HBS: Potential to win at teaching digital by harnessing digital teaching

The Harvard Business School’s stated mission is “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” It is hard to imagine how world leaders of the future will make a difference without effectively and ethically harnessing digital tools, whether those tools be rudimentary (e.g., social media, basic data analysis) or sophisticated (e.g., artificial intelligence, workforce automation). A well-rounded MBA education must not include not only the basics of finance, accounting, marketing, and strategy, but also a minimum level of literacy in digital tools and processes.

Yet, the Harvard Business School (HBS) has largely failed to adapt its curriculum to reflect these educational needs despite access to the requisite tools; for this reason, HBS is a digital loser. The classroom experience is remarkably light on discussion of digital tools and processes, and almost completely devoid of the actual use of digital tools and processes. These deficiencies leave students sub-optimally prepared for the digital-native workplaces and markets that characterize the world today, which is and missed opportunity for HBS to create and/or capture value. However, better use of HBS Online resources could create significant value for HBS students and for the institution.

Digital fluency is increasingly an expectation on the post-MBA job market, which effectively dictates HBS’s value as an institution – and its ability to deliver on its stated mission

As companies across markets rush to infuse digital tools and processes into their business model, they need business leaders who are comfortable working alongside these tools. While the organizations of the last decade may have had their “tech people” and their “business people” and some select translators going in between, organizations today have realized that agility requires the that the translator role becomes the translation skill, and high-performers need to have that skill. Translation, by definition, requires a certain level of fluency in the language; at minimum, the business leaders need to be able to define the tools and processes they are talking about.

There are opportunities at HBS to pursue this fluency, but they are largely confined to high-demand courses in the Elective Curriculum (EC), such as this one; looking at the course list and number of available enrollments, it is reasonable to estimate that more than half of the class of 2020 may never touch a course that endeavors to achieve a workable level of digital fluency. Furthermore, these courses remain relatively “low tech” and do not allow for hands-on exploration of the subject matter, which naturally limits the degree to which students achieve fluency. Imagine saying you have learned a language without having ever spoken it!

But why should it matter to HBS that its students graduate unprepared to translate between “business” and “tech”? Aside from the fact that that it is essential to truly fulfilling the institution’s mission (see above), it is also essential to preserving the institution’s long-term brand value. Unless the institution adapts and educates its students effectively, it is likely that demand for HBS alumni will decrease in certain job markets; assuming the relevant job markets are aspirational among prospective MBA students, demand for an HBS education among these prospective MBA students will decline as a result, and HBS will struggle to attract the highest caliber potential MBA students – and thus begins a dangerous cycle.

HBS is positioned to address this issue, while preserving the case method, by leveraging HBS Online

It’s somewhat difficult to imagine HBS faculty teaching the basics of, for instance, AI, for some of the same reason that it’s difficult to imagine HBS faculty teaching the basics of Excel: it’s not a great use of their time, and it doesn’t work well with the case method. Instead, learning these tools requires “learning by doing” – and HBS has at its disposal a tool that can facilitate this learning by doing without infringing upon the case method or requiring much incremental time from faculty.

HBS used HBS Online to introduce MBA students in the class of 2020 to the mechanics of Accounting, Economics, and Statistics. This same delivery platform could be used to teach digital tools that don’t “fit” in the case method but are still in-demand among students: basic R, for instance, or what we actually mean when we talk about machine learning. Students are then able to elevate the discussion across subject area because of a common minimum standard of knowledge.

This is a massive win-win: it’s a win for students because they more effectively learn concepts that are taught sub-optimally by the case method or not at all, and a win for HBS because they are teaching these concepts in a highly scalable way. Thus, significant value is created for both parties.


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Student comments on HBS: Potential to win at teaching digital by harnessing digital teaching

  1. Great article! HBS has definitely been slow to adopt digital tools, but I think significant progress has been made with the debut of HBX and EdX. I think it’s important to differentiate tech education from digital innovation. Learning about tech, such as R programming or excel, are complimentary skills to the growing digital business world and are, indeed, not part of the HBS curriculum. On the other hand, digital innovation in the form of online learning (i.e. traditional content offered online) is something that HBS is ramping up. This semester, for example, students were offered a list of online IPs for credit. I recommend you check out this page for more information on the online course pilot:

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