HBSCNY Skills Gap Project has placed more than 30 interns with tech firms and helped LaGuardia Community College develop a new health care curriculum designed to meet the skills needs of a nearby medical center.

In Ohio, Dan Cunningham (OPM 27, 1999), CEO of the Cincinnati manufacturing company Long-Stanton and a 2013 Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard, has been promoting competitiveness-based ideas to improve the regional economy. During the past 18 months, he’s given dozens of talks about US competitiveness to state business, government, and higher education leaders. According to Cunningham, Ohio Governor John Kasich asked him to work with his Cabinet members to develop specific ways to help Ohio increase its shared prosperity. And at the behest of Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, he is helping to develop a bill to create a Shared Prosperity Council for Ohio. Ultimately, Cunningham hopes it will lead to a statewide initiative that will support significant research and investment, education, and workforce development, and the development of strong clusters of related companies within the region.

“Competitiveness can help serve everyone better,” Cunningham says. “It’s not about being negative; it’s about trying to build something.”

In the coming months, the US Competitiveness Project will further expand its efforts to engage alumni, according to Raman. It will be hosting faculty webinars to share the latest research. And it is partnering with the New York alumni club to demonstrate the nuts-and-bolts logistics of accomplishing major competitiveness goals in order to inspire other clubs across the country.

“This isn’t just an intellectual exercise,” Raman says. “We want people to see how the New York alumni created a working group, how they chose an area to work on, got data, used their networks, and persevered till they saw results,” she says. “What was the secret sauce that made it all happen?”

The goal, Raman says, is to continue to expand the scope and scale of alumni efforts, particularly through major club efforts. “Those initial research presentations by faculty, back in 2012, lit a thousand individual lights.” she says. “Now we want to ignite the energy of entire clubs to start doing this work and look for ways to improve their communities.”

If you or someone you know has been inspired to take action to promote the ideas of US competitiveness, Project leadership wants to hear from you and help you connect to others. Contact Manjari Raman at 617.495.6288 or mraman@hbs.edu.

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Class of MBA 1998, Section I
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Class of MBA 1996, Section C
Class of MBA 1999, Section B
Class of MBA 1968, Section E
Class of OPM 27

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