Will Harvard Business School succeed in reinventing its legendary MBA?

 By Xavier Forneris

Harvard Business School (HBS), one of the most prestigious producers of MBA’s worldwide, has introduced a big change to his curriculum. As reported in The Economist (12/3/2011), the “Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development” whose acronym is, conveniently, “FIELD”, is supposed to become as important as the well-established case method that Harvard has pioneered and was adopted by most business schools. It applies to the new cohort of 900 full time MBA’s who started their two-year program at HBS last summer.It apparently consists of 3 components, all introduced in the first year (the second year part of the FIELD is still under development):

  1. Team-building exercises. Each student is expected to lead a team for a specific project, with the objective of learning how to collaborate, give and receive feedback. 
  2. Field work: each student would be sent to a firm, among 140 in 11 countries, to work there for a week, in a sort of “structured learning by doing”. HBS alumni would certainly be mobilized to host students in their respective companies and HBS has vast network of alumni, dispersed globally.
  3. Each student will receive $3,000 in seed money and have 8 weeks to launch a small business. A vote will then take place among all students to select the most successul or promising venture(s), that will receive more funding.

Looking at these three items, my first observation was “Why, they didn’t have team-building exercises yet”? In my own MBA program, at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler School of Business, team-building was one of the first things we did, at the outset of the program. I’m surprised that HBS MBA’s didn’t have that until now. In fairness, I don’t have enough detail about what each item really entails so it’s difficult to judge how innovative that is. Also, my MBA was for Executives and the article is about the full-time MBA program. But I would be surprised if full-time MBAs at UNC do not have team-building exercises already built in their curriculum for year 1.

The Economist raises a good point when it says, talking about item #2 “It is unclear how much the one-week working assignments will achieve”. I fully agree. The idea of being embedded in company, whether a domestic or overseas one, is a great concept, but shouldn’t they make this a longer experience? The Economist quotes a management guru, Pankaj Ghemawat:

Litterature suggests that an immersion experence needs to be at least 2-3 week experience and be backed up with time in the classroom”.

Clearly HBS must have access to this research. It often is one of the leading and most prolific sources of management literature. By the time you get to China or India, get over jet lag, orient yourself in the company, it’s basically time to come home…I’m slightly exaggerating here, and it’s true that a lot of ground work preparation can be done over the course of several weeks before the actual student’s departure. Yet, one week seems very short, and with the pressure of the MBA course requirements one can question how much time the HBS students will actually devote to this preparation.

As The Economist also points out, it remains to be seen how item # 3 (seed money for start-up) is different from the traditional business plan competition. I don’t have the details but the difference may be the actual start of a business. In a traditional business plan competition, one does not actually have to start a business before the competition; if you win, you can then use the prize money to implement your project. Here, it seems that students will be required to actually start a business, not just dream one on a business plan, and do so in a relatively short period (2 months). To me, it seems to be the most innovative aspect of the FIELD initiative, the one I would have enjoyed doing if it had been part of our curriculum. What is often lacking in many MBA programs is the practical application of what you are learning in class and also a focus on entrepreneurship. There are some MBA specializing in entrepreneurship but it is my impression that most MBA’s are really designed to teach you how to operate within, manage and grow an existing business rather than how to start your own.

Finally, The Economist article explains that the initiative was approved by faculty, in a vote that was apparently not very enthusiastic, and only for a 3 to 5-year period to “experiment”. Finally, it says that the experiment should add 10 to 15% to the cost of the course, borne by HBS, at least in the beginning.

 Source/Read more: The Economist, Dec. 3, 2011

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