The Four Curriculums of a Great MBA

When leadership professor Nitin Nohria became dean of the Harvard Business School last July, he had to give up teaching in the classroom. But he has managed to do a bit of cameo instruction here and there, including the lunch-time presentation of a two-page case study on whether HBS delivers what it promises to MBA students: a transformational experience.


The case is based on research by a Nohria colleague, senior lecturer Scott Snook, who has tracked 50 MBA students at Harvard Business School from the moment they received their offer letter to the time they graduated two years later. “It is probably the most exhaustive study ever done at Harvard Business School on what is the true experience of students,” says Nohria. “Scott explored a basic question: We promise to deliver a transformational experience for them. Do we? This is what we’re saying to everyone else, but are we actually doing it?”

What Snook discovered has implications for faculty and students at all two-year MBA programs. “Our students experience our curriculum not as one but four different curriculums and each one has the capacity to be transformational for the development of students,” says Nohria.

The most obvious curriculum is academic. “It is, of course, what faculty members think of as the curriculum at Harvard Business School. But that is our view of what the curriculum is. Many students graduate from here feeling more capable. They leave here in a totally different place in terms of their ability to think about business. Some of these things become valuable to you later in your career, not in your first year out of business school. A number of alumni have said to me that the full benefit of the school only became more apparent to them the further they advanced in their careers. That’s where this capacity to holistically understand a business and size up a situation occurs.

“The second is our social curriculum and that is a very powerful thing,” adds Nohria. “There are study groups and a wide variety of social events outside of school. Those can be profoundly important things to people. who meet people who become lifelong partners. It gives you a sense of who you are and how you relate to other people. It gives you life long friends and partners. And it can establish your standing in social groups that you are likely to inhabit once you leave business school.

“The third is a career curriculum because the vast majority of students are looking, some very explicitly, to switch careers, jobs, or companies. But this curriculum also is for people are here for the chance to explore and imagine other opportunities. They go to career fairs and they talk to people from other sectors. They come to campus and see if do they would ever have an interest in entertainment or sports marketing.

“And then Scott says there is a fourth one which is the most subtle but no less important,” continues Nohria. “There is a cultural curriculum and it’s cultural. You learn about different cultures because you meet people from all nationalities. You meet them from different socio-economic strata. You meet people with very different political, religious and other kinds of views. So you also get a sense of having had a cultural education. One student who was an Orthodox Jew and lived in a very closed Jewish community his entire life said that having the opportunity to meet others at Harvard Business School changed his view of the world.”

During the case discussion, Nohria probed students about which of their experiences has been most meaningful. The purpose: To allow MBA students to understand that they can benefit from all four curriculums and should be open to “this journey in all these ways.”

Nohria, however, believes academics still is at the heart of the MBA experiences. “If you take that out, none of the other stuff would be meaningful,” he says. “Nobody would come here. If you asked applicants, ‘Why don’t you come for a two-year party?,’ it may sound like people would come but they won’t. In the end, the quality of the education experience is what brings people together. All the other stuff is icing on the cake, but the cake is what people come to eat.

Nohria says he worries that the transformational potential of an excellent two-year MBA program may not be transferable to compressed MBAs, such as “one year programs and Executive MBA programs where you come every other week. What’s striking to me is that people are positioning these degrees as exactly the same. The good news is that the vast majority of our students did experience the program as transformational. It’s just that it was transformational in different ways.”


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