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Updated 12:00 PM February 2, 2004



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Organizational Studies class reverses traditional roles

Undergraduates at U-M are accustomed to being on the receiving end of lectures and presentations, but students in Wayne Baker's Advanced Research Methods in Organizational Study course had the unique opportunity to head to the front of the class.

"From J. Walter Thompson's perspective, working with these students exceeded our expectations." —Don Topping, senior partner and managing director at J. Walter Thompson.

The students turned the table on business executives when they gave advice and suggestions for company improvement. This year, the students worked with J. Walter Thompson—the nation's largest advertising agency—to find ways of improving communication patterns within the company.

"From J. Walter Thompson's perspective, working with these students exceeded our expectations," says Don Topping, senior partner and managing director at J. Walter Thompson. "They brought an outside perspective that was free of all the history and hierarchy and politics that exist in any organization."

This hands-on approach is both fundamental and distinctive to the class, Baker says.

"The main way adults learn is by actually doing," says Baker, professor of organizational studies. "We teach students how to do organizational network analysis, an approach usually reserved for the graduate level."

Throughout the fall semester, students interviewed corporate teams within J. Walter Thompson, such as Creative Services, Information Technology and Human Resources. They then developed and administered a survey to determine key relationships between team members and among the teams themselves.

"One of the important things students learn in this class is how to take a research project from beginning to end," says Baker, who also is a professor in the Business School and Department of Sociology, and a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research. "Some students will do this kind of analysis in the future, and some students won't, but they will have a model in their head that they will use for any project or analysis they work on."

The class teaches students how to work and interact with other people, says Ellyn Wheeler, a senior organizational studies major.

"What I got most out of it was that we were working in student groups, analyzing groups on a large organization," she says. "This better prepared me for working with other groups in organizations in the future."

The unique format of the class, which also includes traditional lectures, reading assignments and a guest lecture with senior consultants from IBM, raises the bar for the students in the class, she says.

"Since we worked so much outside of the classroom and we were given so much freedom, I think people took a lot more personal initiative to get the project done," Wheeler says.

The dedication paid off for the students who presented to J. Walter Thompson executives, Topping says.

"It would be pretty closed-minded to ignore smart people using sophisticated techniques to uncover information that you can use to improve what you do," he says.

While Wheeler felt an undercurrent of resistance from members of her corporate team, due to the fact she was a student rather than a professional consultant, she felt good about her presentation to the executives.

"We presented to someone who respected our findings and didn't take what we had to say personally," she says.

As evidence of the success of the class, both companies Baker has worked with—J. Walter Thompson and NSK Corp. in Ann Arbor—have asked the Organizational Studies program to use them again.

For Baker, the class is a culmination of the skills and knowledge the Organizational Studies program seeks to instill in its students.

"Organizational Studies is an interdisciplinary concentration," he says. "This gives them a unique mix of knowledge and experiences that create an organizational studies framework."

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