Redesigning the HBS Curriculum

The mission of the Harvard Business School (HBS) is “to develop outstanding business leaders who contribute to the well-being of society.”

HBS endeavors to do so with its core Required Curriculum (RC) and its fully elective Elective Curriculum (EC). This article is an introductory examination of whether HBS provides a curriculum sufficient, both in its breadth and depth, to meet its mission. And although this is a “business” school, the HBS mission and curriculum, by logical extension and as reflected in statements made by the school in other contexts, seeks to educate its students to manage “organizations” of any type, not only for-profit businesses. Thus, this study will also address the HBS curriculum from the view of the non-profit/social enterprise sector.

The data supporting this article was compiled from EC students at HBS and other business schools. First, a broad outline of this article was circulated to a small group of ECs. Based on their responses, a broad list of suggested areas for improvement was developed. That list of issues was then sent to roughly 100 additional ECs for comment; 39 responded. The author also spoke informally with another dozen ECs.

At the same time, a survey was sent to students at other business schools to facilitate comparative analysis between HBS and other programs. The schools represented are Wharton, Columbia, Chicago, and Darden. (Stanford, Kellogg and MIT/Sloan have not yet responded.)

The results to date are as follows, and represent a synthesis of the author’s personal experiences (for color) and the views of the respondents:

Getting Prepared:

Where are the Models?
For those lucky enough to be invited or mandated to attend, Analytics was considered pure genius. The accounting and finance modules left attendees (primarily those without finance/accounting backgrounds) with most of the tools necessary to succeed in FRC and to have a fighting chance in FIN I and II. But where were the models?

What was lacking, and what is lacking in the HBS curriculum as a whole, is a course on financial modeling. It seems that HBS expects all student to have modeling experience upon matriculation. Unfortunately, that is not the case. If you did not work with Excel in your prior professional life, the prospect and process of learning to model while at the same time projecting revenue streams and running a DCF for NetFlix is harrowing. All HBS students simply need to be more efficient at Excel from Day One, not learning it as they go. A Foundations course dedicated to modeling is necessary to better prepare us for courses and internships that are heavily quantitative. The ECs surveyed were nearly unanimous on this point.

The comments of one HBS EC sum up the prevailing sentiment: “Students ought to be on somewhat of a level playing field using financial analysis tools like Excel. Perhaps these practical learning courses could be offered separately, but they ought to be useful. The Excel workshops in Analytics were a joke. It is an embarrassment for HBS graduates to enter financial institutions and not be as good or better than the other b-school interns or graduates.”

Other b-schools are ahead of HBS in this area. At Columbia, for example, teaching assistants (“TAs”) (ECs selected based on top performance in first year finance) are assigned to every first-year finance section. These TAs hold formal modeling workshops during the first three weeks of class. These same TAs are then available for further modeling instruction throughout the RC and for any other questions or assistance with the course work.

Similarly, Wharton offers a formal not-for-credit course in modeling during the first semester. Darden offers an optional one-week pre-term Excel course, and its finance and quantitative methods professors teach modeling throughout the semester. Chicago, with no required courses whatsoever in the first year, offers two elective courses in which modeling is taught. HBS is simply lacking in this area.

A Bit of History (but where are the lawyers?)
Admittedly for the ECs, Foundations experiences and memories are a little hazy, with the events of September 11th occurring smack dab in the middle. However, they recalled enough to make a diagnosis. Creating Modern Capitalism, while perhaps charming and somewhat enlightening, hardly seems like time well spent to many, although a slight minority of ECs disagreed with a suggestion that it be eliminated. Perhaps instead of, or in addition to, learning these nuggets of economic history, much of which is repeated in BGIE cases on Germany, the UK and Japan, a portion of Foundations could be devoted to the legal and regulatory frameworks that shape the business environment. Many ECs agreed that an understanding of these issues is indispensable to the education of “outstanding business leaders”.

For example, how do the SEC, FASB, the NYSE/NASDAQ and the American legal system function? How and when do I engage in arbitration instead of litigation? In which state should I incorporate my start-up? What is the effect of Sarbanes-Oxley? My employer wants me to sign a non-compete, is it too broad? What is the extent of my personal liability if I engage in this venture? How do I protect my intellectual property?

