HBS Preps 900 MBAs For A Massive Global Invasion

For the Harvard Business School, it is the academic equivalent of Operation Overlord.

Next month, the school that made the MBA one of the world’s most valuable credentials will launch an invasion of some 900 MBA students, roughly 20 professors and 40 staff members around the world as part of a new and highly ambitious week-long global immersion experience.

Some 152 six-student teams of Harvard MBAs will board airplanes bound for a dozen far-flung cities in 10 foreign countries that range from Argentina and Brazil to China and India. Once there, they’ll hook up with one of 140 organizations to create a new product or service for a developing market.

In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, a team will help to create flood insurance that can be sold to locals. In China, another team will work to develop a new kind of automobile tire. In Ghana, students will work with L’Oreal to help the company redesign a hair product for the local market.


The sheer scale of what Harvard is undertaking is astonishing. For the first time in its 103 year history, the school is shipping nearly an entire class of MBA students abroad, all at one time, in what will undoubtedly be the boldest experiment ever carried out in graduate business education. The goal: To equip Harvard MBAs for business in a global world.

Just the logistics of insuring that each team be in place, ready to go on Jan. 8, are mind-boggling: The school had to line up more than 150 meaningful projects with some 140 multinational companies, small businesses and non-profits. It had to process hundreds of visas, arrange air travel and hotel accommodations for nearly 1,000 travelers to locales as varied as Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, Accra and Cape Town, Ho Chi Minh City and Istanbul, Chongqing and Shanghai, Mumbai and Chennai.

At one point, Harvard University’s new innovation lab was turned into an immunization clinic to vaccinate hundreds of students over three days. A car and driver had to be hired for each student team—and Harvard screened and then trained the drivers to ensure they could speak English and efficiently transport the teams to different locations for on-the-ground research.

Before booking accommodations, Harvard staffers were dispatched to each hotel to test the reliability of its Internet service and find backups in case something goes amiss. Video crews are being sent to at least three locations to film the student teams in action, interviewing potential customers on city streets and malls, working with local managers and executives, and ultimately creating a product or service that can be put into the marketplace. Because not all of the 907 first-year students could travel, Harvard had to set up a pair of projects in Boston.


“The amount of planning as been extraordinary,” says Youngme Moon, a marketing professor who is chair of Harvard’s MBA program. “But this is HBS so we feel there is an expectation of quality, consistency and reliability. If we are truly going to become a global organization, we have to learn how to do this and do it by scale.”

If the experience is truly transformative for the students, it has already been so for the school itself. To organize the effort, Harvard had to increase the size of its support staff for the MBA program by ten people. More importantly, Moon and her team had to call on HBS resources far removed from MBA program delivery, borrowing staff from executive education, external relations, and the school’s global research centers. Faculty across all the different disciplines from finance to marketing came together on this project. “We had to break down the silos and boundaries and work together as a school in a way we never had,” says Moon.

She uses a medical school analogy to explain why Harvard is going to all this trouble. “For decades medical schools have understood the benefits of sending their students into real hospitals where they can practice what they’ve learned in the classroom,” she says. “We wanted a set of partners around the world who would in a sense become our teaching hospitals.”

  • Furious Styles

    I completely agree, this a classic case of envy distorting the point of the article. This is a great website and kind of disappointed to see the negative comments people are posting

  • PG,

    Thanks for your comments. We’ve written in-depth about the John Hopkins Carey MBA program, including its “Innovation for Humanity” experience which requires teams of students to travel to one of four countries–Rwanda, Kenya, Peru or India–for three weeks to work on pressing social issues. But again, it’s one thing doing this on a very small scale (at Hopkins we’re talking about 88 students, less than one-tenth the Harvard class, and at a start-up school without entrenched rituals, traditions and faculty). At Kellogg, the Global Initiatives in Management program, which includes a two-week-long field experience outside the U.S., is voluntary and taken by roughly a quarter of the full-time MBA students (276 did it in 2009). Harvard has had those experiences for many years.

    Truth is, the most comparable and prominent business school program is the University of Michigan’s MAP which is a differentiating centerpiece of the school’s MBA experience. Everyone must take it and it’s actually more meaningful than the Harvard experience because students spend far more time on those projects. But even this program is largely domestic and does not require a school to send an entire class of 900 students to other countries.

    What I have honestly found, PC, is that because Harvard is so resource rich and prestigious, many people are envious of its success. So people are eager to criticize the school and whatever it does. That is the curse of being number one. When you’re big and famous, a target is often painted on your back.

