Where the HBS Learning Model Falls Short

HBS has been a phenomenal experience and like many of you, I have learned a tremendous amount, despite many warnings to the contrary (from both alums as well as non-alums). Yet, despite my respect and admiration for the HBS learning model, there are several areas in the model that have come to disappoint me.

As a disclaimer, I write this not to bash on HBS; instead, my goal is to identify areas where the HBS learning model could potentially be improved. As individuals linked to HBS in one way or another, it is our responsibility (and in our best interest) to continually improve HBS’s learning model.

Thus, the following sections present several areas potentially ripe for improvement:

Weak link to the mission statement

By now, most of us can recite HBS’s mission statement as if it were second nature. Time and time we have been told that HBS exists, “To educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” The statement itself is simple, clean and concise – a beautiful thing in our increasingly complex world.

Yet despite the clarity and inspirational nature of our mission statement, it is difficult to see how the mission statement holds true in the actual curriculum. In the RC year, for example, HBS students proceed through a dizzying array of management skills and concepts such as TOM, FIN, and MKTG. While these subjects clearly build the skills necessary for us to become general managers, it is not clear that they build the effective leaders referenced by our mission statement.

To this, an often response is, what about LCA and LEAD? Sure, these classes provide a venue for talking and discussing leadership through a variety of case protagonists, but I’m not convinced that they can prop up the demanding mission statement of an entire institution.

Lack of higher order, intellectual discussion

While some may argue that it is not within a business school’s realm to encourage and discuss higher order, intellectual topics, I disagree. Instead, I believe our mission statement mandates that we engage in broad discussion about an ideal state of capitalism and our role in making this structure happen.

Instead, many of the discussions at HBS focus on mundane managerial issues: How much equity should the protagonist demand from the deal? How should product X be marketed in country Y? How should the initiative be rolled out and communicated to the organization?

While these managerial issues are clearly important, they overwhelmingly dominate our learning, often at the expense of higher order intellectual debate about how capitalism can and should create a positive difference in the world (see mission statement above).


While HBS lists globalization as a major initiative in its current strategic plan, I still find that our global initiatives and presence lag far behind compared to the ‘best in class’ in this dimension. In fact, we have been slow in the uptake of global initiatives, and even a concerted push in recent years has left HBS behind other top schools.

At McCombs Business School at the University of Texas, for instance, every single student in the MBA curriculum visits a country outside of the United States where they learn about business and politics in that particular country. At Kellogg School of Management, students receive course credit through the Global Initiatives in Management (GIM) program, which combines 10 weeks of in-class work with 2 weeks of in-country research in places ranging from Ghana to Vietnam.

At HBS, on the other hand, we have a scattered array of Treks and Immersions that are confusing and often haphazard, despite coordination efforts from administrators and student clubs. These trips are seldom integrated into a student’s financial aid package and currently do not link to our BGIE unit. The history of HBS Treks and Immersions shows that both were student initiated and student driven, yet neither has not been systematically integrated into the overall MBA curriculum.

Beyond learning about and visiting other countries, some schools such as INSEAD actually require fluency in a second language. At HBS, students cannot even take a language for credit towards the MBA degree! This is despite that fact that many of the language courses in Harvard Yard are extremely rigorous, meeting 5 days a week in intensive language labs. Everyone may have a different take on this, but in my mind, it’s tough to say that becoming fluent in Mandarin contributes less to an individual’s leadership potential then, say, a class on Supply Chain management in the EC year.

No interaction with Executive Education

Well, I take that back. There is actually one event that I can think of that actually leverages full-time MBA students and the wealth of knowledge that Executive Education participants: a single case discussion held once a year where selected MBA students join Executive Education participants for a joint case discussion.

Other than that, our Executive Education participants are barricaded in a corner of campus (Kresge and MacArthur ring a bell?), only crossing paths with full-time MBA students during awkward exchanges at Shad Hall.

Personally, I think this is a shame. Clearly MBA students and Executive Education participants bring different skills to the table, and its tough for me to believe that there is not a tremendous amount we could learn from each other. Thus, we forgo a huge untapped resource, and block off areas of our campus to discourage MBA students from interacting with CEOs and top executives. Strange, isn’t it?

Some may look at this and say, “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?” To this, I would point to the Kennedy School, where Mid-Career students enroll in the same classes and sit side-by-side with ‘traditional’ Kennedy School students. Having benefited from this experience, I can testify that these interactions exposed me to a wide range of leadership styles and methods, which in turn has shaped my own thinking and outlook.

One size fits all approach

Besides a highly customized Executive Education program and a small number of doctoral students, the standard HBS product is a two-year, full-time MBA degree. In the first year, students take the exact same courses, with zero exceptions. While there is certainly a case for the simplicity in this model, in practice, courses evolve into a ‘lowest common denominator’ whereby some students struggle while other students are bored.

At Stanford, on the other hand, the MBA curriculum is highly customized in the first year depending on the needs of each individual student. Students enter various tracks of general management courses depending on their prior experience and familiarity with various subjects. A former Goldman banker, for instance, might enter the ‘advanced track’ in Finance and the ‘base track’ in Information Technology. The result is that each student picks a permutation that best fits his/her needs.

It is ironic that in MKTG, we study companies with ‘differentiated product offerings’ and discuss the importance of ‘needs-based segmentation,’ but sit through classes that do not address our individual needs.

In a world of increased customization, HBS keeps serving plain old vanilla cones, even to students that may be die-hard chocolate fans.

Few opportunities to process what we learn

In my tenure at HBS, I have noticed that the learning model is centered around a high-paced environment where we learn in 80 minute increments. Once one class ends, we file our cases away (both in our binders and our heads) and hope we never need to recall them again.

While this might just be the way things work, it’s difficult for me to believe that there is not a more integrative manner in which we can approach our mission. The Capstone Experience in the EC year, for instance, is just one session long and as far as I can tell, there is no structure or format to this ‘capstone’ experience. Sections select a professor and together, they decide on an appropriate topic. Thus, some sections end up pondering the meaning of life whilst others hammer out a solution to the current financial crisis.

It’s tough for me to believe that we cannot create a more integrative learning model that draws upon our modularized courses in a more meaningful way.

So now what?

I write this not to bash on the HBS learning model – on the contrary, I believe our learning model possesses many strengths and want to see it continually improve for future students. Improvement demands that we take a critical look at our current program and make incremental changes that work towards achieving our mission.

As we learn from numerous case studies of storied organizations, complacency is a sign of obsolescence.

February 17, 2009
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