01 Jun 2001
Teaching for the Ages: the MBA Classroom in the 21st CenturyTopics:
Early much too early on a rainy March morning, I find myself
once again among a throng of bleary-eyed students trooping toward Aldrich
Hall. The ritual of the herd, familiar to me and every HBS alum, certainly
brings it all back. Its as though I'd never been away. So really, I
think, how different could things be?
Its only been thirteen years since I graduated from HBS, and we in the
Class of 1988 were remarkably forward-thinking about technology. Ours was
the first class to have a subject called Management Information Systems
(MIS) in the core curriculum. We received cutting-edge IBM PCs in advance of
their market introduction. We used Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheets, and we
proudly whipped out our HP 12C calculators with their vast array of
financial and statistical functions (which we mostly didnt need but
still found satisfying to contemplate). We were techies, no doubt about it.
One of my sectionmates even knew Bill Gates!
But that was then. As we push through the Aldrich doors and trudge up the
stairs, it dawns on me: In 1988, our cases hadnt made mention of
Internet, dot-com, or any words with the prefix
e-. Our hands held no PalmPilots or cell phones. Our CDs played
music, not virtual-reality games. Will I even recognize the place?
In the Aldrich hallways, I notice Internet kiosks stationed here and there;
almost every one I pass has a student logged on. I find my way to my first
class, Assistant Professor Andrew McAfees Operating an E-Business.
Right off the bat, McAfee sets up a presentation on a classroom computer
linked to a video projection system. What, no overheads? I recall that in my
day a particularly endearing, if mobility-challenged, professor would
repeatedly collide with the overhead projector while executing the complex
tango steps inherent to case-method facilitation. No such problem for
Professor McAfee. Blissfully unobstructed, he welcomes students to this, the
initial meeting of his second-semester elective.
McAfee emphasizes that students should feel free to call a technology
time-out if someone uses a buzzword or acronym they dont
understand. Knowing the technical details will not be the only important
factor in discussions, he says. Theres always going to be a pure
technology component, but that will often be overwhelmed by a managerial
This mornings case, Rich-Con Steel, proves his point: A
steel distributor attempts a company-wide conversion from 1960s computer
systems to 1990s enterprise software. After a month, the results are nearly
disastrous, but the concerns are human and strategic, not just
technological: How do we get people to change? Do we adapt our
business process to the technology or the technology to our process?
I find myself at home with these issues, but also with my surroundings
the hum and clunk as blackboards rumble into position, the urgent
tap-tap-tapping of chalk as an important point is recorded by the
instructor. I see how the professors body language and a
students tone of voice convey subtle messages. All this immediacy, I
realize, is irreplaceable. Computer-generated graphics may support the
learning, but the rooms distinctive vitality still comes from
interaction and critical thinking.
McAfee closes the case with a bang: What do you think happened to this
company? In fact, it never recovered from the ill-planned conversion
that appeared, at face value, to promise so much more good than harm. Such
is the sobering message about the high stakes of technology decision-making
that rings in the ears of tomorrows managers as they leave the
Rocket Science and Socrates
Taking a break in the new Spangler Center between classes, I ambush a couple
of students to help me sort out how new technology is affecting their lives
at HBS. Immediately, they mention the Course Platform (see sidebar below).
This wondrous-sounding intranet for the HBS community contains not only
their course syllabi, daily assignment questions, and a personal schedule
downloadable to their PalmPilots, but spreadsheet toolkits that deliver core
calculations like that bane of the required Finance course, the capital
asset pricing model (CAPM). It also enables Professor McAfee, for example,
to poll students about aspects of a case before they set foot in class. He
can even use those responses to choose who will open the case the
cold call meets the polled call to ensure that important
viewpoints get heard.
The two students further tell me that good old Baker Library has become a
Nirvana of online accessibility. They had recently logged on to Bakers
siliconDeck of high-tech resources while in California
conducting a field study. In addition, student study groups have been
enriched by the ability to link up online and eliminate time-consuming
hassles with broken printers, trips to the photocopy store, or updating
printouts by hand. Without these distractions, the time groups spend in
discussion is enhanced. Overall, technology seems to have delivered a vastly
streamlined approach to class preparation.
Its time to head back to Aldrich for Assistant Professor Alan
MacCormacks elective course Managing Technology Ventures. Todays
case chronicles the meteoric rise and equally fiery fall of Iridium,
Motorolas spin-off venture into global wireless communications.
Although the technology was literally rocket science, involving
the launch of a whole new satellite constellation, the core issues were
again familiar: Did they understand their market? Did they miss important,
Theres all too often an assumption with technological products
that people like you should sit back and let the technical folks do
it, says MacCormack, pointing out an attitude that led to
Iridiums demise. Clearly, the good manager must not let whiz-bang
inventions overwhelm the need for sound business principles.
Later, in other classes, I get a further taste of innovation. In a Marketing
session taught by Assistant Professor David Arnold, I see firsthand the
latest advance to hit the HBS campus wireless computing capability.
Students vie for classroom airtime while at the same time using their laptop
computers with wireless cards to gain access to the Internet, further
enhancing opportunities for learning. As class begins, I note the raised
laptop screens six, seven, later fourteen or fifteen an
extraordinary sight for someone from my era, when just one trip to class
with your computer could get you branded section weenie for
life. But here, it all seems part of the routine; most students are using
their computers to view a spreadsheet of numbers run for the case.
In my final class, Finance, taught by Assistant Professor Randy Cohen, I
enjoy a graphic demonstration of how todays technology can be brought
to bear on learning. The section works together through a spreadsheet that
models an exercise in forest management, building formulas that capture
probabilities of tree growth, price inflation, and so on. The computing
capabilities allow substantive technical material to be taught in a
technical way, while at the same time, students follow the Socratic method
in sharing different approaches for solving the problem.
Who would have thought it possible? My return to campus left me amazed by
the new technological enhancements supporting classroom learning. But it
also reminded me that the heart of the HBS classroom experience lies in the
human energy of the discussions that the case method creates. Technology or
no, Socrates lives on in the 21st century in HBSs amphitheaters.
Having found him there, I had the strong impression that the quintessential
HBS experience continues, brought up to date by some state-of-the-art rocket
boosters that have lifted it to even greater heights.
Class of DBA 1999
Class of DBA 1996