HBX: How Disruptive To Business Ed?


Ever since word leaked that the Harvard Business School was secretly plotting an online learning initiative nearly six months ago, business schools all over the world waited and watched with great fear and anticipation. What would the most powerful brand in business education do to disrupt and potentially crush their own regional or local brands?

For several years now, HBS innovation guru Clay Christensen has been warning that online instruction is the kind of disruptive innovation that could completely upend higher education. More recently, Richard Lyons, dean of UC-Berkeley’s Haas School, has predicted that half of the business schools in the U.S. could be out of business by 2020 because technology gives the big brands in education local reach.

John Fernandes, CEO of the business school accreditation group Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, has called Harvard’s move a “watershed” moment. “I don’t want to say it’s going to displace face-to-face education, but it’s going to be a big piece of the pie,” he said when the news of the HBS initiative got out.“They’re going to get high visibility with students all over the world.”


Well, rival deans and administrators can rest easy—at least for now. Harvard Business School’s initial foray into the digital realm, dubbed HBX, poses no immediate threat to the flagship MBA or Executive MBA programs or executive education offerings that form the basis of their graduate education efforts (see HBS’ Bold Entry Into The Digital Market).

Instead, Harvard has wisely chosen to enter an area of business education where it does not compete—and yet an area with immediate growing demand—teaching the fundamentals of business to liberal arts students and recent liberal arts graduates to allow them to better compete in an increasingly competitive job market.

In recent years, undergraduate business education has been booming, in part because parents are steering their children into programs that increase the odds of the immediate employment after graduation. Sadly, these days a bachelor’s degree in American history or philosophy doesn’t make one qualified for a job with a company. That’s what is behind the fastest growing segments of business education today: the one-year Master’s of Management or other specialized master’s degrees in business along with undergraduate business education.

Boston University, for example, experienced a 40% increase in applications last year to 8,000 for its 375 undergraduate business seats. Ken Freeman, dean of the business school at BU, says parents are telling their children: “The economy is tough. The costs of tuition are higher. You better major in something that can get you a job.”


In that sense, Harvard’s new HBX CORe (which stands for Credential of Readiness) program of three fundamental courses that will teach students the language of business could well be a boon to the humanities. The certificate program can be taken by rising juniors and seniors studying everything from Shakespeare and Roosevelt to Freud and Plato, giving graduates of the program the kind of business polish that would allow them to better compete for those entry-level corporate jobs, without sacrificing their passion to study what they want to. A Harvard Business School certificate on a student’s resume could easily become a substitute for an undergraduate degree in business.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.