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From the slopes to the classroom: Chris Bingham

UNC Kenan-FlaglerBefore Chris Bingham won awards for his teaching and research in strategy and innovation, he graced the cover of an international snowboarding magazine.

Bingham was a nationally sponsored snowboarder in the 1980s, the earliest days of the sport. As he participated in the creation of a new industry, he was introduced to the themes of market emergence, innovation and change that continue to fascinate him long after he traded the slopes for the classroom.

And before Bingham decided on a career in academia, he worked for a large firm (Price Waterhouse), a small firm and two top-tier consulting firms (McKinsey & Company and Deloitte Consulting). The small firm was a design and architectural company that worked on four and five-star hospitality projects, including the Westin Hotel in Jakarta and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. He joined as director of finance, but his role quickly turned to general manager, which allowed him to explore almost every aspect of the firm’s operations, from hiring to sales.

“I was tasked with integrating all of the different functions of a business and deciding, for example, how marketing interplays with human resources and finance at a given moment,” said Bingham. “That’s where I really fell in love with strategy. The role of the strategist is to find how all of these different pieces can come together to help an organization create success and outperform others in its industry.”

He went back to Brigham Young University, where he’d graduated with an accounting degree, for an MBA and a master’s degree in international studies, and then on to Stanford to earn his PhD in strategy, organizations and entrepreneurship.

That passion for strategy remains at the forefront of his research interests at UNC Kenan-Flagler, where Bingham studies strategy, innovation and change in fast-paced, dynamic markets. He has examined organizational adaptation and innovation in high-tech industries and explored how entrepreneurial firms develop acquisition, product development, alliances and internationalization capabilities.

Much of his research is at the intersection of organizational learning and entrepreneurship, said Jennifer Conrad, former senior associated dean for academic affairs and the Dalton McMichael Distinguished Professor of Finance. “In today’s ‘high velocity markets’ – to borrow part of one of his course titles – understanding how firms might learn more quickly, adapt faster or introduce new ideas more successfully is of critical importance. Chris’s work has implications that are valuable for other types of organizations. Educational institutions, such as UNC Kenan-Flagler, also compete in the dynamic markets that he analyzes, and so benefit from his research.”

UNC Kenan-FlaglerIn the classroom, he takes a hands-on, applied approach to teaching. He uses a varied pedagogy to engage students, including role-playing, small group discussions and guest speakers. Bingham frequently reaches out to the UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni network to bring the concepts on his syllabus to life. Whether he’s Skyping in a CEO to let students pitch market creation ideas or hosting a panel of Coca-Cola executives to discuss an industry case study, his objective is to create an interactive learning experience.

“I am definitely not a lecturer. I really like to draw on students’ diverse backgrounds and create dialogue,” he said. “I see myself as a facilitator and router of information.”

By inviting his students to share their unique experiences, Bingham enhances his own learning, too.

“What I love most about teaching is the interplay between the classroom and research,” said Bingham. “I’m a field researcher, so I go into different organizations, talk to the executives, figure out what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Then I bring all those ideas into the classroom and share them with my students.”

“I’ll have perspectives from all the different students in the classroom – not only their industry experience but their international experience,” he added.” “I can take those insights and incorporate their ideas into my research, which helps sharpen my understanding of why things are happening.”

In addition to bouncing research ideas off his students, Bingham asks them to take part in an even bigger collaborative effort: giving back to the community. When he covers the topic of organizational structure in class, for example, Bingham brings in leaders from local nonprofit groups, such as TABLE, which serves underprivileged children. Applying concepts from the course, MBA students help develop a few simple rules for hiring, fundraising and partnerships within these groups, helping them better fulfill their missions.

“The students that have been admitted here are exceptionally bright and gifted, and it’s our responsibility to share the knowledge we’ve been given,” said Bingham. “MBA students are often involved in physical projects that give back to the community, like building a house for Habitat for Humanity, but I think there’s even more value in giving back intellectually – in using the tools and frameworks that they receive in their classes to help others.”

The impact of this short, straightforward task reflects the central theme that Bingham has noticed during his years of research in strategy and innovation: the power of simplicity.

“A lot of people think that you need to have a complicated strategy for the complex world that we’re in, but the reality is that the best strategies are often most simple,” said Bingham.

Bingham also asks each student to spend time sharing an idea or framework from the course with a friend, family member, colleague or anyone in the community. While the “give back” assignment requires relatively little of students’ time, it has provided enormous benefits for the recipients. Bingham has witnessed his students accomplish everything from helping a family business address key challenges to improving a business associate’s product rollout.

“I end my course telling students they are smart and good, but that is not enough. You need to be smart and good for something. You need to make the world a better place.”