HBS Online Will Keep Changing The Game. Here’s How

HBS photo

In less than six years, HBS Online has established itself as a game-changer in the graduate business education landscape. Now, says Senior Associate Dean Debora Spar, the question is how the digital platform will evolve in a time of market — and internal — upheaval.

Speaking with Poets&Quants recently, Spar, a former president of New York’s Barnard College and current professor at Harvard Business School in addition to her role calling shots at HBS Online, says that after about five years the digital platform has risen to the fore among its peers. She points out that thousands have received Credential of Readiness (CORe) certification, which itself has come to be seen as perhaps the best way to prepare for entry into an elite full-time MBA program.

Now, Spar says, HBS Online is plotting its next steps.

“I think I’m at the point now where I can say nice things — because I’m not responsible for any of them,” says Spar, who returned in October of 2019 to HBS, where she had previously taught for 17 years, after about a decade at Barnard. “I think these guys have built an amazing platform. I’ve been away from HBS for 10 years, and none of this existed in my last iteration here. So they built this amazing thing and I think they’ve proven that the pedagogy works, that you can take the Socratic method — and specifically the HBS-bound Socratic method — and make it work online.

“And so now it’s figuring out how to evolve it in the most powerful ways. For me, and I think for the team, a lot of that has to do with broadening accessibility and expanding diversity.”


Debora Spar. HBS photo

HBS Online launched as HBx in 2014. (It rebranded in early 2019 as HBS Online.) Its flagship program from the start was the Credential of Readiness, a 10- to 17-week boot camp of interactive learning, problem-solving, and decision-making skills development taught by HBS professors, but it also offers courses in business analytics, global business, and much more. As of last month, 70,000 students had completed an HBS Online program and about 28,000 had taken CORe; at any given time, between all available courses, HBS Online supports between 5,000 and 8,000 students in hundreds of countries around the globe. Nearly a third of the latest entering class of Harvard MBAs completed CORe before starting their MBA experience.

The core appeal of CORe, for many, is its accessibility. The program schedule is flexible: CORe can be completed in as few as 10 weeks or as many as 17, with typically nine starts per year, or one every one to two months. The shorter program involves 12-15 hours of study per week, and the “Extended CORe” generally involves eight to 10 hours. The cost for CORe and Extended CORe is the same: $2,250. Most importantly, there are no gatekeepers: no GMAT, no GPA threshold, no interviews to gain admission. “The beauty of the online platform is that, in theory, it enables you to reach people who otherwise would never be able to come to Harvard Business School campus,” Spar tells P&Q. “And we’ve done that. But we need to do more of that.”

Though HBS Online has vastly expanded the reach and accessibility of the school, profit has been elusive. In the school’s latest financial report for fiscal 2018, online education remained in the red despite a whopping 58% jump in revenue. The school reported a loss of $5 million on HBS Online, much less than the $11 million deficit a year earlier. Online revenues grew to $19 million, from $12 million. No less important, the school isn’t predicting that its online initiative which has been losing money from the start will go into the black. “HBS Online remains in startup mode,” wrote Richard Melnick, the chief financial officer of HBS. “Although we expect its revenue to grow nearly 50%, the group is not likely to become a surplus-generating activity in the year ahead.”


Still, when Spar talks about accessibility and diversity, she knows whereof she speaks. During her tenure at Barnard, she spearheaded initiatives to highlight women’s leadership and advancement, including the creation of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies and the development of Barnard’s Global Symposium series. Her current research “focuses on issues of gender and technology, and the interplay between technological change and broader social structures,” according to her HBS profile, which adds that Spar tackles some of these issues in her forthcoming book, Ex Machina: How Technology Shapes the Way We Work, Mate, Marry and Love. It’s no surprise that when asked her plans, one of the first things she says is, “We need more women to be on the platform. This is true everywhere.”

“We need people in different parts of the world,” Spar continues, “and I think we need to be able to start picking up steam now in terms of experimenting with different configurations: shorter courses and mix-and-match courses. Hot-off-the-presses kind of courses, refresher courses, current events. We’re not quite at this point yet, but, you know, when something critical has just happened and there’s sort of a triage moment, we need to be able to come together and get a burst of information about, say, God forbid, the next time a financial crisis happens.

“We’ve figured how to build the biggest bandwidth — in every sense of that word — to actually be able to do all of that. Now we need to get there.”


HBS Dean Nitin Nohria announced his departure in November. File photo

The interregnum between a departing dean and his (as yet unnamed) successor can be a chaotic time at a business school, to say the least. But not so much at Harvard, Spar says. Though Dean Nitin Nohria announced unexpectedly in November — shortly after Spar returned to the fold — that he would be stepping down after a tenure that can only be described as hugely successful, his departure hardly means that plans at HBS and HBS Online now come with caveats.

