Harvard at 100: case closed?

So Harvard Business School is 100 years old this week. Many happy returns. Although the argument will continue as to whether it was Harvard or its near-neighbour, Dartmouth, which actually invented the MBA, few can argue that HBS has played the defining role in management education over the last century.

Perhaps most significantly, it was the first to have the bright idea of applying the case study—until then largely confined to law schools—to the world of the MBA. Harvard is still the world’s pre-eminent producer of business school case studies. Schools that teach almost exclusively through the case-study method—which also include West Ontario (Ivey) in Canada and IESE in Spain—point to the fact that it is the nearest a classroom will come to replicating real-life business situations. Furthermore, the cut-and-thrust atmosphere of the average case discussion inevitably breeds confident and persuasive speakers, able to think on their feet.

But the method is not without its detractors. One of the biggest criticisms is that it merely rewards those who shout loudest, not necessarily those with the most cogent arguments. With marks awarded for class participation, the clamour for “airtime” can lead to an overly competitive culture—something that most schools say they are trying to move away from.

Although the situation is improving, the other major criticism of the method is that cases also have a tendency to be US-centric. The question used to be asked about whether it was relevant for an Asian student, for example, to study case-after-case examining American business dilemmas. But in this world of globalisation, it is fair to wonder whether it is even relevant for US students any more.

So will the method continue into Harvard’s second century? A joke among management consultants tells of the freshly-graduated MBA who waltzes in to the office on his first day and demands: “bring me the first case!”. Business life has always been more complicated than that. But with the modern emphasis on learning through action—particularly with students being parachuted into real-life companies to solve real-life problems—surely there are better preparations for post-MBA employment?

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5 Responses to “Harvard at 100: case closed?”

  1. Faras Says:

    Good thoughts about Harvard, but with heavy competition and new strategies by other B-Schools,Harvard is losing ground and will have to fall back in line facing stiff competition from B-schools in US and Europe.

  2. Johan Says:

    Harvard will always be one of the top programs, but in the next 100 years Stanford is going to rule the roost.

  3. Faisal Nazrin Says:

    Harvard Business School MBA program is a brand that speaks by itself. It is a ‘brand’ that is globally recognised and it’s graduates are highly sought after regardless the rank of it.
    I verily believe that HBS MBA case-study method should now extent more than what it currently covers, for instance perhaps by also discussing more on Islamic Banking/Finance as an alternative banking system in light to the current global economic recession due to the collapse of the conventional banking/financial system.
    Anyways I was told that Wharton Business School that invented the MBA…is it true?

  4. Richard Says:

    Stanford is amazing but Harvard will continue to dominate — just like Wharton is amazing and was not able to displace Harvard over the last 100 years…

  5. Don Loper Says:

    Short of unforeseen circumstances of a truly unique sort, Harvard will remain one of the preeminent business schools in the world for decades to come without changing a thing. Even if Harvard grads were to start performing much worse compared to their peers, the momentum of the brand would still pull the school along for quite some time. And chances are if any such serious problem occurred in the grads from HBS, the school would correct for it quickly.

    I think HBS’s question isn’t so much “What can we do to stay on top?” but “What can we do to give more people an HBS education?” As the educated portion of the world population grows demand for an HBS education will grow, and HBS’ influence in the world can keep up only if they extend their influence well beyond the classroom environment. They already do this by providing volumes of content on and offline, but I’m thinking more about satellite schools. For example, a branch of HBS on each continent, staffed primarily by local talent, and offering a full HBS MBA. That would be risky for the brand, but could also extend the reach of the school far beyond it’s current state.

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