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Modernizing the Harvard MBA program

How the dean of Harvard Business School transformed an institutional culture in 2 years

“To make more progress in the education of leaders, we have to get better at translating knowing into doing,’’ says Nitin Nohria, the 10th dean of Harvard Business School.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

“To make more progress in the education of leaders, we have to get better at translating knowing into doing,’’ says Nitin Nohria, the 10th dean of Harvard Business School.

Inside Harvard’s new innovation laboratory in Allston, amid the flashing video screens, blaring soundtracks, and cacophony of would-be entrepreneurs making pitches, Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria leaned toward two students, nodding attentively.

The students, finalists in a university start-up competition, ran through the features of the “revolutionary, interactive, electronic textbook company” that they hoped to launch on the Apple iPad platform. As one of them spun a triangle on the screen of a prototype trigonometry textbook, a slight smile broke across Nohria’s face.

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“Up until now, Harvard has played under its weight in our innovation economy,” Nohria said later. “I think we can be a part of the Boston innovation ecosystem, and contribute to it.”

This emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship is just one example of how Nohria is remaking one of the nation’s most prestigious business schools, shifting its focus from classroom-based case studies to real-world experiences that emphasize action, experimentation, and greater participation in both the local and global economies.

In the two years since he became dean in July 2010, Nohria has overseen the completion of the innovation center, introduced international programs, and marshaled the Harvard Business School community — faculty, students, and alumni — into a comprehensive study of US competitiveness. He also launched a research program on cultural inclusion and expanded the school’s collaboration with the rest of the university.

“He has done in two years what it would take most deans 10 years to do,” said John Byrne, editor in chief of Poets & Quants, a website covering graduate business school education. “What makes Nohria’s impact more impressive is that it has taken place at the world’s flagship MBA program.”

Nohria, however, does not project an image of a door-busting, radical change agent. Quite the opposite. He is soft-spoken and frequently pauses in conversation, glancing up thoughtfully as if he’s considering every question for the first time.

He didn’t begin his tenure by announcing an ambitious agenda, either. Instead, he went on a 10-city listening tour to get advice and perspective on the school’s direction from alumni and corporate leaders. Then he held one-on-one meetings to discuss the school’s future with each of the school’s 225 faculty members.

“Let’s face it: I am 5-feet-6-inches, bald. Charisma is not the first word that comes to mind when people meet me,” he said shortly ­after he was appointed dean. “That’s not who I am.”

Who he is, said Angela Crispi, the associate dean for administration at Harvard Business School, is someone who understands people and the workings of academic institutions. Universities tend to be run by consensus, as opposed to fiat, and Nohria made sure faculty, alumni, and others knew that he was considering their concerns and ideas.

“This is what I heard you saying,” he would tell the business school community as he laid out his plans, paraphrasing what he was told during many conversations. Initially, he thought revamping the curriculum would take 18 months, but then he realized most faculty would just put off the work until the last six months of the project.

So, he condensed the initiative to six months.

“He understands how higher education works, and he is terrifically good with people,” Crispi said. “That combination can move mountains.”

Nohria, 50, was born in ­India and received a bachelor of technology degree in chemical engineering in 1984 from the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. He earned a PhD in management in 1988 from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and joined the Harvard Business School faculty soon ­afterward.

As a professor, Nohria’s scholarship focused on leadership, and he has coauthored or co-edited 16 books, most on leadership and organizational change. As the financial crisis worsened, he co-wrote a 2008 article that inspired the “MBA Oath” movement, which prompted thousands of business students across the country to sign a pledge to behave responsibly in their careers.

In a recent interview in his office, Nohria said he based many of his changes on a 2008 research report on the state of MBA education by two Harvard Business School professors, who concluded that MBA programs were coming up short in teaching students how to get things done and lead.

“To make more progress in the education of leaders, we have to get better at translating knowing into doing,” Nohria said. “That has been my goal.”

Nohria’s emphasis on doing is illustrated by a new required course, Field Immersion Experiences in Leadership Development, or FIELD. The first-year course includes intensive training in teamwork and an immersion project requiring students to develop a new product or service with a company in an emerging market.

To undertake the immersion project, the entire 900-member first-year class leaves campus for nine-day residencies in 11 countries, from China to Ghana to Brazil. In the spring, after they return, students are required to work in six-person teams and launch a business within 10 weeks.

Youngme Moon, who has been teaching at Harvard Business School for 14 years, said this approach forces students to make “the connection between what makes sense in your head and what you can actually get done.”

“Nitin’s idea,” Moon said, “is to get students to experience the messiness of execution, reflect on it, and then go through the cycle again.”

Nohria is also dealing with changes that are affecting the very nature of graduate business education. For decades ­after World War II, the master’s of business administration was the fastest-growing graduate degree in the United States. But alternatives to traditional, full-time MBA programs have pressured enrollments. Part-time business programs, in-house corporate training programs, and online offerings are all attracting candidates who in the past may have considered only a full-time graduate program.

At the same time, attracting faculty is also increasingly difficult, according to Nohria and other business school deans.

“For many bright business students,’’ Nohria said, “the differential between what an MBA can earn in business, versus in academics, is just too great to justify a career in teaching.”

Harvard Business School, which consistently appears at the very top of business school rankings, is insulated from many of these forces, but these trends are among the factors driving Nohria to modernize and enhance the model invented by the 104-year-old business school: the two-year, full-time, residential business management program.

Many of Nohria’s changes translate into less time in the classroom, which means that they come at the expense of the school’s most identifiable teaching method, the case study. Students, armed with a set of facts, put themselves in the role of decision makers facing a business problem and debate possible responses. The approach, ­adopted all over the world, is widely identified with Harvard Business School.

Nohria insists that the case study method is still at the core of the school’s teaching. The school’s new initiatives, he said, affect only 10 to 15 percent of the curriculum.

But that’s the problem, said Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, who ­asserts that Nohria hasn’t gone far enough in revising the curriculum and approach.

“All of Nitin’s changes are good,” Mintzberg said. “They open the students up in interesting ways. But they do not fix the basic problem. You cannot create a manager in a classroom.”

If anything, though, Nohria’s efforts of the past two years have aimed to push management education beyond the classroom. Perhaps the most visible manifestation so far is Harvard’s Innovation Lab, which opened in November.

Under Nohria, the business school funded a $20 million makeover of the lab building, which formerly housed studios for WGBH-TV. The facility, once a dank concrete bunker, is now bright and airy. Already diagrams of business plans and product ideas spill off the lab’s many whiteboards and onto its white walls and columns.

In May, on one of the last days of the academic year, the lab hosted a noisy “Demo Day” in which 10 finalists in a university­wide start-up contest showed their work to a crowd of faculty, advisers, and fellow students.

At the showcase — part trade show, part science fair, and part festival — Nohria circulated widely, talking intently with the finalists, commenting on their business ideas.

After stopping at a number of displays, he settled into a long conversation with two representatives from Crimson.com, an online “collaborative space” that enables students to learn from more experienced peers. Before he moved on, Nohria offered his business cards to the students, who looked momentarily flummoxed to be exchanging cards with the business school dean.

A few minutes later, surveying the crowd of students, faculty, venture investors, and technology executives, he turned and said, “I’m really interested in seeing what kinds of things happen when all these people get together.”

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.
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