01 Dec 2010
Innovation Takes Center Stage
Dean Nohria makes a case for change on five key frontsRe: Fred Fortmiller (MBA 1953)by Roger ThompsonTopics:
When Dean Nitin Nohria stepped onto the Burden Auditorium stage on the morning of October 1 to welcome a standing-room-only reunion crowd back to Harvard Business School, his audience was as attentive as any he had experienced in his 22-year teaching career. Although they graduated at different times and came from many countries, the alumni who filled Burden that morning all shared an intense curiosity about where the new Dean intended to take their School. Just shy of 100 days into his tenure, Nohria came prepared with answers.
Speaking without notes for nearly an hour as he traversed the front of the stage, Nohria used his first reunion address to broadly outline five priorities that will shape the agenda for the School during his tenure: curriculum innovation, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, and closer ties to the University.
But he began on a personal note. Nohria explained his belief that people’s life stories deeply influence the way they conduct themselves as leaders. In his own case, he described the profound effect his father, the CEO of a large electrical equipment manufacturing company in India, had on shaping his enduring belief that “business is an extraordinary force for good.”
While Nohria earned a chemical engineering degree from prestigious IIT Bombay, he harbored a dream of becoming an entrepreneur even as he applied to a doctoral program at MIT. At MIT, he discovered his love for the field of leadership and organizational behavior, the area where he has devoted his professional career at HBS. He also came to understand “how being an academic in many ways resembles being an entrepreneur, in that I have the opportunity to decide what ideas to pursue.” Summarizing his life’s journey, Nohria confided: “I came to this country chasing the American dream. I never thought I would be Dean of Harvard Business School.”
When Harvard President Drew Faust called on May 4 to inform him that he was her choice, Nohria, drawing on his years of work in leadership, told Faust, “Before I get started, I want to gather all the best advice I can.”
Without delay, he set out over the summer months to talk with all 200-plus HBS faculty members and nearly as many staff, students, alumni, business leaders, and other educators. Out of these conversations emerged a consistent theme: Harvard Business School is at an inflection point, an insight that meant different things to different people.
Some focused on the fact that HBS is beginning its second century. Ironically, it’s also a moment similar to when the School was founded in 1908, with a banking crisis and general loss of faith in business. “It was a moment when there was a need to come up with a different vision of how business leaders would operate,” said Nohria. “Harvard Business School was created to fulfill that vision. Now, many people are asking the question, can we do the same for the next 100 years?”
Others wondered whether a two-year MBA program continues to justify the investment. While HBS remains a leader in the field, Nohria observed that “you need to worry when the health of the whole field doesn’t look promising, even when you are at the top.”
The third interpretation of inflection point juxtaposed the School’s historic roots as an institution dedicated to American management practices with the increasingly global nature of business. Today, there’s a clear sense that this will be a global century in which economic activity and business innovation will be much more widely distributed around the world, Nohria observed. “That causes people to ask, ‘How well prepared is this great American institution to be a leader in this new global century?’”
However you define inflection point, the times clearly call for change, said Nohria. “Strong institutions continue to prosper because they continue to be innovative; they continue to have the courage to embrace change.” At the same time, as a student of organizational behavior, Nohria said he understood the importance of remaining resolute about certain traditions that have made HBS great, such as the case method and professors close to practice. Striking a balance between continuity and change is the challenge ahead, he noted. With that in mind, Nohria outlined the five areas for change that emerged in his wide-ranging conversations.
1. Curriculum Innovation
HBS needs to “up the ante” on the value proposition of MBA education, said Nohria. “We need to innovate to make the value proposition of what it means to come here even more compelling.” While remaining steadfast about the central educational role of the case method, he noted that the School has been trying new approaches to learning. For example, the Immersion Experience Program and field studies engage students in hands-on activities and help them to translate knowing into doing and develop a deeper sense of their purpose as leaders. “We need to take the wide range of pedagogical experiments our faculty have been piloting up a notch,” said Nohria.
2. Intellectual Ambition
HBS has a disproportionate share of the big ideas that have shaped the world of business scholarship, education, and practice, said Nohria. The School’s distinguished faculty can lay claim to introducing the concepts of business strategy, the balanced scorecard, venture capital, entrepreneurship, and disruptive innovation, among others. “Now is the time for us to make sure that we do not lose our intellectual ambition,” said Nohria.
