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What Harvard Business School’s New Dean Learned By Talking To Nearly 1,000 Of The School’s Stakeholders

Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar took over on January 1

Since being announced as the new dean of the Harvard Business School in October, Srikant Datar says his listening tour has brought him into conversations with nearly 1,000 faculty members, staffers, students and alumni of the school. Those engagements–in small and large groups and one-on-ones–have yielded a lot of thoughts and insights, so many in fact that Datar–a self-described geek–says he is using machine learning to absorb them.

“I have gathered pages and pages of notes from these interactions,” he says in an interview with the student newspaper The Harbus. “I took all of that—and I should note I unabashedly don’t mind calling myself a geek in terms of thinking about some of these things—and put it into a machine learning algorithm for natural language processing, because how else are you going to make sense of all of this? I used another tool as well called ‘topic modeling analysis,’ that uses a machine learning technique that I had used in some of my earlier research called Latent Dirichlet Allocation. It tries to form word clouds in different areas and it is very helpful in providing correlations. You can correlate what the students, faculty, staff, and alumni said. You then begin to get a picture that is powerful.”

In a wide-ranging interview, the new dean spoke about everything from his early influences to become an academic in business to the school’s diversity efforts. He is moving into the Dean’s House on campus with the family dog, Tango, and is looking forward to a fall start this year “for as much ‘normalcy plus’ as we can get—leveraging what we learned this last year that might otherwise have taken ten years to achieve.”

CURRICULUM FOCUS ON DATA TECHNOLOGY, ENTREPRENEURSHIP AND MANAGING DIFFERENCES

For Datar, who who succeeded Nitin Nohria as dean on Jan. 1 after being on the faculty for 24 years, the picture involves both the school’s future “ambitions” and the “engines” HBS has for getting there. His data analysis helped him to identify three major ambitions. “One is how much importance our community gives to the role of business as a force of good in society, and this was very heartening to me,” he says. “I am not just talking about ESG issues, though clearly we have to think about climate. I’m thinking about equity issues and how we as business leaders can reduce the divisions that remain in all parts of the world. These are moral questions in some cases, and social questions in other cases. But I think what I learned from my listening tour was that these are first order economic issues right now, and if we don’t address these problems, economic growth is going to suffer.”

A second ambition has to do with faculty research. “I don’t want the research to be only for the journals. I want the research to make a difference in the world. How do we make sure that our research is able to do that? How might we combine different research ideas—on society or digital transformation or machine learning or any other areas—such that the sum of all the research that we do is greater than the parts? Towards this, let me share with you one of the ideas that is emerging. As you know, we have research centers all over the world. It is very likely that our next research center will be set up in the heartland of the United States. I come at this from a design thinking perspective, which is that you must have deep empathy and a deep understanding of what is happening, and the best way to do this is by being on the ground.”

And finally, he added, the third ambition is the transformation of the school’s educational programs. “I think there are a lot of interesting things we can do in the MBA program,” he told The Harbus. “You’re already seeing some of that in the required curriculum with data technology. We can do much more on entrepreneurship. Clearly we need to do a lot more around differences and managing with differences, so you will see a lot more on equity issues. And of course, what I’m really excited about is lifelong learning—how when you get admitted to HBS, we should be making a commitment, given the technologies we now have, that we would be interested in helping in the development of our students throughout their lives, not just in the two years that they are here.”

ANTICIPATES MORE PARTNERING WITH UNIVERSITY

And what of the “engines?” The first is racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. “I’ve always believed that my role as Dean is to do whatever I can to help every member of our community to develop to their fullest potential and capability and be the best that they can be,” he said. “If I can keep thinking about that as the gold standard that I want to work with, then that is going to be an important engine. We’ve had a fabulous year in faculty recruiting. We are welcoming the most diverse class in the history of the school. We are also doing a lot of work around the cases that we are developing.

“The second engine is technology. I believe there is a great opportunity for us in digital transformation. I think if we did digital transformation at the school ourselves, that will allow us to meet all these aspirations that I’ve spoken about. I always think of technology and people as two sides of the coin. Every time an organization says that they want to think about technology, you should always think about people on the other side of it. I often cite Mahatma Gandhi who always talked about science without humanity as a major sin. To me trying to think about these two together is very important.

“And my last engine is Harvard itself and partnering with the university because we have SEAS (School of Engineering and Applied Sciences) and the Enterprise Research Campus coming. I also want to partner with the university on humanities, so we can strike a balance.”

DOWN TO FIVE CANDIDATES FOR A CHIEF DIVERSITY & INCLUSION OFFICER

Datar told the Harbus interviewers that his foray into the academic field was in part inspired by his father, a professor who founded the Nautical and Engineering College in India in the 1940s. “I learned from him that the biggest gift you can give somebody is your knowledge, and you should always give it,” says Datar. “I saw from the way his students reacted to him that it was a powerful experience—people appreciated being given knowledge. Even though my father never pressured me to or said that I should [become a professor], I always knew that I would.”

Asked about the school’s diversity efforts, Datar says that HBS has hired a search firm to find a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. The search is now down to five “very impressive candidates” and he expects to onboard one of them by the summer. He also called it a “banner year” in faculty recruiting, with eight women among the 13 new professors hired. “Seven identify as people of color. And five of the seven are underrepresented minorities, including four who identify as black or African-American,” he says. “Please remember, they were not selected on anything other than total merit. We increased the funnel in a way that we could get to them. It aligns with my general view of the world—that talent is very evenly distributed, opportunity is not.”

HBS is also adding case studies on diversity. “We are enriching the curriculum through courses like Scaling Minority Businesses. And I could talk to you at considerable length on what we are doing with the OneTen initiative at the school and how that might help the world, and around entrepreneurship in these areas. And of course, all of this is only possible because of the team. I’m just reporting to you because you happened to be interviewing me. I’m not the one who got it done—the team should get all the credit for this.”

Asked to share his advice for the school’s next graduating class, Datar says, “I want to tell the ECs (Elective Curriculum) that 12 to 15 years later when you look back on this period, you will not remember all the things that you missed, which is what we think about right now, but you will remember all the things that you gained. The stories and memories of this time will be unique to this class. You’ve demonstrated a lot of what I think is the advice I am going to give. It will be about resilience. It will be about the way you quickly adapted. It will be about generosity and partnership. As you know, I was very active in thinking about the design of online classes as well as the hybrid classroom. It required a lot of partnership, not just with the students, but with the staff and the faculty. I’ve often said I will remember that period as probably the most growth I had as an individual because of what we did.”

DON’T MISS: HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL TURNS TO AN INSIDER FOR ITS NEW DEAN