HBS Preps 900 MBAs For A Massive Global Invasion

Many business schools, including Harvard, have sent students abroad to work on consulting projects with companies. But no business school has tried to create a global experience for graduate students with this scope or scale. Some rival deans are closely watching the experiment, wondering whether Harvard can pull it off and if so whether it is worth all the effort and expense.

A few years ago, the University of Virginia’s Darden School launched pilot projects taking students into the field around the world. “It’s logistically quite challenging,” says Robert Bruner, dean of the Darden School. “What Harvard will find is that some companies invest a lot in making it succeed. Other companies just kind of scratch their heads and say, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do with you folks. Sit there and be quiet and we’ll all get through this.’”


Counters Moon: “It’s very easy for anybody looking at this to judge us on how things go today and tomorrow. In our heads, we recognize that this is the first step in a very long process that could take awhile for us to nail down and get right. We have a lot of people who have put their hearts and souls into this. I know this is the first of many, many steps.”

The upcoming global excursions are part of a new yearlong course for first-year students layered on top of Harvard’s required core of ten courses. Known as FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development), the three-part course is designed to cultivate intelligence in leadership, global business, and the integration of business disciplines. The first part of the course focused on leadership exercises, small team dynamics, and collaboration. The experiential course is a bold departure for Harvard where business has long been taught almost exclusively via case study discussions in class.

As HBS Dean Nitin Nohira sees it, the experience is meant to heighten student’s global awareness and teach them how to manage in unfamiliar terrain. In each case, the school sought projects with real companies and organizations to develop a product or service concept.


Moon says Harvard leveraged its corporate recruiting, alumni and executive education relationships to enlist the 140 partners and 152 projects. Harvard placed high hurdles on participation: In each case, a company had to commit time and effort to a specific kind of project—“product or service development with a strong customer interaction component,” says Moon. “It’s all about value creation.”

“It wasn’t easy for a partner to become a partner,” adds Moon. “I would rather have had the problem of having too few partners and knowing they would be really good as opposed to filling slots. We were fortunate. Our faculty and staff put in countless hours to get the right partners and projects. It was a back-and-forth process taking a lot of conversation. For more than half of the partners, this is the first relationship they’ve had with our MBA program.”

After faculty and staff spent months lining up partners and projects, the school held what it called “a reveal event” on Oct. 6 to inform all 900-plus first-year MBA students where they were going and who they would work with. The students were sent to pre-assigned tables in Batten Hall, the university’s new innovation lab, where each team found a small cardboard box adorned with a big red question mark. Inside each box was a puzzle of a Google map.


When they put the puzzle pieces together, they would discover which country and city would beckon them along with what new product or service development project they were assigned. “That night, all 900 students were in this building together,” recalls Moon. “It became almost irrelevant where we were sending them. It was the first time they looked around and realized, ‘Oh my God, HBS is sending all 900 of us abroad.’”


Almost immediately, however, there was controversy. Some international students, initially assigned to projects in New Orleans because they had already come from an emerging country, were unhappy with their U.S. destination.  As one disappointed international student told The Harbus, the student newspaper of Harvard Business School, “I came to HBS looking for international exposure and I was really excited about experiencing a new country for FIELD. New Orleans was incredibly frustrating. Perhaps I was put there because I’m not from the U.S. Either way, I was angry.”

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.