SIZE Matters…in the fight for #1 MBA Program

Maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I’m too cynical. But last week I was struck by the ironic simultaneity of two apparently non-related facts.
Fact #1: According to MBA rankings by the Financial Times and U.S. News & World Report, HBS is second.

Fact #2: According to a memo from the MBA program administration, starting next year, the size of the sections will increase up to 90 people.

Not that I care that much about the rankings. But given that HBS is supposed to admit only driven and competitive type-A students, I thought they might wonder why their school of choice was not #1. There are, of course, many explanations, but my first guess is that the surveyors sanctioned HBS’s mass production system.

If you think about the RC, we all go through the exact same process, learn mostly through a single teaching method, and in batches of 80. From this perspective, HBS looks like Ford in the good old days, whereas FT #1 Stanford is closer to Toyota, at least with regards to the batch size.

I’m not arguing here for RC curriculum flexibility. As we learned in TOM, there are huge advantages to the mass production system, namely economic efficiency and standardization. Bringing business knowledge to such a diverse student body probably requires a rigid educational path. I’m just surprised to see HBS increasing the size of its sections at the very same time that other MBAs try to personalize the experience by varying the teaching methods and involving students through smaller groups.

To me, this approach makes sense: because students are diverse they learn in different ways and should therefore be exposed to different learning opportunities. If we ignore some rare and valuable exceptions – Crimson Greetings, TOM workshop, the Marketing mid-term and Negotiation – HBS is case-only: it is probably well-suited for some topics and some individuals, but probably inadequate to develop a broad range of skills in a diverse student community. We all agree on the tremendous value of the Crimson Greetings exercise, and I personally would not mind having more of those, even if on a smaller scale, during the year.

Don’t call me a heretic. At HBS the case method is a religion, and I’m a believer. It’s just that I fear that increasing the size of the sections may decrease the efficiency of the model. Section life is a fundamental element of HBS, and if it is already difficult to build strong links with 80 people; it will be worse with 90. The complexity of a network grows according to the square of its size. This means an increase of around 20% for the average section also decreases the quality of the learning and social experience of its members by 20%. And don’t get me started on the additional herd effect and incremental difficulties to shape personal growth agendas.

The MBA program administration attempts to justify the section size inflation by stating that bigger classrooms (i.e. fewer sections) will aid the learning of the younger profs, as smaller faculty means more coaching time. I’m far from convinced. As tempting as it may be, I won’t discuss the questionable relevance of emphasizing professorial learning over section experience; it would be too easy. But how can it be better for one’s learning to handle a section of 90 vs. 80 when one is inexperienced? For faculty as well, the case method is about active learning and happens in the classroom. In my humble opinion, a better way to achieve this noble objective should be to actually decrease the size of the sections, as smaller groups tend to be easier to handle.

Unfortunately another interpretation of that memo jumped out of my paranoid subconscious. Could “they” be willing to decrease the size of the faculty, and thus hurt future students’ experiences, for financial reasons? The more I thought about it, the more the conspiracy made sense… in a post-internet bubble era with declining executive education revenues, it probably makes sense to cut on faculty to preserve profitability. MBA students would not have a word to say about it, as it is well known that tuitions don’t cover the cost. (I’m skeptical about this fact, but I can buy it, even if it has a taste of inadequate fixed costs allocation. By the way, I’m sure that a FRC case on the subject would be an exciting call for animated classroom discussion.). If this scenario were true, I’d be ready to believe that the MBA is the charity arm of HBS Inc, happy to feel guilty for paying only $30,000 a year, and glad to relinquish my 80 people section privileges. But then, I would have appreciated to know the real reasons behind the decision of the MBA administration.

With regards to MBA rankings, I’m not sure that building bigger mousetraps, sorry, bigger sections, will help HBS recover the coveted #1 position. What HBS needs is to offer more personalized experiences and more diverse teaching approaches. Unfortunately, the memo we just received suggests that HBS is going the other way…

As wrong as I may be, I cannot help but think that the MBA administration, potentially motivated by profitability concerns, is trying to advertise a worsening of its MBA education as an improvement. It’s a good demonstration of marketing skills but so much for integrity. The teaching group’s motto, “How we teach is what we teach,” suddenly takes a whole new meaning. Sadly.