- Melissa KornThe Wall Street JournalCANCEL
- Lindsay GellmanThe Wall Street JournalCANCEL
Feb. 4, 2015 8:38 p.m. ET
Does Harvard Business School need to hit refresh?
The institution that required students to carry laptops as early as 1984 and sent graduates to top posts at
is not keeping up when it comes to teaching management in a tech-focused era, say students, faculty and alumni. Meanwhile, competitors like Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management have established themselves as pre-eminent tech-industry feeders, according to the schools’ annual career reports.
To be sure, HBS is still in high demand among b-school applicants, and it accepts only 12% of those who apply to its two-year M.B.A. program. But the school’s size and legacy may complicate its attempts to keep ahead of rapid changes in technology and business.
Compared with MIT and Stanford, “we have, in a sense, less tech in the air,” says the business school’s dean, Nitin Nohria, though he points out that HBS sends many graduates to leading tech companies each year.
Students, faculty and alums say HBS’s strict adherence to the case-study teaching method focuses on business dilemmas from years or decades past, rather than the current forces shaping the business of technology, which include issues in which graduates are expected to be well versed.
a 2010 HBS grad and co-founder and co-CEO of Plated Inc., an online food-delivery startup, says the school prepared him to run his organization, which employs about 300.
“But preparing for early-stage product management, customer discovery, user experience, Web design—what’s the difference between HTML, CSS, Java Script—I had no idea,” he says. “I had to learn all of that on my own.”
Echoes a 2014 graduate whose employer requested he remain anonymous, “HBS trains people to be CEOs, CMOs, every sort of C except the CTO or the CIO role.”
Few are calling for mandatory coding classes for M.B.A.s or special treatment for applicants with engineering backgrounds. But current students and recent graduates say HBS should fold more technological awareness into its core curriculum, addressing, for example, data analytics in marketing or the impact of Airbnb Inc.’s growth on major hotel chains.
HBS has taken some steps to freshen its offerings. In 2013, Mr. Nohria launched the Digital Initiative, a cross-disciplinary project intended to help shape conversations about the digital transformation taking place in all corners of the economy. And the school recently announced it will start offering a business-focused version of the undergraduate school’s popular introductory class in computer science. This year, about 25 HBS students cross-registered for the undergraduate course.
Colin Maclay, who runs the digital initiative, says the group provides structure to tech initiatives, including research and courses. He helped organize a summit in April to discuss the challenges posed by digital transformation in business and points to about a dozen other events this year.
One recent graduate who is now in a technology leadership role at a New York company says a nebulous “initiative” doesn’t amount to progress. “They’ve been having conversations for years,” the graduate says of the school’s efforts to expand its tech offerings. “Nothing’s happened.”
One issue, Mr. Nohria says, is geography. MIT and Stanford’s engineering and business schools are near one another and tightly integrated; by contrast, Harvard’s engineering school is a nearly mile-long trek across the Charles River from HBS.
A planned relocation of the engineering school will put it right across the street from HBS in a few years, a move that Mr. Nohria says will facilitate opportunities for students to learn programming and take courses on breakthrough innovations in science.
who teaches about health care, says that crossing the Charles River to meet with non-M.B.A. students “is really like a biblical crossing,” confounding many collaborations. She’s pushing to create a joint degree program with the business and engineering or medical schools, similar to ones at MIT and Stanford, a task that may be easier, she says, after the move.
As for the case studies, the dean notes that faculty have been writing up-to-date cases involving digital issues, although some students complain that the cases are stale by the time they make it into the syllabus. (The issues facing HBS are common to much of academe: How to reconcile the teaching of time-tested lessons with the pace of real-world developments?)
Marco Iansiti, who heads the school’s Technology and Operations Management unit, estimates that about two-thirds of his department’s required first-year course still focuses on operations, including a 12-hour exercise that simulates managing a factory floor.
The class covered networked-based businesses and crowdsourcing for the first time this fall, and Prof. Iansiti says he’s interested in adding more technology-management content and “winding down a bit on traditional operations management.”
The HBS electives that address technology management are overwhelmed, faculty say. When
and Prof. Iansiti first offered their “Digital Innovation and Transformation” elective last spring, they signed up two 90-student sections and had a wait list long enough to fill a third one.
Demand is also high for a “Product Management 101” course co-taught for the past two years by Prof.
product manager. The 45 students take an idea from concept to product launch, learning how the Internet works and being coached on asking questions about products and user experience. Mr. Ramaswami says the goal is to prepare students to be product managers, or at least to understand how developers think.
The student newspaper, Harbus, ran a story at the end of 2013 highlighting student discontent with a “technology skills gap” and a perceived lack of action by the administration to change that.
As more M.B.A.s seek careers in tech, applicants with such aspirations are now thinking Silicon Valley rather than Boston, says
founder and president of mbaMission, an admission consulting firm.
Of the small number of people who win admission to both HBS and Stanford, tech-minded candidates generally opt for Stanford, Mr. Shinewald says. But HBS students still fare well in the tech-job market, with recent graduates landing roles at firms like LinkedIn Corp., Google and Uber Technologies Inc.
For now, many students are going outside the classroom for a tech fix. The 500-member student technology club hosted three learn-to-code workshops last year, all of which were oversubscribed.
Prof. Iansiti displays a framed copy of the Harbus article on a bookcase in his office, set among student startup mementos and early Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. products.
“I loved the fact that students are excited about digital transformation,” he says. “At the same time, it’s a reminder: Am I working hard enough to make change happen?”
Write to Melissa Korn at email@example.com
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