Knowing, Doing, Being: Harvard Professors Discuss Their MBA Curriculum Research


April 2016

Dan LeClair: [00:15] Why did you set out to do this research and write this book Rethinking the MBA with my colleague at AACSB, Patrick Cullen?

David Garvin: [00:18] I was charged with looking at the future of MBA education. I took one look at the size of the topic and decided that it was not a one person job.

David: [00:27] I looked around for a colleague who I thoroughly enjoyed working with, I had experience with before, but could bring a slightly different perspective. That was Srikant. I corralled him into this project, which was initially designed just for a single day's event at Harvard Business School—a discussion of where might the MBA go?

[00:48] Then we started our interviews. One colloquia led to two, for outsiders as well as the MBA faculty within HBS. That led eventually to a book.

Srikant Datar: [01:05] We had no idea what would come out of it, because remember, this project started in 2006, [at the] end, two years before...

David: [01:11] Yes, '66/'67.

Srikant: [01:12] At that time, the world looked fantastic. It looked like everything in management education was going great. Lots of countries were embracing market capitalism, so the demand for managers would be massive, huge. We were thinking maybe we'd reaffirm, then everything kind of stopped.

[01:30] As events turned out later, [laughs] it turned out to be a fairly ... we went back and did a lot of our work again post crisis, because, as you know, the book only was published in 2010. The idea was one symposium, two, and that's it. I think as we got more into it, it got more and more exciting to do the work.

[01:59] Again, writing the book took a large chunk of time to do, because getting all the details, getting all the data, doing these interviews, merging the interviews and the data, was quite a big task but thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable. Every time we see some impact like that, I always call him, I say, [laughs] "See what you have wrought." [laughs]

Dan: [02:25] That's great. I'm curious about this possibility that you might reaffirm that we were doing the right things, and how the growth in the MBA was proceeding. Instead, when you started doing these interviews with executives, business school deans, and directors, if I remember the chapter title well, you begin to hear a chorus of concerns.

Srikant: [02:48] [laughs] Dan: [02:48] Maybe you can tell us about those findings. What did you begin to learn as you did these interviews?

David: [02:57] First, the overarching topic. We really approached the interviews with both the deans and the executives with a single question, "What today is the value added of the MBA degree?" It was a very open ended probe. Really, we didn't have priors.

[03:16] Our expectation, based on Harvard, was that things were going reasonably well. Then we heard this rising chorus of concerns. The concerns really fell in two broad buckets. One was this concern that you're not teaching more than knowledge. It's very much an academic perspective.

[03:40] We borrowed from West Point a trilogy of knowing, doing, and being. Every professional school should have some material in each one of those buckets, things that you need to know, knowledge, like the four Ps of marketing, the five forces of strategy.

[04:00] Things that you need to be able to do, or skills, like how to conduct a performance review, or conduct a negotiation. Then being—a sense of professional identity and responsibility.

[04:12] The second big bucket was a set of more specific, concrete arenas, in which people felt we could do much more—a global mindset, creative, innovative thinking, organizational realities, where people felt MBAs were coming out with a limited and often distorted view of the way the world actually worked.

Srikant: [04:38] I think, as we began then putting all these pieces together, what you very quickly realize is that management isn't an individual activity. It's unlike a relationship between a doctor and a lawyer and their clients, or an architect or an accountant. Managers rely on designing organizations, working with people around them, in order to have a big impact.

[05:05] That's why society wants us to form companies and create the jobs, and the economic well being that results. Without being, without this notion that you actually have to have self-awareness— you have to have an impact on others, you have to think about the roles and responsibilities—nothing will get done. That gets us to the doing part.

[05:31] If nothing gets done, then all the knowledge we're providing is really not having the kind of impact we would want managers to have. As we looked at that West Point model, and then started talking about knowing, doing, and being, we realized very quickly how important it is to have these three things together.

Dan: [05:43] Can you tell me a little bit about the "two cultures" problem? Maybe we'll come back to that when we talk a little bit about faculty.

Srikant: [05:58] It was a very important finding, I think, from our research. It was something that lots of people before us had written. When we interviewed a lot of the deans particularly, and then certainly as we did a lot of detailed case studies—as you know, we did six very in depth case studies—this two cultures problem became a very...

