Learning by Doing: Harvard Reinvents the MBA

Forget about class lectures and theoretical case study analysis. The new MBA is a hands-on degree.

Forget about MBA programs stuck in a 20th-century model of class lectures and theoretical case study analysis: Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria is championing an experimental first-year course called Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership, which takes an innovative learning-by-doing approach that could make practical, hands-on education the new normal for MBA curricula.

Nohria told The Economist that one of the shortcomings of business school is that it doesn't help students gain practical experience that they can apply in real-world situations. And given the complex nature of the global economy and the needs of businesses, modern MBA graduates need to "master a body of knowledge" while also being able to "apply that knowledge with some measure of judgment," he says. A summer internship, Nohria adds, simply isn’t enough to help facilitate that process.

The FIELD method includes three modules, which all revolve around ensuring students become "leaders who make a difference in the world." The first module, "leadership," uses team-building exercises and group projects to help students learn to consult, collaborate, and give and receive feedback. The second, "globalization," matches each student with one of 140 companies in 11 countries to work on new products or services in an emerging market. Each student also travels to the company's physical location for one week. Finally, in the "integrate" module, students are each given $8,000 to start a company, and their peers at HBS can vote for the business most deserving of more capital.

But will FIELD actually better prepare MBA grads for the workforce? Management guru Pankaj Ghemawat is skeptical of the immersion experience. He says leading research indicates that such experiences should "be at least two to three weeks and be backed up with time in the classroom." And Nohria admits that not all HBS faculty members are thrilled with FIELD. But they've agreed to run the program "for three-to-five years to see if we can move the needle."

Harvard is not the only MBA program trying to figure out how it can make its $84,000-a-year degree more worthwhile: Plenty of other programs are experimenting with hands-on, common-sense learning. But HBS is an undeniable leader in the field, so it's particularly significant that this kind of shift away from the case-study model is finally happening there.

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