These are not vague, theoretical ponderings akin to exploring the personal demons of one Henry Ford, but instead lie at the very core of nearly every enterprise. And trust me, you are well served with this knowledge. Business history has value, but to some it is far better suited for an EC course (e.g., The Coming of Managerial Capitalism). Granted, this is not law school, but just as accounting is ubiquitous in the modern organization, so is the legal environment that contains that organization

Darden offers a “Business Law” course as an EC elective, and Wharton’s RC course “Business and Government” covers many of these issues. One Wharton student quipped, “It’s a spillover from our distinguished alums such as Mike Milken and Saul Steinberg.”

LVDM was eye-opening and thought provoking for many of the Class of 2003, and became even more so after September 11th. The ethical issues raised in LVDM, which are now debated daily in the press (financial or otherwise) and which face the modern leader on a daily basis, simply must be at the core of a true leadership education. The ECs are unanimous on this issue. Yet, we only spent a mere three weeks with these issues, about as much time as we spent finding bottlenecks with Arthur Dief in TOM. A shame. We, and the organizations we will join, need for us to simply spend more time on these issues, namely as a full semester course in either the RC or EC.

Wharton and Darden have full RC ethics courses, with Darden reinforcing the RC course with a required EC course on leadership. Chicago and Columbia identified this as an area for improvement. Are they moving ahead of HBS in doing so?

The Economics course in Foundations was considered light, but somewhat useful if you had no prior economics training. Nevertheless, the course hardly prepared a novice for the weighty macroeconomic issues faced in BGIE, and thus, if that was part of its purpose, seems to have failed.

However, many ECs called for a full semester of both macro and micro. In the age of globalization and Alan Greenspan, more economics is needed.

Other ECs also want a full, or at least combined, course on statistics. Columbia and Darden have full semester RC courses in micro and macro, and Chicago’s students nearly universally take both as electives from the school’s world class economics department.

The Crimson Greetings portion of Foundations was very well received. Not only for the vague understanding we developed of the need to effectively coordinate production, sales and market research, but for the intense team building the experience provided. However, the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator component of
that exercise was a bit light, leading many students to say, “So what”? Just as superficial were the superficial forays into thinking about upcoming career choices. Much more on that later.


The sequencing of these courses was found to be effective, and the subject matter covered was broad enough that even novices were able to perform at a reasonable level as summer associates in investment banks. What hurt however, beyond the complete lack of a modeling course (see above) was inconsistency-especially from section to section-as to how the case problems were ultimately solved.

Certainly there is more than one way to solve a finance or accounting issue or to build a model. But many were frustrated that upon finishing a case, no “correct” version of the model was made available to us. That left many of us with only our flawed models to somehow learn from.

Perhaps this is one of those areas where the case method is simply not optimal, and many ECs called for some use of lectures in both FRC and FIN. In addition, many ECs wanted their finance professors to simply say, “This is how you should have done it,” so that they would have a sound theoretical base and model with which to approach the next case.

On another note, where is the finance department’s version of the highly effective FRC guru, Jake Cohen, to review the concepts (and how to build the models) in weekly review sessions? Isn’t that the least that the finance department can do, especially without a formal course of financial modeling? Columbia’s TA system, staffed by ECs (one per RC section), would be a welcome and much-needed addition. Also suggested were improved tutorials that “actually TEACH the concepts.”

Problem sets, with instructive answer keys and sample models, are also preferred to the sporadic quizzes.

In the end, both from the EC perspective and from the students at other schools, there is disbelief at HBS’s seemingly continued weakness in finance. From the ECs, there is frustration that the seemingly finance department does not “try harder,” while a Wharton student identified finance as “the only weakness that outsiders perceive” at HBS. Many cannot help but wonder why this perceived weakness has not yet been turned into a resounding strength.

Fewer issues were identified for these “spinach” courses, but those who spoke out felt quite strongly. One EC complained that, “Marketing is the worst course in the first year if you have any interest in marketing. It does not build the core of knowledge that is expected of the second year professors. It also has little real world relevance in preparing to interview with the top marketing firms.”

A similar complaint was lodged against TOM: “TOM is also limited in that it does not incorporate the latest thinking on operational engineering.

