The Digital Initiative Community Meets IRL

Caroline Fay is the Coordinator for the Digital Initiative and an Ed.M Candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is exploring the intersection of technology, development and learning. She writes for a Boston-based music blog and supports a health/media literacy non-profit in her spare time. She tweets at @carolinecfay.

“How much do you know about machine learning?” A few months ago, this curveball of a question was pitched to a newly-minted MBA interviewing for a marketing position at a large firm. This wasn’t a random test, but an inquiry that highlights how quickly our economy, organizations, and jobs are undergoing a complete digital transformation.

From the School perspective, an increased focus on digital business has been a long time coming. Faculty from across units, including Professors James Cash, Warren McFarlan, and the Digital Initiative faculty chair Marco Iansiti, have been doing research and teaching on elements of the digital economy since the emergence of the personal computer. As digital technology has become ubiquitous, the subjects of faculty research has similarly expanded. Most recently, research has investigated crowdsourced reviews on Yelp, native advertising’s role at new media giant Buzzfeed, and even the surprise digital release of Beyonce’s latest album. To build on the momentum behind this work, the Dean formed the Digital Initiative in the fall of 2013. The Initiative’s aim is to generate and disseminate new insights in digital transformation across faculty, student, and alumni communities, and one powerful way to accomplish this is by equipping tomorrow’s leaders with now-essential digital skills and frameworks.

HBS students, too, recognize the growing need to fill this gap. Sean Liu ‘14 and Lauren Lockwood ‘14 issued a rallying cry in these very pages last year, calling for the MBA program to focus more on preparing students for the digital future. Taking matters into their own hands, Delaney Manders ‘14 and Ming Min Hui ‘15 launched CS 50: the Good Parts, through which 250 MBAs signed up to learn basic Java programming, all in their “spare time.”  Additional technical workshops like the Firehose Project are consistently selling out, despite a price tag and the arguably greater cost of giving up one’s entire weekend. The tech community is anxious to welcome HBS students as well. Nathan Bashaw, PM at General Assembly, taught a Front-End Crash Course and reported that the students … “showed a level of intellectual curiosity and engagement that makes it a joy to teach. Hopefully General Assembly can do much more in the future with HBS!” These student-led efforts towards digital literacy parallel the mission that fuels the Digital Initiative.

With all this in mind, the Digital Initiative kicked off the new school year at their launch party on September 17th. To a group of students from across sections and industries, Director Colin Maclay issued a call to action: “We want to build the Initiative with you, and act as a platform upon which you can explore, co-create, and experiment.”

Karim Lakhani, Associate Professor of Business Administration and Digital Initiative core faculty member, offered the thirteen tech-themed courses as opportunities for this kind of exploratory learning. This suite of course offerings includes Digital Innovation and Transformation, taught in Winter ‘15 by Lakhani, Iansiti and Maclay. The inaugural version of DIT included over 180 students across two sections last year, and it will expand to three sections this winter. The course focuses on what students need to know to embrace and lead in digital transformation when they graduate. The course focuses on some of today’s most innovative products and organizations, like Google Research, Threadless and Facebook, while examining a variety of phenomena, from crowdsourcing to crowdfunding, and from digital ecosystems to outcome-based business models.

To supplement in-class learning, student co-conspirators and the Digital Initiative team  have generated a full slate of opportunities to experiment and create outside the classroom. Both the Tech Club and the Big Data and Analytics Club promoted upcoming workshops that aim to teach programming to non-programmers in jam-packed sessions. D/I pitched their forthcoming Responsive Operating Systems workshop with the strategy firm, Undercurrent, on November 5th. The event will use interactive group work to teach participants how to create a company that will thrive in the face of digital disruption. Ellen Chisa ‘16, in collaboration with D/I and the Student Association, announced the launch of Lunch Roulette. Lunch Roulette is a computer algorithm created by Kickstarter that creates maximally varied groups of students and connects them for a meal. The team behind Lunch Roulette sees the program as a unique opportunity to bridge students who may be separated by disparate interests, or by the often daunting divide between sections. Lunch Roulette ran its pilot program on October 2nd for 250 RCs with the hope to scale school-wide soon.

These pre-existing classes and events are just a starting point, and the Initiative invites students to propose more events, experiments and projects to run on its platform. And as its community grows, the Digital Initiative is hopeful that more students will be ready and well-equipped to knock that machine learning curveball out of the park.

Have ideas for an event? Looking to start a project or conduct research? Just want to make friends? Say hello at or @dighbs.