Hazhir Rahmandad: Applying System Dynamics to Social Challenges

02/06/2017 03:32 pm ET

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans' Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Hazhir Rahmandad.

Hazhir Rahmandad is the Albert and Jeanne Clear Career Development Professor and an Associate Professor of System Dynamics at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Hazhir's research applies dynamic modeling to complex organizational problems. He has analyzed how organizations learn in the presence of delays between taking action and observing the results, and has shown through empirical data and simulations the resulting learning challenges. Hazhir's strategy research has explored capability development tradeoffs under competition and erosion of organizational capabilities through adaptation traps. In another stream of work, he has studied public health problems, including obesity dynamics and comparing different modeling methodologies in application to epidemics, among others. Hazhir also contributes to expanding the dynamic modeling toolbox through advancing parameter estimation and validation methods for dynamic models.

Hazhir has published in diverse journals including Management Science, Organization Science, Strategic Management Journal, Journal of Operations Management, Epidemiology and Infection, International Journal of Obesity, and System Dynamics Review, among others. He has been a reviewer for over 30 NIH and NSF panels and over two dozen different journals and his research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and private sector firms. For more details, please see (here).

Where did you grow up and go to school? What and who were your most formative influences when you were growing up?

I was born in Tehran and grew up in the Baharestan neighborhood, an old quarter of the city housing the parliament. I went to Iranian public schools during my K-12, and attended NODET, a type of magnet school during my middle and high school. I had the privilege of excellent teachers and many talented and hardworking classmates who challenged me intellectually and academically. Moreover, I have been lucky to have a very capable and tenacious mother who not only was a role model but also believed in me and supported my choices throughout. These privileges have been instrumental to shaping my personality and career path.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I am hesitant to refer to myself as successful. From personal and family to spiritual and civic there are multitude domains in which individuals can invest and grow, and the "successful" label tends to promote fame or fortune over other equally valuable dimensions. Not unlike most other domains, my limited academic achievements could be attributed to a combination of luck, support networks, hard work, and specific skills. For example, I was lucky to learn about system dynamics early in my undergrad from Ali Mashayekhi, and later in my graduate program from John Sterman, both exemplary mentors and thoughtful human beings.

How did you initially decide to study engineering? How can prospective engineering students assess their skill and aptitude? What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an engineering school?

My father owned and managed a small engineering firm, which made challenges of running a company a daily concern for our family, and motivated me to consider management for my undergraduate studies. However, I followed the advice of a teacher in high school who recommended Sharif University for better technical training and talented peers, and I ended up in the closest engineering substitute for management, i.e. industrial engineering.

On considerations for an engineering education, the technical skills one picks up in an engineering education are expected to stay in demand for the foreseeable future and prospective students can combine analytical skills with a range of other strengths to build successful careers in engineering, design, sales, analysis, consulting, and management, to name a few. On the other hand, staying up to date and building some breadth in ones portfolio of skills would be important in the face of an ever-changing job market.

You are professor of management and an associate professor of system dynamics. Please tell us why you chose this area of expertise?

System dynamics is about understanding the dynamics of socio-technical systems through mathematical models, for example why some firms grow where others fail? What structures and institutions explain the differing rates of economic growth among countries? While the more mainstream domains such as economics, sociology, and management study these questions, we had limited exposure to those subjects at Sharif University. Instead, I was hooked as a sophomore in my first system dynamics class with Professor Ali Mashayekhi, marveling at the applicability of engineering modeling tools to understanding social and organizational problems, a refreshing perspective in an otherwise heavily technical curriculum. This early exposure induced me to join the System Dynamics PhD program at MIT, followed by faculty positions at Virginia Tech (Industrial Engineering) and MIT (Management Science; System Dynamics). Throughout I have enjoyed building simulation models of various socio-technical and health systems, and hoping that better solutions can emerge from understanding how the structure of these systems create the problems we care about.

Your research applies dynamic modeling to complex organizational problems. You have analyzed how organizations learning he presence of delays between taking action and observing the results. Could you please elaborate on it for our readers?

Much of modern life revolves around work done inside organizations. Work processes, technologies, and human decisions come together to shape these organizations. Managers, as the rest of us, adjust their decisions based on what they learn from experience when interacting within these complex systems, and some of my research is about the challenges to learning in such settings. As a concrete example, consider how mainstream retail operations are organized in the U.S.: they minimize employee costs by paying low wages, adjusting their workforce quickly (thus having many part-timers and unpredictable schedules for employees), and offering little training or investment in human capital. This may seem the inevitable consequence of competition in this market, if it weren't for a few profitable counter-examples such as Costco, Traders Joe, QuikTrip, and Mercadona which offer better pay, predictable schedules, long-term employment, and much more investment in human capital. Why do the majority of retailers come to adopt policies that hurt employees when viable alternatives exist? Part of the answer may lie in the delays needed to build the alternative model: redesigning work processes so that they benefit from quality employees, and investing in human resource practices and compensation to attract those better employees takes months if not years of investment with uncertain rewards. Half-hearted attempts may actually prove costly as a set of synergistic effects should be activated for the alternative models to work. Thus experiential learning may bias many managers against such complex strategies despite their promise.

What is right and wrong with today's engineering educational offerings?

I lack the broader perspective needed to answer this question. With that caveat in mind, I venture two guesses. First, if we categorize engineering coursework into fundamental analytical tools and specific applications, the latter may be changing more rapidly in many domains (e.g. consider the changes in the dominant software languages). Thus, to the extent it is possible, learning how to learn new methods will become a more important capability than knowing a specific applied tool. From project based education to overarching analytical methods that cross multiple tools (e.g. statistics and linear algebra), and computational platforms that enable modular additions of new methods (e.g. Python and Matlab), what makes students more versatile learners would be more valuable over time. I also think typical engineering education in countries such as Iran embeds a uniform, functionalist and pragmatic worldview which may be lacking in richness when it comes to appreciating diverse perspectives and values of a global community. Components of liberal education found in many U.S. colleges are a great complement to the more technical engineering curriculum.

How did you end up in the field of management?

My research so far has spanned a few areas, such as applying dynamic modeling tools to problems in healthcare (e.g. obesity and depression) and organizational performance (e.g. strategy, product development and project management). I hope my future research moves further into identifying and explaining lose-lose management practices, both for employees and for the firms. Understanding such settings can help us design win-win solutions that improve organizational performance and the well-being of employees.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

For me being Iranian-American adds a range of networks and concerns I regularly engage with. Language, memories, social networks, and cultural affinities feed my concern for the well-being of Iranian-American community, whether it is in the face of potential discrimination or opportunities for civic engagement. They also motivate my hope for a more inclusive and integrated Iran which can thrive as a member of the global community. Many of my friends and colleagues are from the Iranian-American community, and my context-specific knowledge and network makes me a more effective contributor when my organizing, institution building, networking, or civic participation relates to this community. I therefore identify with this community and see value in contributing to it, for example I have been a founding member of Iranian Studies Group at MIT and the International Association of Iranian Managers. That said, I increasingly find humanity's biggest challenges, from inequality of opportunities and incomes, to climate change, to be crossing geographical and cultural borders, and as such I hope to balance my identity as a global citizen with that of an Iranian-American.

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