HBS Preps 900 MBAs For A Massive Global Invasion

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

Youngme Moon, chair of Harvard's MBA program, is leading the curriculum changes

Explains Moon, “If you lived your entire life outside the U.S., you might not want to go back to a developing market. So we created a cohort in New Orleans for students who might want to stay in the U.S. But once they saw their classmates going to these other places,” she adds, “they felt they were missing out on something important. They were so distraught. They had regret over their choice.”


Within two weeks, Harvard cancelled the five projects it had lined up in New Orleans and reassigned the entire 30-student cohort to a new set of assignments in South Africa. “Our partners there were incredibly gracious about the whole thing,” says Moon.


Other than this brief episode, students have been highly positive about the immersion trips. A recent survey in The Harbus, the student newspaper for Harvard Business School, found that 77% of the 354 responding MBAs are “very satisfied” with the location of their projects. “In light of the bad buzz that some of the dissatisfied students created after the unveiling, the survey paints a surprisingly encouraging picture of a class that, on the whole, is happy with their destination,” wrote Kate Lewis, a student who is going to Mumbai, India. She says that most students view the FIELD trip as “an adventure or perhaps even a vacation. Exotic project locales certainly appeal to the HBS student’s enthusiasm for travel and fun.”

Harvard, however, has a significantly different view. It wants to take students out of their “comfort zone” and throw them into a “profound learning experience,” as Moon puts it. Students have spent several weeks in Boston working on their projects. They already had to create parallel products and services for the U.S. market for comparison purposes and to put them through the paces of practicing development skills.

They’ve worked out competing hypothesizes along with three or four concrete ideas on how their projects might unfold. The teams have had videoconferences or phone calls with the organizations to which they have been assigned. Students have detailed agendas that spell out how they will spend their week abroad.


“They are not going in empty-handed,” says Moon. “They have done as much work out of country as they could possibly do to understand the context, the partners’ business, and the structural limitations and boundaries around each project. The anxiety they feel at HBS has always been around being able to perform at a level that the faculty sets. Now there are global partner expectations they have to meet. It’s creating a lot of stress and nervous anticipation. We think it’s a good thing.”

Once the student teams return after Jan. 14th, they will meet to consolidate and share the learning across the entire class. Then, in February, all the global partners will come to Harvard for a debriefing.

Will it be worth it? “We have a huge mountain to climb,” says Moon, who had to get seven vaccination shots because she plans to do drop-in visits at most locations. “I’m sure that things will go wrong, and I am really stressed because of the uncertainty. But we are ready.

“Yes,” she explains, “it’s cool that we are sending people abroad. But our test is to see if we can push business education to this next level and give our students a truly transformative experience. If every one of our sister schools were moving on this path, I really believe the world would be a better place. We would deliver business leaders who are better equipped for the global world.”


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  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne


    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.

  • 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

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