Do We Still Need Harvard?

I’m not sure I need the magazine. And I’m not sure you need the degree.  Oh sure, it looks great on the resume, and it opens a lot of doors (especially coupled with a stint at McKinsey) , but does technology create compelling alternatives?  Having done an actual MBA, I participated in an online learning experiment this year and wanted to share some perspectives.

Who Needs the Magazine?

I recently re-started a subscription for Harvard Business Review – it used to be packed with amazingly timely and actionable ideas for freshly minted MBAs but after Suzy got the boot for her romance with Jack Welch back in 2001 it lost some of its sparkle and relevance for me.  Having recently rejoined the consulting world, it felt like time to dip in again.  So far, no spark.  This October issue’s theme “Spotlight on Riskcompletely ignores the compliance issues faced in heavily regulated industries like pharma.  (I’m writing an article on the challenges and opportunities presented by the increasingly prevalent Risk Evaluation Mitigation Strategies (REMS) required by the FDA, so I was hoping for a few ideas).  I have the sense that unless you work for a large corporate, you’re not going to get a lot out of it.  That seems to be the case for a smaller number each year.  Inc. is much more my style these days.

Who Needs the Institution?

I’ve always loved study, and come from a family of PhD’s, so I’ve felt compelled to examine this issue.  What do you get from a college degree and how can we improve on the traditional model?

Who Needs Harvard is hardly a new idea. The Atlantic covered the topic in October 2004 finding that the difference between the super-selective name brands and the next tier down had never been smaller, and the TIMES in August 2006 repeated a similar theme even finding advantages beyond cost savings.  In 2005, Wharton released a study showing that the percentage of Fortune 100 CEOs with Ivy League backgrounds had fallen from 14% in 1980 to 10% in 2001, while public colleges backgrounds had grown from 32% to 48% in the same period.  Witness the effectiveness of Mark Hurd at HP with a a business degree from Baylor University (’79) on a tennis scholarship vs. that of Carly Fiorin with her MBA from University of Maryland (’80).

Fast Company profiled a few ideas in their September issue to leverage technology to cut the cost (College education costs apparently have inflated faster than any other good or service since 1990).  “More than 200 institutions in 32 countries that have posted courses online at the OpenCourseWare Consortium” according to the article.  You only have to look in iTunes U to get a sense of the breadth of free content out there now.  Getting free content online is just the start.  And it’s not as if the books in the MBA are any great secret – The Personal MBA is a great roundup of the best business books out there.  So the value of a university degree is clearly not just the information – you have to learn it somehow.  A Hulu.com quality interface and aggregating disparate content sources will help, but you still need to learn, and a lot of that comes from interaction with others.  Social networking tools may offer some options here.  The third pillar, as noted by Fast Company, is accreditation and assessment.

Seth Godin tested an Alternative MBA this year: ” a new way to learn about a new way of doing business” and was thrilled with the results.  He found the book learning was the easy part, it was doing the work where the learning really happened.  He also observed that “making friends for life is difficult to overrate” and I thoroughly concur – the best part of my MBA was the friends I made and what I learned from working with them.  The stronger your network of relationships the better off you will be, in every sense of the word.

Inspired by Seth’s program, Paul Pettengill convinced some other applicants to start the alt-mba program, 26 great business books in 26 weeks each presented by a student, ideally with expert interviews, class exercises and discussion.  We leveraged ning.com and pbwiki to meet, post materials and discuss.  The group was to vote on the best presentations and to provide support for the Big Ideas of the participants. It was a fabulous experiment, at breathtaking pace.  The weekly presentations and discussions on the books were of excellent quality, and we were privileged to have gurus like Marshall Goldsmith, Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin interview for the program.  Ultimately the challenge was maintaining enthusiasm at such a hectic pace in such a disparate group with no clear reward.  Seth was right again – doing it is the hard bit.

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3 thoughts on “Do We Still Need Harvard?

  1. Just an update – Economist posted another concern for biz schools today http://ow.ly/rYmP – avoiding the self-adoration and group think that lead to the global finance collapse, Enron and other fine biz school alumni events. Suggestion: find a voice for those who challenge the status quo.

  2. Rich
    Garth Saloner at Stanford, the new dean, talks about educating a new generation of “Responsible” business leaders. I hope that progressive institutions can become part of change agents. I could opine for hours about the changing roles of America and it’s business institutions, but I guess I am a bit more optimistic about self correction than you are.

    My MBA is now 17 years in the rear view mirror, and while still a key turning point, is MUCH less relevant from both a networking and experience perspective than the ensuing contacts, relationships and experiences.

    • Ken,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I too would hope for course correction. As you say, the content is nothing compared to the value of the network and experiences. Even if the content becomes free, the universities can leverage this to build create greater reputations and awareness for the educators and the institutions (like Richard Muller’s Physics for future Presidents http://ow.ly/sPIl ) The critical question is can these new models even get close to offering something similar in the realm of network and experiences? Time will tell, but the cost pressures (time and money) will definitely drive experimentation.

      Cheers,
      Richard

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