MSLOC at 15: Samir Desai: Northwestern's Executive Director of Learning and Organization Development and Adjunct Professor

MSLOC at 15: Samir Desai: Northwestern's Executive Director of Learning and Organization Development and Adjunct Professor

Samir DesaiWe’re celebrating 15 years of the Masters in Learning and Organizational Change program by profiling MSLOC alumni, students, and faculty. In this story, meet Samir Desai, Northwestern’s Executive Director of Learning and Organization Development and MSLOC adjunct professor.

About halfway through his career at Accenture, Samir Desai felt the itch to teach high school. But the timing wasn’t right and Desai soon realized that as a senior manager leading 25 people, he had the chance to teach – and learn – every day.

Today, Desai boasts that he has one of the best jobs at Northwestern University because he gets to help develop the full potential of staff, faculty, and — by extension — students. The most fulfilling part of his job? “Watching people grow and develop,” he says.

We talk to Desai, who teaches the MSLOC course “Creating and Sharing Knowledge,” about growing with Accenture, his decision to leave, and what a bed of nails taught him about quality teaching.

Q: At Accenture, you were the managing director for talent development, responsible for more than 300,000 employees. What interested you in Northwestern?

A: I love having the opportunity to be very hands-on here at Northwestern. Having a more direct influence on the people who walk past my window is tremendous. I still get to do strategy and design work, but I also get to kick off our new orientation training and welcome new staff. We have 7,000 staff and 3,000 faculty; part of what excited me was that I could use my experience to really transform our training, utilize technology to scale it across the university, and reach all our schools and administrative units.

Q: You studied engineering and began your career as a technology consultant. What piqued your interest in organizational learning?

I got involved in the intersection of learning and technology after I completed a master’s in computer science at Northwestern through an innovative cross-discipline program that combined cognitive science and artificial intelligence with education and training. It became my passion and I was able to grow on the people side of things. My analytical side helps because I can think in organized, structured ways when I’m facing complex issues. And there is nothing more complex than human interaction!

Q: In 2006, you co-authored the book Return on Learning, which details Accenture’s re-invention of learning to align with business strategy. Can you talk more about that time?

Accenture had 30,000 employees when I started, and 300,000 when I left. As we grew, we had challenges and constraints in terms of allocating resources. We simply couldn’t do talent development as we had before, and we had to think more strategically. I actually grew in parallel with Accenture. As they developed new innovations in learning development, I was able to learn right along with them.

Q: Who inspired you about being an educator

Bob Grimm was my high school physics teacher, and he really inspired me because he made learning fun and about the world we live in, not something abstract. He’d do things like take his shirt off and lay down on a bed of nails with a cement block on top of him. He’d have a student break it with a hammer, and then explain why it didn’t hurt because the force was distributed over 100 nails!

Q: What are the top challenges that leaders will be facing in the next five years?

Leadership roles in people-oriented fields require an ability to focus not so much on building skills and behaviors, but on organizing structures to facilitate growth. The second challenge involves globalization, not only in terms of the complexity of organizations, but also in terms of the increased diversity of employees. It really takes a different kind of talent leader to be able to specialize and personalize solutions based on the various needs of their staff. Leadership even at the C-suite level need to recognize that and have the skills to address it.

Q: What do you say to people who are worried that robots are taking all our jobs?

There’s a lot of hype around artificial intelligence, but I’m actually quite optimistic that there will be more jobs available to manage all of those who are interacting with technology. In the end, technology supports and enhances what people do. Ever since I was studying for my masters, people have been talking about robots replacing people. That was 20 years ago and it hasn’t happened!

Q: What questions or advice do students most often ask you?

I love when I meet students outside of class and we have a chance to talk. Because I’ve been in this field for almost 30 years, people often ask me about my career progression. I wish I could say that when I was younger, I had some sort of strategic plan! The truth is that I had really good mentors. I listened, and every now and again, I took a risk.

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