01 Sep 2017

The Shape of Things to Come

Dean Nohria and Felix Oberholzer-Gee on navigating the increasingly competitive marketplace for business education


Image by John Ritter

With the rise of the online MBA and part-time programs, how do you make the ongoing case for students investing in two years at HBS?

Nitin Nohria: A transformational experience takes time. Most of our students aren’t pursuing an MBA because they already know what they want to do, and they just want to move up in their careers. They want to use the time to think, to explore, to imagine what lives they might lead. The summer experience ends up being very important. And the second year gives students an opportunity to try out different classes and imagine themselves in different situations.

Felix Oberholzer-Gee: It’s true for almost everyone that [the MBA experience] sets their sights higher in some form. They come in and think, “Oh, I’m going to be a successful executive of some sort,” but as they begin to engage with their classmates and see how people think about their lives and their ambitions, it invariably makes them think, “Maybe I could do much more.” Part of that is professional success, but part of that is also private. What difference do you want to make? Is it related to your community? Is it related to the field you work in? That’s part of the power I think we can deliver to students.

Felix Oberholzer-Gee on introducing empathy into the curriculum


How do you maintain curricular innovation?

FO: Every year we write 250 cases, and those cases are entrepreneurial, bottom-up ways in which every faculty member who’s involved in teaching a course is constantly looking for opportunities to say, “How can I improve my course? What are some new things I’m learning about that I want to introduce?” That produces a certain dynamism that’s constant in our programs. In the second year, we drop and add courses, annually, whether because of faculty interest or because student demand tells us something has no traction. Less frequently we’ll make a big change in the first year.

NN: Important impulses for change also come from alumni. We were approached not so long ago by a graduate with ideas for how to make communications more effective given new opportunities with social media, and we’re exploring how we might incorporate this into the curriculum. And alumni have a big impact by being case protagonists.

So the curriculum naturally adapts to change. What changes are you seeing in the student body—and what impact do those changes have?

FO: It used to be that you looked at the fraction of foreign students to get a sense of how global the class is. Today, students may say “I have an American passport,” but they’ve worked in four or five different firms and countries.

Dean Nohria on technological relevancy


NN: As business and innovation in business have become more widely distributed in the world, our students have more interest in finding out, for example, what the internet business looks like in China. And it’s important to remember that the case discussion is not the case we present to the student—it’s the discussion students have with each other about the case, and as they evolve and as they change, the richness of that conversation also continues to evolve.

FO: If there is a challenge in the program, it’s that students can be almost untethered to the realities of local communities and of the people who live and raise their families in a particular region or area. Part of our job then is to help students understand what these other lives are like, because they will manage not just workers who are global like our students but also many people who are truly local. And having empathy for both types of lives, I think, is increasingly important.

NN: This is one of the big opportunities for us. It’s almost as if in the last 20 years we were so caught up in globalization that embracing it fully felt like the first-order issue. I think the world now reminds us that, even in this age of globalization, we cannot forget the communities that are still very rooted in their local systems and are likely to remain rooted in their systems.

How has HBX—the School’s online learning platform—impacted the way that you think about education?

FO: We think online education is a great way for people from diverse professional backgrounds to begin to learn by the case method. If you don’t have any familiarity with how to do analysis, it’s just not easy to feel prepared to exercise judgment. That’s the first place where we’ve seen a giant opportunity through HBX—which makes us wonder whether we could leverage technology so that, when people come to the classroom, instructors are not trying to get the class to a place where they can begin to have a serious discussion.

NN: Another opportunity is field learning. When our students travel into the field, we often send faculty members with them, and then they have to gather to debrief about what they learned during the day. We’ve learned that if they just go off and there’s no opportunity for them to reflect on what they’re learning on an ongoing basis, then the experience is not as useful. HBX Live creates an opportunity for us to have students even more dispersed in terms of where they travel by allowing them to reconnect and debrief online at the end of every day.

It’s early days, but the experience our students have had with [the business readiness training program] HBX CORe makes us feel that there is an opportunity to enhance what we do in our MBA Program here and in all of our programs, beyond using technology to more broadly disseminate what we learn here.


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