  • PG


    As most commenters have rightly figured out, HBS is playing catchup here. The point that you make about the program’s unprecedented scale and logistics seems to me a no-brainer given the size of HBS’ class and resources at its disposal. In fact, a justification of newsworthiness based on size alone reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s “self-fulfilling prophecy” argument about B-School rankings critiqued earlier on this site.

    The Economist published an article in December, on this HBS program which was written with an ill-informed positive bias towards HBS’s “leadership” :
    Despite a broader reader profile, that article too got slammed in the comments.

    The article states “…(Harvard’s) experiment does not come cheap, adding 10-15% to the course’s cost … which HBS will bear while it figures out what works.” I would rather call it a remarkable use of Harvard’s “resources” if, for instance, HBS funded it leveraging its brand equity and network instead of eating into assets or operating margins. One such way could be a third party co-sponsorship which would establish a new business model.

    Another tiny school (~1/10th the size of HBS) also !1/100th its age, The Carey Business school at Johns Hopkins University was on Forbes as “..10 Most Innovative” b-school courses for a similar program encompassing all enrolled students. That program was envisioned two years ago, at the time of commencememt. The program serves a different business segment, has a longer duration.

    How about doing an in-depth “compare and contrast” type analysis of HBS and such peer programs? I believe it will serve both P&Q reputation and site rankings better than merely a news-story retold?


  • Surprised

    Isn’t this the same as GIM at Kellogg?

  • AH

    To those saying Harvard is playing catch up, it’s worth mentioning that the IXP and GIX programs at HBS were already in existence before this initiative. Both of those programs focused on international immersion and local consulting projects for HBS students during the January term. So, HBS has been doing something similar to this initiative for a while, and hasn’t been asleep at the wheel when it comes to experiential learning.

    That being said, what makes this new initiative noteworthy is the fact that it’s now required of all 900+ first-year students and is part of a radical shift in the curriculum. While it’s a week on the ground, there is an entire course associated with this work to prepare for the project. Also, HBS is the most renowned business school in the world, so the press and the article’s tone is appropriate.

  • As a current first year student at HBS going on this FIELD trip next week, let me tell you how this program is different and how HBS is truly creating history.
    1. FIELD is not a 1 week program. It is a full course, spanning 2 years! The international trip is officially Phase 2 of FIELD which includes a site visit to the country/company/product we’ve been working on since the start of the semester.
    2. FIELD Phase 1 dealt with training us on leadership, adapting to new circumstances, providing feedback to dissipate conflict situations and basic skills that yes, can be developed through experience, but if learned from the best minds in the business, can accelerate that learning and subsequent application of skills.
    3. FIELD phase 3 is about creating a micro-business based on the skills learned in phase 1 and 2. This could encompass a product available in the emerging markets that we visit in Jan 2012 or take a component of the experience (the product, the customer, the team) and create a viable pilot business. This is direct application of FIELD 1 and 2 into the regular course curriculum.

    Yes, 1 week is a short time to be in a country but think about consulting projects where client meetings happen over 1-2 days for Fortune 500 companies. The consultants develop high cost strategies and restructuring based on a couple days worth of time with the client. In this respect, FIELD gives us enough time to get to know the management, talk to the customer and pilot test hypothesis for products that we’ve been developing since September 2011.

    Other business schools have had global programs for decades and so has HBS, if you are familiar with the IXP programs that were student led prior to 2011. But the scope of FIELD is many multiples of these programs and has thus far (even before going in-country) been a unparalleled and enriching experience.

    I’m a skeptic and HBS has me sold.

  • MBA_aficionado

    Bravo for harvard finally deciding to include experiential learning and more global elements into their program… and as others have commented, yes, the main thing that is impressive here is the sheer scale of the endeavor. However, if the goal is to “take students out of their comfort zone” and “throw them into a profound/transformative learning experience” then it looks like there is still a whole lot of work to do. These treks are only one week long. How transformative can one week be? And honestly, how much impact can you have coming in to consult for one week? Further it sounds like this one week experience also is a bit pre-scripted / comes with training wheels… Don’t get me wrong, when I travel to international locations I too would love to have my drivers pre-screened for english profiency, and have staffers dispatched ahead of time to hotels to ensure they are adequate, etc. But I wouldn’t exactly call that real-world. That aside, still, bravo to HBS for taking steps in the right direction re: more experiential learning and less emphasis on purely US business.