Professors bring jazz into the workplace

What does product integration have to do with syncopation? Quite a bit, say Ron Purser and Andrew Speight.

The two SF State faculty members have spent the last few years developing Jazz @ Work, a unique training program to bring the teamwork concepts of jazz ensembles, such as creativity, improvisation and innovation, into the business world.

The project was one of ten funded through a grant from the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs following ORSP's spring 2009 Faculty Research and Creative Activities Retreat. In 2010, Speight and Purser, along with SF State's Generations Jazz Band, facilitated workshops on jazz in the workplace for NASA and The Economist. Since then, they've been refining the program and developing curriculum and materials.

A photo of SF State Professor of Management Ron Purser

SF State Professor of Management Ron Purser.

Speight, a jazz musician and lecturer in music and dance, was already exploring how to look at music in unconventional ways. Purser, a professor of management and expert in organizational development, had long been interested in how jazz could be used to teach teamwork skills.

"When the possibility of ORSP funding came up, it was the perfect opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration," said Purser, who is also an amateur blues guitarist. "You couldn't get two stranger bedfellows than business and music."

At the 2009 retreat, Purser and Speight shared a video about the project they had co-produced, and discussed the creative process involved in making the video and how their ideas about improvisation changed as a result of their collaboration. They plan to participate in January's Faculty Research and Creative Activities retreat, which Purser said provides a great opportunity to see how projects from across the University are being developed.

A photo of SF State Music and Dance Lecturer Andrew Speight.

SF State Music and Dance Lecturer Andrew Speight.

The concept of using jazz to gain insight on how to run businesses effectively is a relatively new one, said Purser, who has studied creativity.

"If you look at the research on creativity over the past years it's been primarily focused on the individual," he said. "It's only in the last 15 years we've started to think about it at the team level. You look at any kind of development of a major product or service, and it really is a collaborative effort. The research is just starting to catch up."

When it comes to working collaboratively, businesses can learn a lot from the way jazz ensembles operate. Jazz groups are "forever innovative," said Speight. They blend multiple personalities and talents to service a common goal, and have to manage several opposing creative tensions, including tradition and innovation, soloing and accompanying, and playing tight and playing loose. They build on a core set of fundamentals, and members know precisely the right times at which to take risks.

"Jazz musicians have to be disciplined but they also have to be loose and playful," Purser said. "They have to be able to take risks but also to operate within their comfort zone. You have a soloist but you are also being the accompanist. So the leadership in a jazz group is moving around. It's not just one individual."

The workshops with NASA and The Economist involved teaching participants about the various aspects of jazz teamwork, having the Generations Jazz Band demonstrate those concepts and then asking participants to evaluate how they have been or could be applied within their own groups.

For example, Speight adapted a personality test to allow participants to both see what mix of personalities worked best in a jazz ensemble and also evaluate how their own teams could be put together to more efficiently and effectively achieve their goals.

Speight and Purser are now looking for the right opportunity to market the program to a wider audience, and the positive reaction to their initial workshops leads them to believe their idea has plenty of potential.

"For as long as I've played jazz, I've known there was an intellectual problem jazz musicians had figured out in a way that could be used in other fields," Speight said. "The jazz group is successful because everyone has some ownership in what they're creating."

This is a first in a series of articles highlighting institutes, centers and faculty affinity groups formed during the Office of Research and Sponsored Program's spring 2009 Faculty Research and Creative Activities Retreat. The next Research and Creative Activities Retreat will be held in the J. Paul Leonard Library on Jan. 23 and 24. To learn more or to reserve space for an affinity group, visit

-- Jonathan Morales