Harvard Business School – Remains Open

How Harvard Business School stayed open during a global pandemic

Harvard Business School adopted a hybrid learning model for its MBA program during the Covid-19 pandemic. Students had the option of picking from a range of online only or hybrid classes. While the former was delivered through Zoom, the latter was delivered in the traditional classrooms at a one-quarter capacity with the remaining class joining in via zoom. This is an example of how an organization adapted and excelled to protect and continue delivering uninterrupted service during the global pandemic.

Harvard Business School launched an online learning platform in 2014 and adopted it into the pre-requisite learning for MBA students as well. Apart from this exception, the MBA program remained entirely in-person with no online components whatsoever. The school did have a recording studio for its executive education program, which it used occasionally. The last time the school had to pivot so much was in the 1940s, in the backdrop of world war II.

When the pandemic hit and cases began rising, the school responded by cancelling programs that were planned for the summer, that involved travel, and that had large gatherings of students. For example, the Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development or FIELD program was the first to be cancelled in late February. Then what felt like almost overnight, classes were cancelled and moved to zoom, indefinitely.

It is the work that went behind the transformation that makes HBS a winner in times of the pandemic. It was quickly able to react and then adapt and tailor its strategy to continue delivering value. The school did this in three phases:

Phase 1: Virtual Day

The IT department began upgrading infrastructure immediately which included agreeing on and rolling out Zoom as the preferred platform. While the foundation was being built with Zoom, the professors and support staff underwent extensive training on how to conduct and navigate classes on zoom. Students were briefed regularly, asked to download the zoom client, and ensure they have a good internet connection. Towards the end of March, the school resumed classes in a 100% online format.

Phase 2: Summer break

There was a significant amount of trial and error involved and the school constantly sought feedback and continuously tweaked the learning model. For example, the grading policy was changed to reflect challenges of learning using this new approach. Class norms were changed to reflect the new classroom. The school took the summer to dive deeper and experiment with various innovate ways to deliver the MBA program. Staff and students alike participated in different types of class formats and brainstormed together on how to continue delivering components that were most valued – from in person debate and dialogue to the attention that in person classes demanded.

The school created new value by offering more classes spread across the day, developing new courses, tailoring the first year MBA experience for online or hybrid approach, offering flexible deferral policies etc. It also continued to capture value by engaging students on various social platforms like Slack and WhatsApp. The school used digital dashboards to convey the latest updates and status of progress.

Phase 3: Hybrid

After extensive testing, the school was able to announce the hybrid classroom model. Here using Zoom as the digital backbone, classrooms were setup to accommodate one-quarter of the class while the remaining class logged in on zoom. The physical classrooms were fitted with large screens to see those on Zoom. Staff had to be trained to provide technical and non-technical support to professors and the professors themselves had to learn how to optimize teaching in a virtual environment.

While this transformation and adaptation to a global pandemic has been successful, it has also given the school an opportunity to future proof for any similar events in the future. By continuing to innovate they have embarked on a mission to use digital technology and innovation to help prepare for the worst while continuing to deliver value. The learnings that can be drawn from this experience will position the school to think about breaking from the mold and perhaps making some of these changes permanent even post Covid-19.

This post only focused on the academic transition that took place and does not touch upon the several other areas that needed to transform and adapt behind the scenes. For example, regular testing across all students, staff, and faculty was also enabled through digital solutions. Digital transformation and technology were the backbone on which this change took place and without it, perhaps the HBS class of 2021 would have been entirely virtual.


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Student comments on Harvard Business School – Remains Open

  1. I agree with you that Harvard Business School did a fantastic job of handling the pandemic and pivoting to virtual and hybrid models with limited time. Some things that you highlighted which I think differentiated Harvard Business School from other institutions and companies are: seeking and incorporating feedback constantly and piloting different programs and approaches to see which worked best. Although these two activities are best practices, due to the extreme pressure and time constraints it would have been easy to omit them and make decisions in a vacuum. However, the staff and faculty did not take any shortcuts and their commitment has paid off. Having said that, if this pandemic has taught us anything it is that cooperation is critical to achieve success. The roll out of hybrid classes and opening of on-campus activities would not be possible if individuals did not take responsibility for their actions and make a conscious effort to protect each other, for example by quarantining for seven days before returning to campus. This collaboration and cooperation has been a major challenge for organizations, especially those who may not have the resources to conduct as extensive testing and monitoring or the the authority to institute such strict rules.

