Harvard: Theory and Practice

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 | Category :

by Ross Crooke

Since 1920, Harvard has been known for its ‘Case Study’ pedagogy – asking students to imagine themselves as managers solving business problems. Today, Harvard Business School is going through the biggest curriculum shift in its history – students will now practice, as well as study the theory. Why such a shift now?

“Case studies are an effective tool, but they’re also limited”, says Dean Nitin Nohria in a recent blog, “Students can only imagine how they’d solve a business problem…” It appears ‘book learning’ is not enough to make a business leader.

The importance of real-world experience and of practice is well known in many different fields. Nohria likens managers to surgeons who will have spent 30,000 hours practicing before going solo. SEAL Team Six spent weeks training on a replica of bin Laden’s compound before their assault. “Humble enough to prepare, yet confident enough to perform” is how Coach Coughlin described his New York Giants team, before winning Super Bowl XLVI in the fourth quarter in front of an audience of over a hundred million.

In business, this kind of preparation is still rare – leaders are expected to know how to lead, learn how to manage a P&L by trial and error, and either fly high or crash and burn on their biggest pitches. More often than not, managers are taken completely out of the context of their work environment, lectured theory for several days, or work on abstract puzzles, and then expected to apply this new knowledge in the real-life work environment in a masterful way.

Nohria heralded the introduction of experiential learning and simulation as “bold, brave change” that will set the course for management education for the next 100 years. It is also an approach embraced by the business schools at University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Yale and University of California Berkeley. Experiential learning initiatives are becoming increasingly popular and many of today’s leading organizations are already adopting cutting-edge learning methodologies to effectively implement critical strategic priorities. Experiential learning, including business simulations, has been used to drive strategic alignment, business acumen, leadership development and sales force transformation, among other areas. A successful experiential learning program cements strategic alignment and builds execution capability across the entire organization. It also allows managers to hone their skills in a risk-free environment, before testing them in the workplace.

This type of experiential learning has long been promoted by BTS to drive lasting behavioral change and business results. More than a powerful classroom is required. In a recent engagement with Humana, Dr. Ray Vigil, Humana’s Chief Learning Officer at the time, called it “magic.” The programs compliment best-in-class live classroom experiences with cutting-edge blended online solutions. The outcomes are: engagement that sticks and results that matter. Or, in the words of MIT professor Dr. Michael Schrage, “BTS delivers behavior change and business impact.”

Learn how BTS’s experiential learning programs have helped leading companies such as AT&T, Coke, Chevron and more execute strategic priorities:

About the Author: Ross Crooke is a Vice President at BTS.


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