No Cases, No Section Discussion, No Aldrich: Meet ISDL

HBS makes major investment in the Required Curriculum.

No cases. No section discussion. No Aldrich. No, we’re not talking about a totally different MBA program. We’re talking about ISDL, the artist formerly known as Field Foundations.

HBS students likely have long been familiar with our mission: we educate leaders who make a difference in the world. If you’re like me, that was ringing through your head from before you applied through your first days on campus.

An updated course in the school’s historic MBA Required Curriculum (RC) takes this to the next level. “If you plan to make a difference in the world,” the ISDL course team suggests, “you will need to effectively influence and be trusted by a wide range of people.” More of the practical, hands-on thinking the program has been deploying since Field launched. Here’s what it’s all about.

In late October, RCs joined the first-ever cohort of ISDL, the Interpersonal Skills Development Lab. The course promises to help students “become more aware of [their] impact on others, deepen [their] ability to take the perspective of others and personally connect with them, and enhance [their] skill in building trusting relationships in the workplace.” There are four core skills students will focus on: building trusting relationships, humble inquiry, objective description, and perspective-taking. The syllabus has lots more details on these for all the academically inclined who want to learn more. Still, the end goal is simple: enhance one-on-one skills and capabilities to build effective human relationships in the workplace. Sign me up.

The course is being led by Professors Ted Berk (MBA ’01) and Sandra Sucher (MBA ’76), both very highly regarded among MBA students. They embarked on an incredible journey to launch this to students, and it’s especially notable how they worked directly with students to collect feedback on FIELD Foundations and iterate from there. As an SA, we’ve been grateful for their willingness to entertain feedback throughout the design process. Professor Jan Rivkin (PhDBE ’97), Chair of the MBA Program, noted, “Built on all we learned from FIELD Foundations, ISDL is the most ambitious single innovation in our curriculum since the launch of the field method in 2011. I’m deeply grateful to Professors Berk and Sucher, and to the RC class, for pioneering the course.”

There are a few new and unique components to the class. The first is a series of lectures in Klarman (let’s put that new space to use!) for the entire RC, which adds a fun new dynamic to the year. Previously, there were only a few chances to get the whole RC class together. Now, students will gather for dynamic faculty speakers and outside guests with content geared towards course topics. We saw a sneak peek of the speaker list, and I’d be lying if I said we weren’t a bit jealous of what’s in store for the RCs.

Next, there are brand new “laboratory teams” for RCs. HBS students are used to a variety of teams, such as discussion groups and FGI teams. ISDL adds one more to the mix. ISDL will feature student-led learning units, small groups of six to seven, from within the section. Each team will also be supported by one of 31 executive coaches, allowing teams to draw upon the coaches’ expertise as needed. The Lab Teams are designed intentionally: in a discussion with the SA, Professors Berk and Sucher noted, “One of our key goals in designing the course was to create environments where students could take risks, be open, and experiment. That’s why we’re working in small groups of sectionmates (the ‘Lab Teams’), why each experience in ISDL will present a different kind of challenge, and also why we waited until late October to get started.”

And finally, the deliverables. The work for this course is interesting and unique in this great case-based institution. Students will work on projects that encourage them to deeply interact with those both within and outside of the HBS community, and they will also write several reflections. Executive coaches will respond to the reflections throughout the course. Professors Berk and Sucher note that these responses will “be very powerful in converting the exciting (and sometimes challenging) experiences of the course into impactful, lasting learnings for the students.”

ECs and alumni may wonder, “Wait, what happened to FIELD?” FIELD Foundations, the part of FIELD that didn’t involve you leaving the continent, has been broken into two. ISDL will focus on interpersonal skill-sets, which were lightly covered in FIELD Foundations. The other half? Faculty section chairs lead sessions with their sections throughout the year focused on the teaming and section community experiences that ECs saw in FIELD Foundations. It’s a nice split of the “get to know you and grow together” activities vs. pure academic content.

Thinking about this change, Professors Berk and Sucher shared, “The evolution from FIELD Foundations to ISDL reflects a lot of consistent feedback, both from students and from faculty, about building deeper, more meaningful, more effective relationships across the very wide range of different people that you work with—not only at HBS but especially beyond our ‘bubble.’ All the students here have already developed important relationship skills, of course; in addition, our experiences and our work with senior leaders consistently show us that it’s a lifelong journey to enhance these essential capabilities throughout your career.”

All signs point to a great start. Rob Huckman, Chair of the RC, said of the launch, “The engagement of the RC students during the opening ISDL session in Klarman was terrific. Whether from the perspectives provided by Professors Berk and Sucher, or the personal reflections offered by Professor DeLong, students began to realize that ISDL will be different than any other course they will experience in the RC. It will be highly personal and challenging and, in a very real sense, rigorous. I hope that ISDL will provide some of the most memorable academic experiences that students will have during their time at HBS.”

We’re excited to see how year one goes.