    Despite the success of virtual and hybrid models, I wonder how much of that will stay after life returns to a somewhat normal state. For example, many people made the decision to defer this year so that they could benefit from a full in-person experience. While some classes suit the online format perfectly, it is still impossible to replicate activities such as chatting and getting to know each other before and after class. I also think an online offering has the potential to diminish the value of the typical MBA program when education returns to in-person. But there are many ways that technology can enhance the MBA program and save time, such as virtual office hours and meetings and more webinar options on special topics. It will be interesting to see what virtual aspects remain in the short and long-term.

    1. I agree that collaboration and cooperation of the community has been a critical enabling force. I wonder if digital solutions can drive that for organizations that you rightly mentioned do not have the required resources. As for what HBS will look like after the pandemic, I think the culture and mindset of continuous innovation and experimentation in both the organization and the community, will far outlive any pandemic we will face. And that is perhaps the real value that has been created.

  2. Harvard Business School’s ability to adapt with such speed was impressive by all standards. Even though we can always mention the Dean’s leadership in shaping this new reality, as with many organizations much of the attention is brought to the CEO, the transformation would not have been possible without the massive commitment to quality from all the staff. I’d like to point out the many hours professors took in training and prepping during summer to ensure that the quality of learning would meet the standards of an HBS classroom. This proactive approach from all parts of an organization is commonly seen in mission-driven companies, such as HBS.

    With the impressive success in adapting to the pandemic, will this type of learning model be the norm moving forward? Having experienced both models, a full classroom of 90 people debating on complex topics compared to 90 faces (of which I only see 20 at a time with my screen), I believe that the fully remote HBS course is able to reach the same level of debate and standards as the in person classroom. However, just as many believe that culture in an organization also builds based on informal chats between meetings and stronger bonds happen in person, I wonder what the toll is on many of the social benefits the in person class brings to an MBA experience.

    1. I agree with you Bruno, and the point on communities being a critical piece of the puzzle is echoed by other comments too. I don’t know if this hybrid approach will become the new normal but I know that the school, the communities, and the public will have confidence in HBS’s ability to withstand, adapt, and thrive no matter what the future brings.

  3. After having experienced the Hybrid Classrooms setup at HBS, I must admit that I’m impressed by how fast the school could readapt and instrument such a polished learning experience. Although I’m grateful for the opportunity of continuing having classes during the quarantine, I’m also concerned about how the introduction of high-end IT infrastructure as an indispensable requisite for effectively teaching classes might widen the education gap across students coming from different socioeconomic realities.

    1. With any new technology or in this case use-case of existing technology, three are barriers to adoption and i agree that the need for high-end infrastructure should not become the norm. However, if an organization decided to capitalize on the many advantages this high-end IT systems bring, the onus should be on the organization to provide that without the costs trickling down to the end users.

  4. Thanks Pranav for this post! Being an HKS MPA student it was impressive to see how fast HBS has adapted, mobilized and innovated to support students and continue providing excellent education during the pandemic. It seems to me that HBS was the most successful, among all the Harvard grad schools, in doing so! This fast transformation was possible thanks to a motivated and strong leadership, commitment of staff and faculty as well as an excellent use of the financial resources owned by HBS.
    I could not agree more with Bruno that, although the level of debate is very close to the discussions in person, we are less able to have informal chats and build personal bonds with classmates.
    Looking ahead, I am curious to see which changes adopted by HBS will become permanent, and whether there will be some transformation also for HBS online.

    1. Thank you Giulia for your perspective as an HKS MPA student. As Tomas points out, this was all made possible in-part due to a high-end IT infrastructure which in turn, as you have rightly pointed out, was made possible due to the financial resources at the disposal of HBS. Perhaps there lies an opportunity in this challenge then – to create the same level of connectivity while ensuring its accessibility and affordability to all.

  5. Hey Pranav, I enjoyed this post. I absolutely agree that HBS has done a fantastic job in creating the best possible experience for students in the pandemic. I think the general consensus for online learning is that it doesn’t work or it’s extremely challenging for most students. I think HBS has invested a lot in this. However, I do feel that a big part of why this has worked has to do with the student body itself. HBS students are a self-selective segment of students who have paid $200K to take two years out of their lives to return to school. I’m sure the one who decided not to defer have a lot incentive to make sure they get the most of their learning experience despite the pandemic. I wonder if we would get the same response from students had this been implemented in a different setting.

    On a different point, HBS’s model has been well-touted by other schools within and outside of Harvard. I do wonder if the model is truly replicable especially since it requires a lot of financial resources.

    1. Hi Jo, thank you for you comments. I agree, the context around the success of this program is subjective and has several variables at play. It would indeed be interesting to see if this can be replicated in a different environment and if not what were the driving factors for its failure.

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