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.

  • siraj

    IMD MBA program is superior in practical learning through its amazing International Consulting Project ICP. they were doing this for years. and now many top US mba programs including Harvard and Stanford are just following the IMD steps. I strongly believe that this school is the real treasure..

  • A

    As a former participant of UNC’s Global Business Project, I must say I am underwhelmed at this “groundbreaking” (really?) program.

    The GBP is a semester-long project that is focused around solving a real business problem for a non-US or multinational company. It culminates in a trip to one of several countries where students work with and eventually present to senior management.

    I am pleased, though not entirely surprised, to see that my school (Wisconsin) and other GBP participant schools are ahead of the curve.


  • Rami

    Dear All,

    every one knows that the major consulting and investment banking firms do recruit from the good schools regardless weather are they american, european or asian? so, please don’t underlook into good schools just because you dont like them or obviously they didnt accept you. INSEAD is exciting since 1957 and doing fantastic on all measures. in fact in term of historical background, the ESCP is being offering business education since 1819! just to reminder you that MIT start offer MBA in the late 90s less than 20 Ys, similar yale. and the successful Duke fuqua was established in 1969 very late in american standards, however it did amazing. the bottom line is, yes, business education in US is better in GENERAL and yes almost harvard and wharton has no peer in europe but it is also true that INSEAD is really really top tier school and one of the best worldwide. when mckinsey recruit 127 graduate in single year that some thing amazing. yes 40 or so are already sponsored by mckinsey but the remain are new hires. and also, yes that the majority of INSEAD class is already consultants but this is good thing not bad, because it tells you if you want a career in consultant it is better for you to surround your self by an industry experts and connect with them earlier. and also, yes, INSEAD is too fast, but that is the real world and the real business. at all, INSEAD is the only true global business school not centered to any part, the cases in insead class come from across the globe not only from single country and for this reason actually the top firms prefer insead graduates particularly if you know that 70% of GE revenue come from outside US, same to many top F500 firms. and to know the real comparison, just type in google search INSEAD vs and see what you will get and which schools are comparable to insead. in term of class size, can you please tell me about the bottom 300 or so from Harvard where they go? and how much they earn? another point, dont stuck to much with ranking and prestige because the employer will not HIRE HBS or stanford or INSEAD they will hire you. and definitely the brand will not guard you from the real business world. in fact, when the person insisting too much on his institution brand name, it is really negative sign about him not a good one. any way, I strongly believe, the top 30 business schools worldwide can give good education and prepare you for management position, after graduation it is all about you to survive.

  • faw

    This article is ridiculous! PR gone mad. The author fails to mention that the top european business schools have been doing this for years. In fact, it is something of an annual tradition to travel to a so called ‘far flung’ country and work with a commercial comapany.

    The article is just typical of the american introspective point of view which those of us who live outside the country cannot stand.

  • LA

    I could be reading this wrong but I was very put off by the “controversy” surrounding the New Orleans trips. The students’ attitudes just reek of entitlement. More than six years after Katrina New Orleans is still an emerging domestic market. I am sure the organizations in NOLA were prepared to offer students a transformative experience that probably would have benefited a city still in the midst of rebuilding. So what if it doesn’t require a passport and shots to get there. For many international students the whole purpose of coming to the US for the MBA is to gain exposure to business in this country. Isn’t that exactly what they’d be getting in NOLA? So because your trip doesn’t seem as “sexy” as your classmates you complain until the school pulls out of a partnership that both parties work diligently to establish? Some people need to learn how to maximize what they are given. Any professional knows that not liking a project doesn’t mean you get to kick and scream and throw it back for a new one.

  • LA

    It seems to me that the only difference between what HBS is doing and similar programs already established at Ross, USC, Kellogg, etc. is the scale of the endeavor. HBS has the largest MBA program so the logistics of putting this together have to be mind boggling. However, the concept of sending MBA students abroad to tackle real business issues is not ground breaking. Promoting it as such seems a bit insulting to the institutions who have already been there and are doing it.

  • Rick

    John, great article thank you. I’m turned off by the many who criticize and are negative in their comments. Keep up the great web site it’s wonderful!!

  • At Kellogg, 400 students across all programs participate in Global Initiatives in Management (GIM) bringing students face-to-face with senior leaders from business and government, providing a firsthand look at the challenges they face. Founded at Kellogg in 1990, GIM combines 10 weeks of classroom education with two weeks of intensive, in-country field research. During their GIM trip, students gain an intimate understanding of the strategy and operations involved in running various organizations. They then produce original scholarship that contributes to our overall knowledge of global business and leadership.

