Is This The Harvard of 2020?
Last summer, Ellen Chisa did the unthinkable: She dropped out of Harvard Business School after her first year. To an outsider, the decision would appear foolish. Didn’t she just flush away $60,000? Isn’t second year when you get to study what you want? Oh, and doesn’t a Harvard MBA –the gold standard for high finance and consulting – mean anything? Couldn’t she stick it out for one more year?
Good questions, all. Two years ago, Chisa was blogging about how she was heading to Harvard to learn “how to be, and how to make.” She dreamed of learning to “think a different away…to see new opportunities, not just problems to be fixed.” But Chisa, an engineer by trade who worked in project and product management for Microsoft and Kickstarter before entering HBS, was never a conventional thinker. In a 2015 interview with Accepted, she acknowledged that she took a leap of faith by leaving Harvard.
“I don’t believe that education has to be linear – it’s about what you’re learning and how you use it,” she says. “I started the internship at this company, and during my time we switched from doing investments and internal projects to all focusing on a new (stealth) travel company. I was the first person working on the project, and I wanted to stay to see it out. Right now I’m officially the Product Manager, but we’re so early that I wear a lot of different hats. It’s been fun to apply some of the things I learned at HBS!”
Since leaving, Chisa has also reflected on her time at HBS. Although she doesn’t subscribe to five year plans – admitting to Accepted that she has “no idea” where she’ll be in 2020 – she has been thinking about the future – Harvard’s future, in particular. Traditionally, students use such reflections to dish dirt and scold their alma maters. However, Chisa’s December essay in Medium – “The Harvard Business School of 2020” takes a high brow (dare I say “helpful”) approach to the issues facing graduate education itself. Mind you, Chisa has five years to return to HBS to finish her final year. In that time, she foresees (or hopes to see) several changes at the school.
The first involves the case method – the hallmark of a Harvard Business School education. To Chisa, cases have become staid, one-dimensional tools. No doubt, they are extremely valuable, she concedes, in helping students “examine a problem from all sides.” In Chisa’s experience, they could be so much more.
For one, they are paper-based when they could be more interactive. “Packets of paper aren’t information of the future,” she writes. “Content is not about linear stories — it’s about a barrage of information from different sources. It’s full of rich content — videos, images, tweets, and reactions.” As a result, integrating technology would amplify cases by better mirroring the real world, Chisa says. “Facts will be easily searchable, and more discussion time can be spent on synthesis. Technology will also enable students to better organize the information to be easily referenced during the rest of their career.”
In the same vein, she predicts that cases will cover more recent events and trends. “There will be more data about what’s happening right now — which plays into the complexity. There will be more debate about “which data should we collect?” and “what data matters?” Such a ‘here-and-now’ mindset would also simulate how decisions are made. “There won’t be thirty years of data to analyze for many companies,” Chisa adds. “For industries being disrupted, the last thirty years of data may not matter. Decisions will need to be made with less historical information. Without this rigorous past analysis, the decisions will rely on instilled values in the organization, and on using creative logic to analyze the data of what’s happening right now.”
Another area where Chisa hopes to see progress is in a greater “bias towards action” at Harvard. She portrays the school as a top-down operation designed “to educate people in how to get things done in large organizations.” And the structure reflects this, with Chisa citing HBS’ clubs and student association. “Each organization has 10–20 officers responsible for different aspects. There are formal titles and hierarchies for how things get done. Things are driven by consensus, or by top-down. This looks good on resumes, but isn’t practical for the future.”
In Chisa’s view, this leaves HBS out of step with how the work world is evolving. “The world is shifting. Workplaces will value independent action more. Organizations that empower individual employees to take action will succeed. At HBS now, things rarely happen “bottom-up.” It’s easy to bow out of organizing if it isn’t your job — so there isn’t a bias towards action in most on-campus organizations.”
Aside from playing down execution in favor of process in her opinion, Chisa also observes that Harvard, focuses too heavily on managing over creating. “Our economy is shifting,” she writes. “Many roles that don’t involve creating are being automated or replaced. Making new stuff will be a core functionality in every business…In order to motivate people who make stuff, HBS students will need to learn to empathize with the people who do it now. Not everyone needs to learn to code — but everyone will need to understand the inherent joy in creating and the creation process. Managers need to understand the difference between maker and manager time.”
Finally, Chisa looks to the two year format as an option, not a given. In doing so, she juxtaposes the first-year required curriculum (RC) with the second-year elective curriculum (EC) and pictures a day when the program will become more customized. “In the future, I think the school will take advantage of the differences between the RC and the EC,” she predicts. “There will be separate degrees — one for completing the RC, and one for completing both years. Lots of people will still have the traditional experience, but the school will get better talent as a result. It’s a lot easier to stomach the idea of leaving for nine months than it is for two years. Some people will expect to do two years — and realize they only needed one. Some will expect to want one, and realize they want to make a shift and need the second.”
Will all this come to fruition? Hard to tell. Chisa readily admits that her predictions “are embedded with my assumptions of how the business world will shift,” based on “movement in this direction from certain organizations.” However, her insights are thought-provoking. Although Chisa has left Harvard (for now), she stresses that spending a year at Harvard was a great investment for her.
“It’s what I needed to add core business and management skills to what I already do at work. It was deeply practical — I used tools from the RC all summer at work. “Dropping out” after RC doesn’t feel weird, because it feels like I finished something, even if I don’t have the piece of paper.”
Do you see HBS moving in this direction – or should they? Let us know your thoughts.
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