The offline MBA – survival through differentiation?

The HBS campus of the future?

The HBS campus of the future?

As I am sipping on a coffee in one of a major coffeeshop’s chain stores, I realize that an internal meeting of that coffee shop is going on next to me. As a business school student, I was too curious not to try and pick up part of the activity and the conversations. It seemed that four persons were receiving training. I was impressed by the format and the professionalism of the meeting. The person I identified to be the instructor was sharing Starb…  the coffee shop’s values and priorities, and its key focus on customer happiness. As they discuss these topics, they get interrupted occasionally by another employee, bringing them all kinds of cakes and snacks. As the trainees try the snacks sitting in front of them, they discuss their taste, their content of the cake and their texture. They even discuss what drink some of these snacks would fit best with. And the discussion is quite lively I have to say. I am really impressed when the instructor asks each of them what an ideal snack would look/taste like to them. Now everybody gets really exited and launches ideas back and forth. The employees seem really involved.

HBS coffee MugInterestingly so, I was able to link this real-life situation to a HBS case-study on that company discussed in class just a couple of days earlier. A big part of the topics that had been covered during the typical 80 minutes class timeframe were now revealing themselves in front of me. I do not want to devolve any other operational secrets of this coffee shop’s organisation, but found the experience of this real-life example of a case situation very interesting and educative. Though this experience may seem futile, to me it felt as if the paper of my case study had come to life. I was impressed to see how the culture of this organisation was being implemented on a daily basis. And to the credit of the HBS case-writers, what I saw correlated very well with the information found in the case.

This experience had me thinking about the real value of a business education compared to actual real-life business experience. One of the premises of an MBA program as the one at HBS is that the best way to learn about business is to reflect on real-life situations from the past, summarized in case studies. Students reflect on the cases, and then discuss their opinions in class among students from very different professional backgrounds and (corporate and social) cultures. This has been key to HBS’ teaching method for decades. And HBS seems to have been very successful in selling and delivering this value to their students. However, I do wonder if this learning experience still makes sense to students for business life in today’s society. As the world-out-there has become more complex and MBA students focus their attention on all type of companies and ventures (not only big corporate groups – the typical destination of MBAs a couple of decades ago), one could wonder how the MBA institutions adapt to that.

Looking at today’s HBS curriculum, it seems that an important switch has happened from purely case-based learning to practical learning experiences. There is the development of programs such as IXP, where second-year students can participate on projects in different countries around the world. There is the IP (independent project) option, where students are allowed to work on projects for companies while at HBS under supervision of HBS professors (receiving credit for the work done). And HBS puts a lot of effort in students finding valuable internships during the first and the second year at HBS. HBS also pushes students to engage in clubs to set up events and to be in contact with the ‘outside’ business environment. And did I mention the Harvard iLab, aiming to support students with entrepreneurial ideas? The most impactful of the changes HBS has implemented in the past couple of years however seems to be the FIELD program (read more about field HERE). As part of this program, students are required to work on consulting assignments in developing countries around the world, as well as to start their own companies in groups of six. A very hands-on and very different exposure to the world of business compared to case studies (read more about amount of time spent on different HBS imposed activities HERE).

handschake HBSI am convinced this is the way to go for business schools. Business cannot (only) be thought in a classroom. It is about being ‘out there’ in the real world. Making contacts, doing deals, understanding markets. Business cases and classroom discussions can clearly help in developing these skills, but I am convinced that the classic business education has to evolve towards more pragmatic and real-life learning, supported by case study learning. I believe this will be to the benefit of the students… and will be a critical parameter for survival of many of the business schools. First, it will become a key differentiator among business schools – a difference that is less and less present on a purely educational level. As an example, the Darden MBA is almost fully case-based like the one at HBS. Second, it is the way that the expensive ‘offline’ MBA programs have to compete against the increasing offering of (cheaper) online educational offerings. Why spend 2 years in school (and let go of 2 years of salary) when most of the content will become available online? Third, the changing business environment requires a much more agile and responsive work force. Schools need to prepare their students with more than just classroom discussions, mainly preparing students for roles in big corporations.

As the meeting of the coffee shop’s employees comes to an end, I reflect on my most valuable lessons at HBS until know. The bronze medal goes to class-thought case studies, silver to my summer internships, and the golden medal goes to FIELD2. As the bronze medal could well be replaced by online content in the future, one could wonder which will be the business schools that will go for the gold medal in the rankings in the future…


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