    Check out the videos from Kellogg’s 2011 GIM experiences -http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/academic/international/gim/videos.htm

  • Clint

    I totally agree that its quite notable HBS’s logistical feat. 900 students all out at once, all over the world, that really is an accomplishment.

    It does seem a bit gimmickly on HBS’s part, but for a new program it would seem that way. The important thing here is that they’re trying, and showing real committment to this type of learning for their students.

    If anything HBS’s efforts here should help the MBA world “wake up” to the global reality.

  • Furious Styles

    Harvard is the most prestigious school in the world. I think regardless of what other schools do, it will always get more press time whenever it does anything. That is just a fact.

  • Sean Patrick

    It appears the real news is that Harvard is catching up with the times. #BeenThereDoneThatAready

  • Alois de Novo

    John: Ross, DP and Jose seem to be arguing that this junket is no more newsworthy than similar efforts previously undertaken at other b-schools. I dunno. I’m not in this class at Harvard and I haven’t attended those other schools.

    Not sure Baltasar’s expresses the same irony as Shakespeare’s:

    Cowards die many times before their deaths;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
    It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
    Will come when it will come.

  • Ross and DP,

    There is no bias in favor of HBS or any other school here nor is there an ax to grind. Rather, there is a great number of people who are envious of Harvard because it is so resource rich compared to any other business school in the world. They’re jealous of the fact that so many Harvard MBAs are CEOs and managing directors of major corporations and have as much power and influence in the world as they do. Some people dislike anyone or anything that successful. That’s a shame.

    The story on Harvard’s global immersion trip is no puff job. It quotes a rival dean doubting the across-the-board quality of the company projects; it quotes a student saying that most MBAs see this as either an “adventure” or “vacation,” rather than the transformative experience Harvard wants it to be, and it details a controversy that immediately erupted when the school decided to send 30 students to New Orleans instead of to a developing market. It quotes an unnamed student expressing his frustration and anger at Harvard for wanting to send him to a domestic location when the whole idea of this experience was to immerse students in a truly global environment. But the story also gives credit where credit is due: No school has pulled off what HBS is attempting, given the scale and scope of sending nearly 900 students at one time to meaningful assignments with 140 organizations in 10 foreign countries. No school had devoted 40 staffers and 20 faculty members to such a global experience.

    As for your claim that our more general coverage of Harvard is biased, I need to tell you that we’ve run plenty of stories Harvard would have preferred not to see, including our report “PE vs. PC at Harvard Business School” on how HBS was turning down highly qualified applicants from private equity shops last year, applicants who would have been accepted in he past. And when the stats came out to confirm that early story, we reminded every one of the apparent and controversial shift in HBS’ admissions policy in “Harvard Down on Finance Types.” When prominent HBS alums were indicted on insider trading charges, we wrote those stories, from including “Famous HBS Alum Surrenders to FBI” and “Harvard MBA Pleads Guilty to Fraud.” We also wrote a very detailed portrayal of one alum who went wrong in “How a Harvard MBA Traded on Inside Information.” When we found an HBS alum who went to her alumni reunion at Harvard and felt short changed by her MBA experience at the school, we asked her to write an essay to explain why. Reflections of a Disillusioned Harvard MBA is among the most read stories on the site. When Dean Nitin Nohria was on a National Public Radio Show and he was sharply challenged by the host for saying Harvard MBAs also go to work in social enterprise and small business, we wrote about that in “Trio of Deans Defend MBA: A Sharp Exchange with HBS’ Nohira on NPR.” When it was found that women were getting fewer of the honors and distinctions at Harvard, we wrote about that, too, in “Why Men Outperform Women at Harvard.” And when an alum wrote a highly critical piece on the school’s culture, we ran a story entitled: “HBS Alum Slams Alma Mater Culture.” And let’s not forget: “Harvard IS Working with Bernie Madoff.”

    So let me remind you of a great quote by Baltasar Gracian who wrote that “the envious die not once, but as oft as the envied win applause.” It seems clearly appropriate here.


  • DP

    Ross, I agree. This site has always felt like one of those “special advertising sections” for HBS and this article is just the latest evidence. I was trying to find an editorial board or ombudsman but there’s not one listed, I guess the new journalism standards don’t require it. It is becoming transparent to everyone how biased they are to HBS.

  • SS

    Or you can just go to INSEAD and actually be part of a real diverse student body where everyone is a minority, where no one country has more than 10% in the student body and you have multiple campuses across the world to study at.

  • David

    Once again, HBS proves why it is the most prestigious and coveted business school in the entire world. Aside from having the most impressive student body, they are miles ahead in terms of innovation. Kudos to them. HBS is definitely the most transformational 2 years of one’s life.