[06:18] To put it very simply, the two cultures problem simply says that, for a long time before the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation reports, management education was thought not to have as good a scientific base, in that we needed to bring the social sciences into management education.

[06:39] As we did that, and there were a phenomenal number of curricular development and teacher development programs that were run, and AACSB had an important role to play there, that raised the level of the game in terms of how do you do good, scientific work on business problems? As we say in the book, it was a very important development that occurred.

[07:05] I think the problem that we referred to in the two cultures story of the situation is that, once this form of research became the accepted form of research, it started excluding a number of other very crucial forms of research that, fortunately, we at the Harvard Business School have not excluded—but crucial forms of research that look at synthesis, application, field based work.

[07:33] These don't fall into the standard way in which typically the social science research for the journals would operate. What we argued in the book was that management education would be much better off if, in fact, scholars and academics embraced all these forms of research.

[07:52] We're not saying exclude this other form, but all forms of research. That would really help it to move a few steps forward.

David: [08:03] We proposed significant changes in the curriculum, and change is often resisted. The question was, how can we overcome those barriers to change? Our conclusion was, if we can show people practices that already exist at business schools worldwide, much of the resistance goes away.

[08:29] The common reaction, "Yes, but it can't be done," is undercut. We can say, "It already exists here, here, here," whether it's self awareness, globalization, and the like. That led us to have a number of very specific recommendations.

Srikant: [08:45] I'll go through each of the three buckets that we have already talked about—knowing, doing, and being—and in many talks now we have been using this way of trying to explain it a little bit.

[08:45] If you think about some of the knowing recommendations, and we have some recommendations in the knowing area— things like global thinking, integrative thinking, innovative thinking—these are thinking skills that go beyond just knowing a particular body of material.

[09:19] If my left hand looks at no information on a particular topic, and I want to make an investment decision, enter a new market. My right hand who is the manager has everything they would need to know on it. Much of management research has focused on moving the left hand towards the right in very, very important ways.

[09:41] David mentioned several in his earlier comments about the four Ps of marketing and thinking about the competitive model of strategy, and so on. Unfortunately, of course, the right hand keeps moving away as well, because the world gets more complex, product life cycles get shorter, globalization comes.

[10:02] No matter how well a manager has been trained up to, if you're only relying on this amount of cycles for discovery, [it takes] a long time, so we are never going to be at this end. You are always, as a manager, going to be in the gap. There is going to be idiosyncratic, situation specific, cultural specific issues that will come up.

[10:26] The question is, if you look at management education from this side, rather than from this side—this side you say, "Let's keep doing what we were doing." If you look at it from this side, you say, "Wow. Is there a way to train people how to live in this gap?"

[10:39] Is there a way for them to think about a different way of doing things, being, and knowing, so that when they are faced with that situation, we have trained them to do it?

[10:49] If you think about our recommendations on integrative thinking, if you think about our recommendations on global thinking, on innovative thinking, they're all saying, "OK, if you're in this gap, if you're in a situation that you don't really know, how do you go about thinking about it?" There were a number of recommendations that fell into that.

[11:05] The second set, David has already talked about, on doing. I think it had two or three dimensions, one on the dimension that there are certain, as David described it, art and crafts in the practice of management that students need to learn. How do you do sales? How do you give critical feedback, as David mentioned.

[11:29] As he said, some of these doing skills—particularly innovative thinking, which was one more in that category—you only learn by actually doing it. In the book, we almost in a slightly joking way say, "You wouldn't teach people swimming by giving them a long lecture, or teaching them by the case method. You would actually put someone in the pool."

[11:53] There are certain skills you only learn by actually doing it. That's the second part. On the being side, as we've already discussed, it's not an individual activity. It's something that you rely on a lot of people [for], and the impact you have on others around you.

[12:11] How do you appreciate differences? How do you get more empathy and understanding about motivating people, self awareness about yourself? Understanding leadership roles, and what's the role of business in society?

[12:25] These are important things for a manager to know, and that then became the set of recommendations we made on being.