Ideas such as “Lean Management” and “Six Sigma” have permeated the market place as frameworks for attacking all business processes, but neither show up in the course work. It also does not address operational management in different contexts such as union vs. nonunion, where your flexibility to make the changes, that the course teaches us are needed, are severely limited.” Many have also suggested that TOM simply should not be an RC course, and instead that it be an elective for those in interested in operations. LEAD was well-liked, but a greater emphasis on ethics was nearly unanimously demanded.

Most found this to be a very valuable and useful class. The many country cases provide the ability to speak intelligently on, and compare and contrast, the economic systems and development of countries in all four corners of the globe. What was tricky, however, was that the macroeconomics may have been at too high a level for the uninitiated, leaving them with the uncomfortable feeling of playing “catch up” all semester. Again, this is why many found the economics portion of Foundations to be severely lacking.

Thank God for Michael Porter. This is one of those classes that causes many to realize they chose the right MBA program, as the leading thinking in this field continues, to be developed on this campus. The only complaints addressed the failure to cover a broad diversity of industries.

One EC complained that “the curriculum is stuck in the year 2000, where the focus was on technology and the Internet. Times have changed, in case they haven’t heard. And although tech is still important, there is, in fact, business being conducted outside of Silicon Valley.”

Suggestions included cases on investment banking, namely the issues related to the strategy of combining commercial and investment banking (e.g. Citigroup, CSFB) versus being a stand alone investment bank (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley), the domestic airline industry, energy trading, the cellular phone industry, the long distance phone industry and professional services/consulting firms. That little software company in Redmond has clearly received its due, and should remain a part of the curriculum, but there is room for more diversity. The bubble has burst.

Many are not certain that even today they grasp the main thrust of this course, which seemed to focus primarily on the collaboration of for-profit companies with non-profits, but said very little about effectively creating, organizing and managing a non-profit. HBS has made great strides in this field of late, including the fellowship programs that pay salaries for grads working in social enterprise, but many found that this course did very little to introduce, or prepare students for, the unique issues faced in the non-profit environment.

Perhaps this is a topic best reserved for a full semester EC course, when these broad topics can be addressed in a less hurried environment. But if it is to remain a part of the RC curriculum, it is in need of an overhaul. This is especially true if HBS wishes to genuinely bill itself as a program to educate leaders for all varieties of organizations, not merely the for-profit businesses that are at the core of the RC curriculum.

What is most striking about this course is not its content, but that two or three sections are combined to create the dynamic learning environment that is present in the first term of the RC (and in all EC courses). The environment tends to fade over time with the familiarity developed by seeing the same faces in every class, every day.

Regarding content, the simple tools for approaching a negotiation taught in this class were found to be “incredibly valuable”, but the class was either “too long” or “too short.” Others said, “[d]rop or completely change Negotiations” and “add more meat.” Clearly more data is needed to address the specific concerns. Just as clear is seemingly widespread dissatisfaction.

There were no meaningful criticisms of this course. Even if one never intends to start their own business, this course draws on the teachings of so many of the other RC courses that it allows a unique opportunity to synthesize and apply those other courses in a novel setting. It’s all there. Finance, marketing, LEAD, and even a nice section on the law.


Career Development
This article will not address the issues surrounding Career Link or Career Services. Those issues are beyond the scope of this article, which focuses on the curriculum, not the supportive services available at HBS.

Nevertheless, many ECs hope that the recent controversies regarding what was published in this newspaper will not divert attention from the need for changes at Career Services.

Where does career development appear in the curriculum? It is barely on the HBS radar screen. This semester only about 50 ECs are enrolled in Self-Assessment and Career Development (SACD), an EC course taught by the highly effective Professor Monica Higgins. This course, using an incre
dible variety of tools and techniques, enables students to look at career choices and themselves in a thoughtful manner, seeking to find alignment between their personalities, goals and working styles with their professional aspirations. This process is nearly absent from the RC curriculum. In a job market such as this, students need to begin the process of selecting careers and learning more about themselves much earlier in the recruiting process, and certainly during the RC, preferably in the first semester (and not merely as an EC elective) Offering such training before RC interviews begin is patently sensible. Even more sensible is to do so before resumes and cover letters are submitted.

If you are currently an RC (the answer for ECs is far too obvious), ask yourself: just how much support has HBS, as an institution, given you in not only preparing for the recruiting process, but also in helping to identify for you those industries that are most suitable to you? To do so requires great introspection and thoughtful analysis, but nobody is going to do that for you. The RC curriculum should.

