The Reinvention Of Harvard Business School

HBS Dean Nohria named beloved marketing professor Youngme Moon as chair of the MBA program, the first woman to hold that position

But the new dean finds her candor refreshing. He views Moon as one of Harvard’s most accomplished professors, innovative and visionary. “It’s very, very hard to win the best teacher of the year award once at Harvard Business School,” he says. “To win it repeatedly is an extraordinary accomplishment. Youngme is one of our most beloved teachers. She had gotten the best teacher award two or three times. I would ask students ‘who created a magical experience for you at Harvard Business School?’ Repeatedly, Youngme would come up.”


And when it came to pushing through changes in the MBA curriculum, some faculty believed the school needed 18 months to implement the revisions. Nohria disagreed, thinking the same work could be accomplished in a third of the time. “My view of life was that all of the work is going to be done in six months in any event so let’s just pick the six months now,” he says. “We would have just wrung our hands and gotten ourselves anxious for the first 12 months. Work fills to the time allocated, and the vast majority of work is done in the last 80% of the time available. I also worried that we would have lost momentum and energy and people needed to have a sense of progress.”

So the changes will kick in this September rather than the fall of 2012. It would have been of little consequence if those changes amounted to a mere tweaking of the program. Instead, the revisions lessen the school’s dependence on its previously sacrosanct case method of teaching that has been the dominant pedagogy at HBS since the mid-1920s. The changes will also impact every one of Harvard’s more than 1,860 MBA candidates and the vast majority of its 218-strong faculty.

As a life long student of leadership and management who has taught at Harvard Business School since 1988, Nohria seems to know when to push, when to let up. “The classic problem of leadership is how do you keep a healthy organization experimental, nimble and willing to change,” says Eisenmann. “Nitin’s got a masterful command of the institution. He knows how the place works and who’s good at what. It’s an awesome combination of powerful intellect, a super ability to management people, and very good instincts on how you change this place.”


The team putting these changes into effect was personally chosen by Nohria. Besides MBA chair Moon, they include technology and operations professor Frances Frei, head of the FIELD design team and chair of Harvard’s required curriculum; Eisenmann, chair of the school’s elective curriculum, and strategy professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee, who is spearheading the global immersion portion of the program. All share one thing in common: they are master teachers known for their creativity in the classroom. “I was very committed to creating a team of MBA leaders who deeply enjoyed the respect of their students and who were seen by their colleagues as amazing teachers,” says Nohria. “And what made them amazing is that they had the courage to be innovative. They weren’t just teaching the stuff the same way as everyone else. They had already run important innovative experiments in their own classes that broke the mold.”

He expects them to break that mold again with expert implementation of the curriculum revamp. The most significant change is a new first year course called FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development). It will be based on small-group learning experiences that focus on leadership, global business and entrepreneurship. “There is a real learning by doing as opposed to simply putting yourself in the shoes of the actor and asking, ‘what would you do?’ says Nohria. “Now you have to actually do it.” To accommodate the new yearlong course, Harvard is cutting roughly 10% of the classes from its ten core courses in the required first-year curriculum. These are surgical cuts, requiring major coordination with the faculty team designing the new course. “It was not like a cheese slicer,” maintains Nohria. “Some marketing concepts might be better taught not in the marketing course but in the field course. So the faculty leaned back a little bit to give up a few sessions.”

Among other things, FIELD includes a required eight-day global immersion experience during the January term. Lining up some 150 organizations willing to give meaningful project work to 900-plus MBA students in countries as varied as Vietnam, India and China is, in Nohria’s words, “a mammoth administrative and intellectual undertaking. It’s not just global tourism. It’s a spectacular opportunity for students to begin to imagine how to operate in this global century.”

Harvard claims that these global excursions will be unlike what many other schools already offer. Says Moon with conviction: “The easy way to do this is to say ‘we’re going to pair you with a global partner. They’ll give you a consulting project. You’ll work on it, and you’ll present it to them. That is how 95% of global fieldwork gets done. The student experience varies wildly along with the amount of learning. If it’s part of our required curriculum, we need to know with assurance that our students are going to have dramatic learning. So we structured a different kind of exercise that begins months before they leave campus. There is two months of work leading up to the week long immersion. There are a set of ah-has and takeaways along the way.”


The final portion of the course requires students to create and launch a new business enterprise in a newly created Innovation Lab that will open in November. The top two floors of the laboratory will feature ten circular classrooms with movable furniture, called “hives” by HBS faculty, who will stand in the middle and direct small teams of students. It’s a major departure from the classic tiered classrooms where HBS has taught business basics to generations of would-be managers. “That will impart the entrepreneurial energy we know we have here because an extraordinarily large number of us 15 years out have become entrepreneurs,” adds Nohria. We think this will both prepare them for that journey and in some cases give them the courage to act more quickly.”

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