HBS Preps 900 MBAs For A Massive Global Invasion

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.”


  • 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.