“I can’t tell you how often alumni ask, ‘What is Harvard Business School doing to shape the most important conversations of our time?’” Recognizing that the difficult challenges facing the world today will require solutions that cut across existing boundaries and disciplines, Nohria noted that the School must find ways for its faculty to develop, support, and generate important new thinking.
How should the School respond to this new global century? That question came up frequently during Nohria’s summertime conversations. In his view, HBS should “chase knowledge, not demand.” The School’s strategy for more than a decade has been to establish a small physical footprint with six global research centers, but together they have greatly expanded the School’s intellectual footprint, multiplying its impact on management education, explained Nohria.
Last year for the first time, over half of the new cases were about companies outside the United States. “These cases are being used not just here at Harvard Business School but in business education classrooms around the world,” Nohria said. Already a global thought leader, the School should strive to enhance that position in the years ahead, he added.
For a school that prides itself on diversity — more than a third of MBA students are women, a third are international, and roughly a quarter are ethnic minorities — HBS can also be a difficult place for these groups to do their best work, said Nohria. “This has to be a place in which the best talent from all over the world can come and fully thrive,” he added.
“In my own personal experience,” he continued, “that is what the School has been to me. So it troubles me deeply that this School is experienced by some as not providing a level playing field. How we address that is a vexing and complex matter. All over the world, businesses are learning to deal with a more diverse workforce. If Harvard Business School is to continue as a leader in business education, we have to address this issue here first. And if we figure out how to address it on our campus, we may well end up being a beacon for business.”
5. Closer Ties to the University
Nohria noted that in its formative years, HBS was well served by developing across the Charles River from the Harvard campus. “We didn’t want to be a department of applied economics, or applied sociology, or applied psychology,” he explained. But the School has matured, and today it has joint degree programs with several Harvard professional schools. Going forward, said Nohria, HBS is well positioned to pursue more cross-disciplinary projects with students and faculty from the University.
Noting Harvard’s leadership in science, engineering, health, and other fields, Nohria foresees opportunities for HBS faculty to join forces with their University colleagues to create entrepreneurial ventures to help commercialize innovative ideas. “We want to shape our reputation in a way that we are seen as the leader in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship,” he added.
Staying True to the HBS Mission
“So those are the five priorities that have emerged,” Nohria concluded, and as the School pursues them “we must be guided by what my colleague Bill George calls a sense of where our true north lies. Our true north lies in an understanding of the mission of Harvard Business School” — to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. What makes that mission special, considering that other business schools make similar pledges, “is the meaning that we put into those words, not the words themselves.”
When we say “educate leaders,” what kinds of leaders are we talking about? he asked. “If we are interested in educating leaders whom others declare to be leaders, we have to recognize that people only call someone a leader if they feel confident about his or her competence and character.”
Competence comes from mastery of specific knowledge, Nohria continued. Historically, that competence has been a grounding in the principles of general management. Character means that HBS graduates are ethical, not simply in the sense that they don’t lie, cheat, or steal. What people look for in character is “someone who believes that it is important to create value before you claim value,” an attribute many business leaders have been criticized for lacking in recent years, he added.
“Everything that we do at Harvard Business School must be about educating leaders who have the competence and character that would inspire the world to think of them as leaders. That is an important part that must guide all the work we do,” Nohria continued.
When it comes to “leaders who make a difference,” the ways are limited only by the imagination. “But in every case,” Nohria said, “we have to start with this basic belief in creating value. Our students have to understand that when they go out in the world, they have to be seen as people who are creating value in society.”
The words “in the world” signal the vast opportunities for business globally “as an engine of prosperity,” said Nohria. “We have to open up the imagination of our students to recognize that leadership is needed today in all parts of the world — that there is a desperate and urgent need for the kinds of leaders that only Harvard Business School can educate.”
Judging from the applause that punctuated the conclusion of his remarks, Nohria more than satisfied the collective curiosity about where the School is headed.
Said Fred Fortmiller (MBA ’53), an Alumni Board member: “I was particularly struck by how Dean Nohria shared his personal life with us. I was also impressed by his effort to listen and engage faculty and alumni in creating a vision for the School. Sharing and listening and engaging are key traits of leadership. It makes me feel proud and fortunate to be associated with the School.”
— Roger Thompson