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Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Is Harvard Out of Touch with Tech?


“Out of touch.”

That’s almost the biggest insult you can hurl at a business school. It conjures up images of tweedy professors conducting arcane research, immune from the ravages of the business cycle. This week, the Wall Street Journal reports that many students and alumni feel exactly that: HBS has fallen behind in a business world predicated on code and crowdsourcing.

In the article, an anonymous 2014 HBS grad cracks, HBS trains people to be CEOs, CMOs, every sort of C except the CTO or the CIO role.” While those may seem like fighting words to some, HBS Dean Nitin Nohria almost concedes the point. “We have, in a sense, less tech in the air,” he tells the Wall Street Journal. And he has a point. In their most recent employment report, HBS disclosed that 33% of the Class of 2014 entered financial services, while another 23% joined consulting. Some 17% joined the technology field – the same rate as the previous year – and landed smaller median starting salaries and bonuses than their peers in financial services which is also probably why tech is attracting fewer HBS grads.

So is Harvard doomed to churn out bankers, CEOs, and consultants? That depends how you look at. Jeremy Shinewald, who runs the admissions consulting firm MBA Mission, tells the Wall Street Journal that plenty of HBS grads are being hired by tech stalwarts like Linkedin and Google. That said, he adds that tech-minded applicants are generally choosing Stanford.

Statistically, Harvard and Stanford both maintain strong entrepreneurial cultures. According to Poets&Quants’ 2013 MBA Startup Rankings, which featured the top 100 firms launched over the past five years based on revenue, Harvard actually beat Stanford by a 34-to-32 margin.

In fact, HBS has seemingly been working overtime to deliver tech-driven curriculum. For example, the school has launched its Digital Initiative, which the Journal describes as “a cross-disciplinary project intended to help shape conversations about the digital transformation taking place in all corners of the economy.” HBS’ Technology and Operations Management course now includes networked-based businesses and crowdsourcing, with more technology management content being embedded into the curriculum. Last spring, the school taught two sections of a Digital Innovation and Transformation elective, which had a long waiting list. Not to mention, Harvard also offers a Product Management 101 course, co-taught by a Google product manager, where “45 students take an idea from concept to product launch, learning how the Internet works and being coached on asking questions about products and user experience.”

Not to mention, HBS’ technology club boasts 500 members. When it comes to entrepreneurship, HBS is still ranked #4 by U.S. News (behind Babson, Stanford, and MIT). Still, it may be a case of “too little too late,” with this lofty ranking masking lagging performance.

The issue has been bubbling up for some time now. In 2013, the Harbus published a piece entitled, “HBS’ Technology Skill Gap.” In it, Lauren Lockwood and Sean Liu made a startling declaration:

“…there is a blind spot when it comes to our ability to work with CIOs and CTOs. Namely, HBS grads are ill-equipped to work with and communicate effectively with IT-oriented members of the C-suite. In a recent survey we found that while 97% of students understand DCFs, only 14% could tell you what a relational database is.”

The article blamed this gap on the evolution of the school’s Production and Operations Group, which focused more heavily on industrial age concepts like assembly lines at the expense of information technology. As a result, as the article notes, the required curriculum lacked “technology fundamentals such as the basic how-tos of Internet technology (how many servers does the NFL need to stream a football game live?), cybersecurity (how should a company secure data and interact with the NSA?), and big data (how can Target predict that a customer is pregnant?).”

Even more, as the Harbus notes, HBS fell behind other MBA programs by failing to incorporate information technology into their course courses. “MIT Sloan, for instance, requires that all students take “Data, Models, and Decisions”, and Stanford GSB requires “Information Management”, the latter whose syllabus states: “Knowledge of technology (computing, networks, software applications, etc.) is a prerequisite for a successful manager.”

To fix these gaps, the Harbus recommended that the HBS curriculum better integrate basic technology architecture, predictive analytics, the potential of technology, and the perspectives of CIO s and CTOs.

Such sentiments have only intensified. Nick Taranto (’10) tells the Wall Street Journal that his MBA provided great management training for launching his 300 employee online food delivery startup. However, he still faced a steep learning curve when it came to the technology aspects of his position. “…preparing for early-stage product management, customer discovery, user experience, Web design—what’s the difference between HTML, CSS, Java Script—I had no idea,” he confesses. “I had to learn all of that on my own.”

As you’d expect, HBS’ vaunted case study method has come under fire in this area. To critics, cases are relics that offer little relevance to a high tech world. Nohria counters that the faculty has been writing digital cases, but adds that students consider them “stale” by the time they’re used in the classroom.

Nohria also notes that Harvard’s business school and engineering programs are nearly a mile away from each other (whereas they are right next door at MIT and Stanford). As a result, it has been more difficult to facilitate partnerships. However, with the engineering department moving nearby in the coming years, Nohria tells the Journal that he hopes the proximity will enable HBS students to take more programming and science courses, where they can gain expertise and find potential partners for their ventures.

Still, perception is reality. If anything, HBS has done an inadequate job at communicating what it has been doing – and the progress it has been making. As one graduate complains about HBS’ supposed failure to add more digital offerings, “They’ve been having conversations for years. Nothing’s happened.” Yes, patience is wearing thin, as students look for more trade school type training. Question is, can HBS move fast enough to quell its critics – or do they intend to concede the digital space altogether?


Source: Wall Street Journal

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