“One of the beauties of Harvard Business School is that it’s a very stable place,” Spar says. “So almost certainly, whoever the next person is, they are not going to come in and say, ‘You know what? I don’t like the HBS Online thing.’ That’s not how this place operates. And so I think there’s kind of zero uncertainty about the future of HBS Online. Whoever’s the new dean is going to want to continue to invest in this part of the school.”

But Nohria’s departure does change things. In some cases, Spar says, it accelerates them.

“What’s the old line about ‘Nothing like the prospect of hanging in the morning to concentrate the mind’?” she says. “The point is that, let’s make sure we have a coherent strategy and a strategy that we can explain to the next dean so that he or she can come up the learning curve as quickly as possible. And to really clarify the role that HBS Online is increasingly starting to play within the broader HBS community.

“HBS is a complicated place. There’s lots of moving parts. This just accelerated the conversations around clarifying relationships between HBS Online and other parts of the school, which is tough.”

The HBS Online leadership — including Patrick Mullane, Bharat Anand, and V.G. Narayanan — jumped into action in the days after Nohria’s announcement, Spar says. “We spent some time exhilarated a little bit by the news of the dean’s transition. We spent a lot of time right before and after the holidays meeting with the entire staff, and then much more consolidated blocks of time with the senior staff saying, ‘What’s the strategy? Where do we go from here? How do we put this on paper?'” she says. “One of the hardest parts with any kind of strategy is figuring out what you’re not ready for yet. And so how do you prioritize?” That’s where Spar came in. “We’ll get different perspectives on this, but I hope and think it was useful for the organization to have an outsider coming in saying, ‘Okay guys, what’s most important here? What are your problems? Where are the constraints?’

“And it was really the first time the organization could do that because they’ve just been running so hard on all cylinders for the past few years. And just like any startup, any organization, you always have a whole menu of choices in terms of where you could spend your time, your effort, and your resources. So it’s really helpful to jump in and say, ‘What are our priorities? And then go through that strategic planning process.”


So what are HBS Online’s priorities?

“I think the temptation — particularly when you have an organization at Harvard, and you have an organization that’s really successful in Harvard, and you have an organization that’s sort of cracked the code on technology — is that all of a sudden everybody wants to be part of this,” Spar says. “I’ll give you an absurd example: Think of an online course in podiatry. Well, we probably shouldn’t right? That’s just way too far afield, so that’s an absurd example. But should we be doing an online course in something like personal finance?

“In my last job, one of the things I did at Barnard is, we did set up a course designed for 18-year-olds on how you manage your budget, how do credit cards work — personal finance. That was a great thing to do with Barnard. We had a population that really needed that. But is that something that HBS should do? Could we do it? Yeah. Could we do it well? Absolutely. Are we the best people in the world to be doing that? Or should we be doing something that’s much more about global finance? I think it’s those kinds of decisions we need to be making. And they’re hard because there are lots and lots of great stuff we could be doing, but we can’t do them all, and so how do we draw those guardrails in terms of what is most core to our capability and crucial to our mission?”

Perhaps just as crucially, where does HBS Online fit in the HBS ecosystem? What does the rest of the school think about what they’re doing on the digital side?

“People really like it,” Spar says. “The faculty want to get on the platform. I don’t think that would have been true five years ago, when it was still more experimental. At HBS, as in any academic organization, a lot of the power lies with the faculty. And so the fact that the faculty are so excited about being part of this, that’s a really interesting development. In terms of the clarification of where our place is, it’s largely the obvious things you’d imagine. So, the MBA program is a two-year residential program that offers a degree. HBS Online is none of those things, right? Non-residential, non-degree.

“The residential program is demarcated by the extended time that people are here and by the incredible election process they have to go through to get here. HBS Online is very different. The admissions process is super simple and easy to understand. So if you think of those two and inspect them, they’re sort of the opposite ends of the spectrum. And then in between you have executive education, which is also not MBA and it’s not HBS Online, but it is residential and there will be an increasing amount of online content in the executive education programs, which I’m also helping to lead — I’m wearing a couple of hats at the moment!

“There is a lot of clarifying, and it’s not contentious, it’s just clarifying. So if we have a corporate client who wants to do X, they’re pretty clearly not part of the MBA program, but are they part of HBS Online? Are they part of the exec ed? Are they part of publishing? Just sort of figuring that out is important, I think both in terms of the message we’re sending to the market. But also — and perhaps even more importantly — how do we make this place run as efficiently as possible inside, so that when somebody gets a call from potential client X, who should get that call? We’re just figuring those demarcation lines out.”


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