This is not a call for an hour here and there with Dr. Tim Butler. Dr. Butler is certainly capable of getting you where you need to be, and is a valuable asset that you should take advantage of, but there is only one of him and 1,800 of us. That is a shame. The ECs surveyed were in near unanimous agreement, and many would urge, or even implore, the RCs to stop for a moment, catch their breath, and make sure that you are not simply a part of the herd. It’s your career.

Darden, Wharton and Chicago varied in their approaches, but all were more comprehensive in this area during the RC. At Darden, “We actually have a class called Professional Development that is part of the First Year curriculum. This class goes over resumes, interviewing and keeps you abreast of the recruiting schedule. Some of the first events on campus are career specific panels that bring back alums to talk about Banking, General Management, Consulting, etc. We also have one career counselor each. They focus on 50-odd students and are helpful in discussing career strategies, drafting resumes and preparing for interviews.” And, “Chicago has a class the first quarter of [RC] to help with self-evaluation, resumes, cover letters and interviews.”

Cross-Registration/Study Abroad
Beyond the dearth of ethics education, career development, and understanding of the legal and regulatory environment, many ECs found that there should be a broader range of electives and greater opportunities to take classes at other Harvard schools (or MIT, Tufts, BU, BC, etc.) or even (gasp!) abroad.

How about a semester at IMD in Switzerland, the London Business School, or INSEAD? Can a truly outstanding manager for a global economy be trained exclusively in Allston/Boston, Massachusetts? ECs are currently allowed to elect only two classes outside of HBS for credit, whereas, for example, many Columbia MBAs will be at the London Business School next semester.

Some suspect-and this may sound cynical-that there may be an institutional belief that an HBS MBA can only truly be earned if experienced through four semesters on campus. But, mind you, although the foreign b-schools mentioned are not perhaps considered true peers by HBS, they are nevertheless highly respected and no doubt feature faculties that are highly credentialed. ECs were split on this issue, with some finding that “two years it too short to leave for a semester,” while others cringed at the prospect of “unqualified students from other programs” at HBS.

Another point on this issue: given that ECs can take two classes outside of HBS, and can also participate in two outside field studies, ECs are allowed to take a total of four “classes” away from this campus during EC. That being true, ECs are only actually required to take six true in-classroom classes at HBS during the EC. So why not allow ECs to take six HBS classes in one EC semester (which they are already allowed to do, albeit with the sixth class being “non-credit”), and spend an EC semester abroad? The result: the same number of HBS classes, but truly a world of other opportunities.

Suggested Curriculum
With these suggestions in mind, this is what a revamped HBS curriculum might look like:

Crimson Greetings, Financial Modeling, Career Development, Business Law
RC Term 1
FRC, FIN I (with TAs), LEAD, Economics (micro and macro), Marketing
RC Term 2
FIN II, Social Enterprise (full course), EM, BGIE, Strategy
Required EC Course: Ethics
Elective EC Courses: TOM, Negotiations

Other Suggestions
Here is a short list of other suggestions (at least four ECs must have mentioned the issue for it to be included):

o “Writing skills classes in Foundations. I think tons of HBS grads are terrible writers. Communication is a fundamental part of leadership, and it ought to be a requirement here. Public speaking skills; same reason. Leaders need to be able to persuade and motivate.”

o The EC registration process for field studies and independent student research is not well understood.

o More in-class speakers should be scheduled, and more time should be allowed for the classes in which they appear.

o Only have class four days a week, even if this means four three-case days, to allow more time to breathe, recruit and decompress.

o Change the grading system to 20/60/20 (from 10/80/10) “to encourage more people to try harder. It’s too easy to get a ‘two’ and too hard to get a ‘three.'”

In sum, most of us still think this is the best b-School on the planet. To hell with the rankings. Who can match the HBS faculty, our students, our facilities (Shad!), our campus, or our network? It simply cannot be done.

Yet this is a school that teaches its students how to run an organization and to continuously improve it. So here is to hoping that this organization will consider the foregoing, and allow the best to get better.

Certainly there are limitations, some real, others perceived, that would prevent the above “wish list” from being fully implemented, but the purpose here is to begin a thoughtful dialogue. So please digest the foregoing and be on the lookout for a poll that will dig deeper.