Harvard adjusts MBA program to changing times

January 24, 2011: 3:02 PM ET

Harvard has joined several business schools with the announcement that they too will be adjusting their MBA curriculum, a shift largely geared toward accommodating an increasingly diverse student population.

By John A. Byrne, contributor

Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria

(poetsandquants.com) --

Soon after Nitin Nohria became dean of the Harvard Business School last July, he promised to deliver "bold, brave things" that would set the course for the entire field of management education for the next 100 years.

Over the weekend, the new dean played his first hand in the game of curriculum reform. And while Harvard's Student Association agreed that these initial changes represented "bold new ideas," these reforms have already been in place at many other business schools around the world.

The changes -- announced in a Sunday email from Nohria and senior associate dean Youngme Moon to newly admitted MBA students -- were described as "two important enhancements." Harvard is creating a new course in the first-year required curriculum called "Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development" (FIELD).  The course will focus on developing small-group learning experiences with teams of six to eight students throughout the first year that are, in the deans' words, "experiential, immersive and field-based, with the overall goal of advancing the school's mission to develop leaders who make a difference in the world."

"Like other new courses," Nohria and Moon said in the joint statement, "it will be designed and delivered by a faculty teaching group, and it will consist of three modules: the first will center on leadership, the second on globalization … and the final will integrate learning across the year."

The second change provides faculty and students with increased flexibility and creativity to build their course schedules.

"We believe both of these enhancements have the potential to become a platform for significant innovation in experiential learning in management education," the deans said. "We also believe these changes to the MBA curriculum will give our students an array of exciting field-based opportunities that will serve as a powerful complement to the case method."

The Harvard changes were informed by research initially commissioned by Nohria's predecessor, Dean Jay Light, for the 100th anniversary of the school in 2008. Professors David Garvin and Srikant Datar organized a workshop on "The Future of MBA Education." The event drew on their conversations with faculty as well as interviews with executives and other business school deans and ultimately led to the publication of a book, Rethinking the MBA.

Garvin and Datar found that MBA graduates need to develop a more global perspective, leadership skills rooted in self-awareness and self-reflection, and an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of business as well as the limitations of models and markets.

"A lot of the ideas percolated up from that research," says Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer for Harvard Business School.

Asked if the changes represent "bold, brave things," as promised by Nohria, Kenny described them as "a significant step" in that direction.

"For most of the last 100 years, we have been exclusively using a case study pedagogy," Kenny says. "We're recognizing that the case method needs to be supplemented with experiential things that allow students to balance knowing with doing. It's not a radical overhaul of the curriculum which we know some other schools have done, but we think it is a significant enhancement to something we do very well."

The changes to Harvard's MBA program are part of a larger series of changes at business schools since the economic meltdown of 2008. Some critics pointed a finger at business schools and their MBAs for the collapse of Wall Street and the banking system. Since then, numerous business schools -- including Wharton, Stanford, Berkeley, and Yale -- have unveiled both major and minor changes to their MBA programs.

Most curriculum reform effort have focused on increasing flexibility for MBA students, adding more so-called experiential learning opportunities with companies that recruit MBAs, and offering more exposure to global business through increasingly mandatory field trips abroad. But many have also addressed the increased diversity of the business schools' student populations.

Before Stanford's overhaul in 2007, students began the MBA program with a set of "tools" courses like they do at most other business schools. MBAs could place out of up to nine core classes by taking placement tests, but students often preferred to move through the program with their classmates. The upshot: many candidates ended up in classes below their background or ability.

Shockingly, a survey of grads by Stanford revealed that one-third of the students said their undergraduate degree was more intellectually challenging than Stanford's MBA program.

"There was a lower degree of engagement in academics," says Stanford Dean Garth Saloner. "Focus groups of our students showed that the program wasn't challenging enough, mainly because the population had changed." Stanford's new MBA curriculum addressed this change.

Richard Lyons, dean of UC-Berkeley's Haas Business School, which recently underwent a curricular revision of its own, doesn't believe radical change is necessary.

"On some levels, one shouldn't expect the changes to be radical. It would be bad for us to chase every fad to reinvent ourselves," says Lyons. "We are moving things around at the edges."

Most business schools deans agree with Lyons. As demonstrated by Wharton, many program makeovers are done to meet the needs of the business community -- largely the companies that recruit MBAs -- as it continuously evolves. Much of the same is true with Harvard's changes, which are still being worked out.

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John A. Byrne
John A. Byrne
Contributor , Fortune

John A. Byrne is chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., a digital media startup that is launching a network of websites for the global business community, including PoetsandQuants.com, a website for analysis, news, and features on prestige MBAs and the best business education in the world. Byrne was until recently executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne is the author or co-author of eight books on business, leadership, and management, including two national bestsellers.

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