Harvard Business School is a scary judge of talent. In business, the alumni roll alone boasts iconic names like Bloomberg, Dimon, Sandberg, and Schwarzman. Within academia, HBS faculty has authored 80% of cases used in business schools worldwide. In other words, the program’s influence is immeasurable. For many schools, it remains the standard used to measure themselves.
One of those programs is IESE Business School. Nestled in the hills overlooking the Catalan Mediterranean, IESE is more of a sprouting sibling than a raging rival. In 1963, HBS partnered with the fledgling program, teaching IESE the craft behind the case method. In the process, HBS helped IESE launch Europe’s first MBA program and grow into the executive education space. Over time, IESE emerged as one of the truly international business schools, featuring locations in five continents and alumni in over 100 nations.
In turn, IESE paid the ultimate tribute to its mentor: it eclipsed HBS as the top executive education program in the world.
IESE AND HARVARD RANK AMONG THE TOP PROGRAMS FOR FACULTY QUALITY
In 2017, IESE showed just how far it had come in 50 years. For the first time, it earned a higher score than Harvard Business School for faculty quality in the annual Economist survey, which targets current students and recent graduates. On a five point scale, where five is a perfect mark, IEESE notched a 4.69, edging out HBS by just .05 of a point. While this difference may be statistically insignificant, it further cemented IESE’s credentials as a big time player. Considering that Darden, IESE, and Harvard produced three of the five-highest marks for faculty, it also indicates just how popular and effective the case method is with MBA students.
Some might argue that HBS taught IESE too well. In the end, this Boston-to-Barcelona success story is based on executing a proven formula. In both programs, great teachers are paired with great students in a structure where, as the saying goes, “everybody teaches and everybody learns.” This comes from the full-on commitment given to the case method by the schools.
At Harvard Business School, Jan Rivkin is the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for Research. In a February interview with Poets&Quants, he hesitated to describe the case method as better than other teaching methods. Instead, he views it as “distinctive,” a key strand of the HBS DNA whose ongoing popularity is tied to both strategy and culture.
“There is an Integrated and different set of choices that our business school has made,” Rivkin points out. It pervades the school; we’ve been doing it for decades.”
FROM LEAN BACK LECTURES TO LEAN FORWARD CASES
What makes the case method so distinctive? Julia Prats, the MBA Dean at IESE, views it as a process for making decisions – a means for confronting problems that empowers students as they move into internships and extracurricular activities.
“The approach is more centered on understanding how to first analyze a problem and second go to the different criteria used to solve the problem,” she explains. “You go through the scenarios and look at the alternatives before finally making a decision. After that, you reflect on the effects of these decisions on the people involved.”
The case method is night-and-day from the lectures that first-years attended as undergrads. Rivkin calls such classes “lean back experiences,” where students become passive learners who just absorb what’s said instead of contributing to a larger dialogue. In contrast, Rivkin brands the case classroom as a “lean forward experience” – an ever-changing dynamic where students enrich each others’ learning.
“You’re constantly on your toes; you’re listening to your prof, but mostly to your peers,” he shares. “You’re raising your hand and getting called on. You’re speaking and trying to draw others to your point of view. You’re deciding whether what others are saying is persuasive. You’re deciding what you would do as a case protagonist. And then you’re reflecting on what you learn. Throughout this, you are thinking for yourself. You’re an active learner – and that makes all the difference I believe.”
AN UNPREDICTABLE ENVIRONMENT WHERE THE PROFESSORS LEARN TOO
It also makes class time unpredictable. In a traditional lecture, Rivkin notes, the content is delivered in a logical and linear fashion. At Harvard Business School, a case-driven class will encompass 90 high achievers who reprsent a mind-boggling diversity of backgrounds. That means all bets are off on where a discussion will ultimately end up.
“At any moment, you can go from a classmate who founded a nonprofit to one who fought in Afghanistan to another who worked in the White House or did deals on Wall Street,” he says. “They might take the conversation in wholly unanticipated directions. That creates engagement. When students come to class, they don’t know what’s going to happen that day. That’s exciting. All they’re sure of is that they’re going to learn something important. That kind of lean forward versus lean back is really very different, along with the predictability versus the element of surprise.”
Such surprises are welcomed by HBS faculty. Rivkin admits that students often raise thought-provoking questions or issues that professors can overlook in preparation. In fact, Rivkin has turned some of these ideas into new research and coursework. He cites one student during a competitive strategy course. At the end of one module, the student wondered why all the cases on change initiatives started after companies had incurred billion dollar losses. Instead, he wanted to learn about companies that’d chosen a different path before they needed to change.
“I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have a great answer,’” Rivkin admits. “That led me to look for companies that changed before they had to. Turns out, this is a very deep type of challenge and one that was largely unexplored. If I was sitting there lecturing about change, I never would’ve discovered that opportunity.”
Go to Page 3 to see student and alumni survey scores given to 25 top MBA programs on faculty quality.