  • Ed

    This is a great idea, but its hardly the first of its kind. NYU Stern (Undergrad) has a program called the International Studies Program (ISP) that is very similar. That is…the program sends all of the junior class (close to 700 students) to other countries (China, Argentina, Hungary, Singapore, etc.) for a week of study.

  • Jose

    How much has HBS paid to have this article published? or it is just for free because Harvard is Harvard? …

    Many b-schools do similar programs and HBS has only copied them.

  • jay

    Seems like a huge investment on their part to provide students with jone week of international experience. But then again, they have plenty of disposable cash.

  • Ross

    I appreciate the response, John. But based on just a handful of links and examples provided in the comments (which clearly skims the surface), Harvard’s initiative just doesn’t appear to be as groundbreaking as your piece purports. I applaud their initiative, but it appears overdue.

  • Ross,

    Let me assure that i am very familiar with what other schools have done and or doing in this area. But this story is on Harvard’s global immersion experience and obviously not a general story on experiential learning. The plain truth is that no school has ever attempted what Harvard is doing right now.

  • Ross

    Seriously…this article reads like a Press Release straight out of the HBS PR department, which is fine if it’s signed by HBS Media, but isn’t passable for journalism. It appears that the author failed to mention any comparable programs aside from Darden, which is an egregious oversight. Clearly there are a LOT of international programs already instituted at peer institutions, some of which are actually more intensive and better established than HBS’ new initiative…See Cristian’s link. This article is kind of crazy, actually. I would assume, judging by the fact that MBA news dominates this website’s beat and author’s area of expertise, that the author would be more familiar with the space and less infatuated with whatever press release and interview request appeared in his inbox a couple weeks ago.

  • Cristian,

    Thanks for filling us in. Really appreciate it.

  • Cristian

    I’m surprised that there’s no mention of the international experience programs provided by the schools in southern California. Since Clint commented about UCLA already I’ll go ahead and put in a plug for USC and wonder why they weren’t mentioned.

    The University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business has been running their Pacific Rim International Management Education (PRIME) program since 1997. The program includes a semester long class that explores issues in international business and culminates in a consulting project with a company in a foreign country. All 220 (estimated) members of the first-year class are required to participate in PRIME. Similarly, each year 330 (estimated) members of the part-time MBA program at USC are sent on a required international consulting trip similar to PRIME called Global Environment and International Business (GLOBE). The international program office at USC has the herculean task of securing visas, airfare, transportation, and lodging etc. for over 550 (estimated) students each year and have been doing so for many years now. Certainly Harvard’s program is ambitious and will benefit their students greatly, but it seems like many other schools have been providing this experience for their students for quite some time already.

    PRIME: http://www.marshall.usc.edu/mba/curriculum/prime
    GLOBE: http://www.marshall.usc.edu/mbapm/curriculum/pmglobe

  • Conor


    I agree with you one week is nothing. Just marketing or what?

  • Vineeth,

    Yes, indeed. Thanks for your comment. I’m well aware of MAP and have written about it. It was and continues to be a major innovation and the most differentiating aspect of the MBA experience at Ross. I greatly admire the incredible effort that goes into this each year at Ross because the logistics are also mind-boggling.

    As the Harvard story notes, many schools have done experiential learning and many schools also have done international trips. The difference here is both the international nature and the scale. HBS has more than 900 first-year students, nearly double Ross’ 500, and every experience this year is international. Many of the MAP projects are and have been domestic. In fact, over the years, only a small percentage have been outside the country. This is changing now, but the majority remain in the U.S. Nothing wrong with that. My sense is that MAP is a more meaningful experience in many ways because it’s not just a week or ten days abroad.

  • Vineeth

    University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business has Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP). A program started in 1992, which has successfully completed thousands of projects. Come winter, the first years are nowhere to be seen on campus as each individual embarks with a project team to solve real world business problems across the globe. Ross has perfected the logistics and companies vie to get students from Ross to solve their business problems, in a yearlong screening and whetting process. Ross also has the William Davidson Institute which works very closely with emerging markets. The ‘Michigan of East’ is relatively new to this game and this article just gloats over what is essentially, HBS playing catch-up, something other schools have tried to mimic as well.

  • MD

    No mention of Ross either – they have a developed MAP program for years, the highlight of the MBA experience.

  • Clint

    I’m surprised there is no mention of Anderson UCLA’s GAP (Global Access Program) for their fully employed program.

    UCLA has been doing a variation of this this annually since 1998, forming about 50 teams per year with 379 companies in 17 countries. This program lasts about 6 months

    The program doesn’t send all students out at once (so HBS’s logistics task is truely amazing in that respect) but its not as if programs like this are new.


  • tsiro

    Fantastic. No wonder its the best business school by miles