11 Jun 2021

Behind the Research: Raffaella Sadun Q+A

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Raffaella Sadun

By: Shona Simkin

Raffaella Sadun, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), received an unusual honor this summer: a knighthood bestowed by the president of Italy. Awarded for “merit acquired by the nation,” the Grande Ufficiale dell’Ordine is the highest ranking order of the republic. We asked Sadun about the award, her research, and her path to HBS.

A knighthood is quite an honor. How did this come about?

Last year, Italy was one of the first countries hit by COVID. One day towards the end of March, I had just left the office, and I got a voicemail from a man speaking Italian, saying that he was the prime minister of Italy and he wanted to talk to me. I immediately thought this was my brother making a joke, but it was true. The prime minister assembled a task force of about 20 people—a wide variety of people in policy, academics, and more. The mandate was to better understand how to think about Italy after the pandemic—to think about this as a new renaissance for the country. I hadn’t been back to Italy in two years, and this was very motivating—it felt like there was a real need to rethink the economy. For two months I worked with this group of 20 on Zoom. Three HBS students—Andrea Bertoni (MBA 2021), Mapi Testa (MBA 2021), and Giovanni Fassio (MBA 2019)—volunteered to help. The task force created a document that had a large number of proposals of very concrete things to do to change the Italian economy and make it more productive and equal. The knighthood was given to all of us on the task force.

What was the task force experience like for you?

I think of myself as an academic and I enjoy being in an academic environment, especially here, but this was a real turning point for me. It was a time in which I had the concrete possibility of translating things that I have been working on for a long time into reality, and that's really nice. It's very motivating. The second act of this work is that since then, the government changed and some of the people I worked with became ministers in this new government. And a lot of these ideas now have a good chance of being implemented.

What is your connection to Italy?

I was born and raised in Italy and did all my undergrad studies in Rome. I'm now a dual citizen, Italian and American. It's a strong connection, but my dream was always to come and live in Boston, so I feel like I've fulfilled that dream. My father was a hand surgeon, and we traveled to Boston every summer, starting when I was three, while he trained on the latest techniques with his mentor, a wonderful hand surgeon who practiced at New England Baptist Hospital.

How did you come to teach at HBS?

It is a dream for me to be a professor here. It's completely not something that I thought was in the realm of possibility when I was studying at the University of Rome. What happened was a coincidence. I was sent here as a PhD student to give a talk. I was four months pregnant, and there was a participant who had some very intense questions. And at the end of the talk, someone from the Strategy Unit came up to me and said they thought I’d be a good match for the MBA students…it turned out to be a fantastic match for me as an academic because, besides enjoying the very engaging interactions with our students, I'm a very pragmatic person—I like to know what's happening on the ground and this is a great place to get a feeling for that.

What is your area of research?

I'm an economist, and specialize in measuring how managers and management practices affect firm level productivity. For a long time management practices were completely ignored in economics. We knew that companies were very different in terms of their performance and profitability, but the notion that differences in the ways that companies were managed might be reflected in performance differential was largely ignored. The belief was that an incapable manager would be fired, or that a company that was not well managed would disappear, or that best practices would quickly diffuse. And now there is a new angle of research for economists who are interested in how what happens inside an organization matters for that organization’s performance.

The second angle that I look at is that what happens at the firm level is important to understanding how countries differ in terms of productivity. Large representative samples allow you to speak to the importance of firms for the overall economy.

How did you become interested in this work?

I was really fascinated by this notion of trying to understand differences in growth across countries. It has implications for all individuals. I was lucky that I had the chance to look at this question from the perspective of firms and managers, and learned how it could be used to look at how that affects the bigger picture.

What do you like best about teaching and research?

Right now I'm teaching executives—mid-career executives and entrepreneurs. I get a lot from this interaction—they bring very concrete problems, and I learn a lot about the work. For example, being able to teach executives during the pandemic gave me a sense of how dynamic and how much experimentation and innovation was actually happening. That type of interaction with the real world gave me a lot of hope—these people were coming to us at a time in which the world was basically crumbling. Some people were looking at this crisis as an opportunity, and were able to leverage that. Having direct contact with that element of vitality is really interesting. What brings me joy is the notion that what I study can be helpful in the real world.

I'm convinced that business education has a really important role right now. For example, we have massive adjustments from the perspective of working from home, and we have a tremendous need to rescale or think about workers who couldn't work for a long time—both because of COVID but also because something is happening in the economy that is making some jobs obsolete. A lot of these responses are driven by policy, but a lot of how effective we are at coping with these changes happens inside the organization. To me, this is a moment in which there is a search for answers and different ways of doing things and I think that business schools can really play an important role. The same way they played an important role during the second World War. I felt this especially with the students who helped me on the task force—they were amazing, they worked day and night, just for this project. I could really see firsthand what they could do. It was a really nice way to discover this side of our students.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I'm a good cook! At least in our group of friends I'm considered to be a very good tiramisu maker and I love cooking—that is what I would say is my hobby.


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