Harvard’s grand experiment: Send 900 biz students abroad

December 15, 2011, 1:37 PM UTC

(Poets&Quants) — For the Harvard Business School, it is the academic equivalent of Operation Overlord.

English: Harvard Business School Baker Library...
Harvard Business School (Image via Wikipedia)

Next month, the school that made the MBA one of the world’s most valuable credentials will launch an invasion of more than 900 MBA students, roughly 20 professors and 40 staff members around the world as part of a new and highly ambitious weeklong global immersion experience.

Some 152 six-student teams of Harvard MBAs will board airplanes bound for a dozen far-flung cities in 10 countries that range from Argentina and Brazil, to China and India. Once there, they’ll hook up with one of 140 organizations to create a new product or service for a developing market.

In Vietnam, a team will help to create flood insurance that can be sold to locals. In China, another team will work to develop a new kind of automobile tire. In Ghana, students will work with L’Oreal to help the company redesign a hair product for the local market.

For the first time in its 103-year history, the school is shipping nearly an entire class of MBA students abroad, all at the same time. The goal: To equip Harvard MBAs for business in a global world.

A logistical nightmare?

The school had to line up more than 150 meaningful projects with some 140 multinational companies, small businesses, and non-profits. It had to process hundreds of visas, arrange air travel, and hotel accommodations for nearly 1,000 travelers to locales as varied as Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo, Accra and Cape Town, Ho Chi Minh City and Istanbul, Chongqing and Shanghai, Mumbai and Chennai.

At one point, Harvard University’s new innovation lab was turned into an immunization clinic to vaccinate hundreds of students over three days. A car and driver had to be hired for each student team — and Harvard screened and then trained the drivers to ensure they could speak English and efficiently transport the teams to different locations for on-the-ground research. Before booking accommodations, Harvard staffers were dispatched to each hotel to test the reliability of its Internet service and find backups in case something goes amiss.

For every 45 students, Harvard has generally assigned one professor and two staffers. A pair of projects had to be set up in Boston for students who could not travel for personal reasons.

“The amount of planning has been extraordinary,” says Youngme Moon, a marketing professor who is chair of Harvard’s MBA program. “But this is HBS, so we feel there is an expectation of quality, consistency, and reliability. If we are truly going to become a global organization, we have to learn how to do this and do it by scale.”

Faculty across all the different disciplines, from finance to marketing, worked together on this project. “We had to break down the silos and boundaries and … work together as a school in a way we never had,” says Moon.

“Teaching hospitals” for budding MBAs

She uses a medical school analogy to explain why Harvard is going to all this trouble. “For decades, medical schools have understood the benefits of sending their students into real hospitals where they can practice what they’ve learned in the classroom,” she says. “We wanted a set of partners around the world who would, in a sense, become our teaching hospitals.”

Many business schools, including Harvard, have sent students abroad to work on consulting projects with companies. But no business school has tried to create a global experience for graduate students with this scope or scale. Some rival deans are closely watching the experiment, wondering whether Harvard can pull it off and, if so, whether it is worth all the effort and expense.

A few years ago, the University of Virginia’s Darden School launched pilot projects taking students into the field around the world. “It’s logistically quite challenging,” says Robert Bruner, dean of the Darden School. “What Harvard will find is that some companies invest a lot in making it succeed. Other companies just kind of scratch their heads and say, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do with you folks. Sit there and be quiet and we’ll all get through this.’”

Counters Moon: “It’s very easy for anybody looking at this to judge us on how things go today and tomorrow. In our heads, we recognize that this is the first step in a very long process that could take awhile for us to nail down and get right.”

Turning a new leaf at Harvard

The upcoming global excursions are part of a new yearlong course for first-year students layered on top of Harvard’s core curriculum of 10 courses. Known as FIELD, the three-part course is designed to cultivate intelligence in leadership, global business, and the integration of business disciplines. The course is a bold departure for Harvard, where business has long been taught almost exclusively via case study discussions in class.

As Dean Nitin Nohira sees it, the experience is meant to heighten the student’s global awareness and teach them how to manage in unfamiliar terrain. In each case, the school sought projects with real companies and organizations to develop a product or service concept.

Moon says Harvard used its corporate recruiting, alumni, and executive education relationships to enlist 140 partners and 152 projects. Harvard placed high hurdles on participation.

“It wasn’t easy for a partner to become a partner,” adds Moon. “I would rather have had the problem of having too few partners and knowing they would be really good as opposed to filling slots.”

The big reveal

After faculty and staff spent months lining up partners and projects, the school held what it called “a reveal event” on Oct. 6 to inform all 900-plus first-year MBA students where they were going and who they would work with. The students were sent to pre-assigned tables in Batten Hall, the university’s new innovation lab, where each team found a small cardboard box adorned with a big red question mark. Inside each box was a puzzle of a Google map.

When they put the puzzle pieces together, they would discover which country and city would beckon them along with what new product or service development project they were assigned.

Almost immediately, however, there was controversy. Some international students, initially assigned to projects in New Orleans because they had already come from an emerging country, were unhappy with their U.S. destination. As one disappointed international student told The Harbus, the student newspaper of Harvard Business School, “I came to HBS looking for international exposure and I was really excited about experiencing a new country for FIELD. New Orleans was incredibly frustrating. Perhaps I was put there because I’m not from the U.S. Either way, I was angry.”

Within two weeks, Harvard cancelled the five projects it had lined up in New Orleans and reassigned the entire 30-student cohort to a new set of assignments in South Africa.

A recent survey in The Harbus, the student newspaper for Harvard Business School, found that 77% of the 354 responding MBAs are “very satisfied” with the location of their projects. “In light of the bad buzz that some of the dissatisfied students created after the unveiling, the survey paints a surprisingly encouraging picture of a class that, on the whole, is happy with their destination,” wrote Kate Lewis, a student who is going to Mumbai, India. She says that most students view the FIELD trip as “an adventure or perhaps even a vacation.”

Harvard, however, has a significantly different view. It wants to take students out of their “comfort zone” and throw them into a “profound learning experience,” as Moon puts it.

Hitting the ground running

Students have spent several weeks in Boston working on their projects. They already had to create parallel products and services for the U.S. market for comparison purposes and to put them through the paces of practicing development skills. The teams have had videoconferences or phone calls with the organizations to which they have been assigned.

“They are not going in empty-handed,” says Moon. “They have done as much work out of country as they could possibly do to understand the context, the partners’ business, and the structural limitations and boundaries around each project. It’s creating a lot of stress and nervous anticipation. We think it’s a good thing.”

Once the student teams return after Jan. 14, they will meet to consolidate and share the learning across the entire class. Then, in February, all the global partners will come to Harvard for a debriefing.

Will it be worth it? “We have a huge mountain to climb,” says Moon, who had to get seven vaccination shots because she plans to visit most locations. “I’m sure that things will go wrong, and I am really stressed because of the uncertainty. But we are ready.

More from Poets&Quants: