Being at Harvard Business School (HBS) in Summer 2010
According to a popular saying there are three kinds of people: „People that make things happen, people that watch things happen and people that ask what is happening”. Harvard Business School (HBS) is maybe the best place on earth, bringing the first two types together – excellent researchers, that analyze and explain thriving business strategies and at the same time educating the managers of the next generation. So more I am pleased to be allowed to stay here for a while, attending at the Global Colloquium on Participant-Centered Learning 2010 and enjoying the great Cambridge and Boston area (especially when spotting at Michael Porter personally walking down the campus, or jogging past the institute of David Kaplan).
After the first days, I got very intense insights on how US Business Schools (and HBS as the leading one) do their teachings, especially for MBA and Executive Education levels: by a terrific case study teaching approach. An average MBA student (aged between 26 and 30, 900 MBA students per term), is receiving during his two-year education at HBS about 500 cases (and has to pay about 80.000$ per year – for anyone who is interested). During that time, the only way of teaching is done by cases – no front lecturing, no seminars – only high participative class discussions about a certain case (covering all subjects from finance to marketing) in ca. 90 people sized classes.
The distinctive fact is that the Prof. is leading the discussion, letting the students develop their insights on their own, only structured by open and directing questions, cold calls and grades that are based upon 50% classroom participation. Very intriguing, there is no structured solution of the case presented, no take-aways and only few theory bindings offered. The typical result of a HBS case is a very convincing aha-effect (e.g. on how to negotiate, or how to behave in a specific leadership challenge) followed up by a broad mass of further questions. Sometimes they hand out teaching notes, sometimes alternative case descriptions – but hardly any references to literature or to common mindsets and never give “the” one and only answer. However, I doubt that this approach is appropriate for bachelor classes without knowing a set of terms and basic insights. Interested, how a HBS case looks like? See here and assignments.
Currently I am very much enjoying getting in touch with this style. I am attending in such classes, trying to imitate and learn. However, some things make me reflective and may stimulate my own teaching (and maybe even my own research and behaviour).
1) Beyond doubt, HBS wants people to think for themselves and to learn. Raising the right question is maybe more important, than giving a right/wrong answer. Real life rarely offers black or white challenges (they call it “tolerance for ambiguity”). Why do people do, what they do? What are the reasons for it? Is it ethical? What would you do? (By the way, all the US Business Schools feel extremely innocent for the financial meltdown, as exactly the case approach is ought to make people think far beyond the dollars….Damn, where again did all the Lehman Bros. investment bankers got their MBA from?)
2) Teaching cases explicitly goes far beyond teaching content only. It addresses the skills and attitudes of the students. A case can stimulate your ability to structure the world. If it ends with a framework it's nice – but it doesn’t have to. But it should address the students’ perspectives, their attitude, maybe even their hearts. Some of the cases you will never forget in your whole life.
3) Witnessing a lot of HBS professors at their daily work, makes me convinced, that the Humboldtarian way can work. All profs are distinctive lecturers, excellent moderators and very present in the classroom. On the other hand, they are all cutting edge researchers (all of them with A+ output at Org. Science level etc.). Some of the younger profs presented how to cross high qual. research with case study writing and teaching. Great!
4) Concerning my current experiences, “cases” are (going to be) the leading teaching style at business schools around the world. Here, at its origin, they are going to globalize it, founding Harvard outlets in India and China. For executives, top managers etc. it really maybe the best way of education/training. (By the way, that is a branch/pillar of education we are (still) very much ignoring in Germany: Imagine Airbus managers going to the University of Hamburg, asking for management training and professional development….Not likely? So let’s take the chance – the doors are open!).
5) I am very convinced that the case method style is perfectly appropriate for “softer” subjects, understanding and imitating e.g. entrepreneurial issues, innovation management decisions, strategy building and even public management topics – instead of quantitative, financial or accounting education. So I am going to look for interesting cases at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, right across the river for my further teachings in Hamburg.
I really enjoy staying here and looking very much to continue these insights at a follow-up event devoted to the creation and writing of cases in Sao Paulo, in March 2011.