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Improving a Great School

Nearing the end of the first year at HBS seems like a good time to reflect on how to make the first year HBS experience even better for students who will come after us. After all-if there is one enduring lesson from the case method it is that every situation can be improved.

But it would be a mistake to offer improvements without dwelling for a moment about all that is right with HBS. Most importantly, there is a vibrant sense of purpose at this place. Our mission to educate business leaders that make a difference in the world is the right one-and thanks to HBS’ leadership this mission is omnipresent in the minds of the whole community. It’s easy to forget what an achievement that is.

And beyond this essential strength there is much more. The section experience is orchestrated brilliantly. The use of technology is so well thought out and executed. The case method and particular courses are exceptional. Many professors have been inspirational. The facilities are immaculate. And each of these things is so difficult to get right. Yet HBS pulls it all together.

So why improve a rosy picture? The truth is HBS must continually upgrade its advantages or risk losing preeminence. I believe four major initiatives must be tackled regarding the first year experience.

The first imperative involves the RC curriculum. It is strong overall, yet two serious holes remain: economics and ethics. The lack of a full-term required course in microeconomics is a serious oversight. The short module in Foundations was not nearly enough to introduce students-many of whom have never seen economics-to the subject. Yet economics remains the most critical underpinning of the study and practice of business. Without understanding why economists and businesspeople like markets in the first place, and grasping concepts like elasticity, consumer surplus, supply and demand, taxes, externalities, property rights and many others, it is impossible to discuss more advanced concepts like game theory, price discrimination, and monopoly regulation. I have talked with students that have said that their class discussions frequently lapsed into lengthy debates over ideas that could have been unambiguously resolved with a basic knowledge of economics (and I agree). A course in microeconomics is a must-have addition to the RC year.

A second must-have is a more robust treatment of business ethics (either a full RC course or a series of mandatory sessions) that examines the most difficult ethical dilemmas that face business leaders. LVDM was a good beginning, but it was only a beginning. In my mind, HBS ignores the need for a greater emphasis on this subject at its own peril. Hopefully it won’t take a damaging New York Times editorial to make us all think twice about the message that a 3 week non-graded course in ethics sends about the importance we place on doing the right thing as leaders. If our mission of contributing to the well being of society is real, we had better have the hard discussions about what on earth that means and how we should go about it before we leave this place.

The second imperative involves including pressing issues of the day in the core program on a real time basis. The school follows a programmed approach to life for first years, by in large a good approach that creates a level of constant intensity throughout the year. But keeping students’ heads buried in cases about soap and shampoo has got to give way at those moments in history when the world is literally shaking all around us.

As just one example the opportunity to learn from the Enron story-perhaps the biggest business story of a generation-was almost entirely missed. The seminars that did happen were excellent-but they were months late and poorly attended. No student should graduate from this school without a detailed understanding of the commissions and omissions that led to the biggest business failure in US history. Why wasn’t it obvious to someone that the careful study of what happened at Enron was worth replacing 10 regularly-scheduled cases from the program? Try asking 10 fellow students, “What specifically caused Enron to fail?” and see how comfortable you feel that the story is well understood.

The third imperative involves technology. Here HBS should accelerate its current trajectory. One idea to consider is the creation of a series of “seminal explanations” available by streaming video. The MBA group should determine what 20 concepts are critical ideas from the first year experience. What is strategy? What is game theory? What did Miller & Modigliani say? HBS can then deliver the best professor’s explanation of that particular concept on short 5 minute streaming clips that students can watch before a particular module begins. Curious about the five forces? Here’s four minutes of Mike Porter at the blackboard explaining how he developed them and what they mean! Confused by Black Scholes? Here’s Bob Merton with an explanation!

Finally, an enhanced connection between the MBA class and HBS leadership must be forged. How does HBS leadership feel about the class’ progress? What are the thoughts we ought to consider at the end of our first year? What did HBS leadership think about the Enron story? What is the state of the school? Students I have talked to are curious about what HBS leadership thinks about all of these questions. A short semi-annual streaming video should be delivered electronically to students to discuss these issues. The Dean can practically talk one-to-one to students in a modern day fireside chat! These things are easy – but they would make a huge difference in terms of the sense of purpose and connection the class feels with the institution and its leaders.

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We’re lucky to be part of such an exceptional place. It’s now up to us to try and make it even better for the ones who will follow us.

May 6, 2002
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