Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land: An Engineer at the B-School

I am an engineer. I like problem solving; I like to build things. I can also read financial statements and understand terms such as ROI (return on investment), EBITDA (earning before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization), and break-even analysis. So, when offered a chance to co-teach at Harvard Business School, I leapt at the opportunity.

I was nervous at first. After all, I'd heard all about "the case-based method" and knew that HBS offered its new faculty courses on how to teach this way. I figured it involved many secret handshakes, implicit knowledge and many other mysteries that we in engineering had never seen. Alas, just a few weeks into the semester, I no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land -- there is much at the B-school that is familiar, but also much that is different, and perhaps, worthy of importing into SEAS.

Let's start with the similarities. It turns out that teaching via the case-based method is really quite similar to teaching a paper-based graduate seminar. The students are expected to read the cases (papers) before class, and class is an interactive discussion about the subtleties of the case (paper). In my classes, the story is frequently in the graphs and tables, known as the experimental results. In cases, the story is in the financial statements and market research. Is the company making a profit? (Does the suggested technique improve performance?) Where do they make their money? (Which part of the design is responsible for the improvement?) How well does the business align with existing forces? (How practical is the proposed solution?) And as we see on the engineering side of the river, there are frequently no right answers. Smart people can hold different opinions and interpretations. But, in both places, the intellectual content and the quality of the discussion relies on deep, technical analysis.

Conclusion? Intellectually, there are more commonalities than differences between my two current homes.

Culturally, however, there are differences. Now, before I start, let me disclose that I am doing a very bad thing here: I am generalizing from a single data point, that of the class of my esteemed colleague Regina Herzlinger. However, one of the case writers, who had been at the school for four years, assured me that these features were universal. Now that we've had full disclosure, let's move on to those differences.

The first thing you notice entering a classroom at the B-school are the laminated name cards. Each person has one and the tables are constructed so that you can easily display your name tag. This means that the faculty learn their students' names and the students know each other too. Our class attracts students from many other Harvard schools (the Kennedy School of Government, the Medical School, The School of Public Health, etc). Once everyone has a name tag, boundaries disappear, and the group becomes an entity of its own. The students own their nametags and bring them to each class. If someone forgets one, you'll often see them creating a makeshift one. I confess that I noticed this at a few events I attended at HBS several years ago, and I've been doing it in my classes ever since. However, since it's not part of the culture, I end up owning the nametags and bringing them each day. And after a few weeks in a small course, I typically know everyone and nametag usage drops off. But, what would it be like if we totally changed the culture in engineering and everyone did this and students had nametags for all their classes? Could we change the culture in the entire college????

The next thing you might notice at the business school is that at the beginning of each lecture, the professor will introduce guests. Guests might be friends accompanying students (which means that the students have checked with the professor and told him/her that they are bringing someone to class), executives from the companies being discussed in the day's cases, and the case writer (the research analyst who wrote the case). When guests are introduced, there is applause. It's a lovely way to make the guests feel part of the group as opposed to uncomfortable outsiders.

Then class begins. If you look around the room, you will be hard-pressed to see a laptop. Instead, you see people's faces. The students are paying attention to the discussion. No one is reading email, cruising facebook, or even checking their smart phones. What a difference from your typical college or engineering course (or faculty meeting -- I wonder what those are like here). When the professor solicits input, while there may be initial silence, within five or ten minutes, half the class are raising hands to offer their perspectives on the case. Cold-calling is OK, but is often unnecessary. Sometimes students give answers that aren't quite right, but you'd never know it. There is little direct attack although there are polite suggestions of alternatives. It's also both comforting and disconcerting to see someone else use the same tactics I use when discussing research papers. "Do you agree with him/her?" "Is there anything else you noticed?" However, there is significantly less "pulling of teeth" to get people to engage, and even though there are about 75 students in the class, it seems like all of them participate in meaningful ways. It's quite impressive.

I am also pleasantly surprised to see how often conversations around ethics come up. One of the ways that we evaluate ventures in this class is through a framework that includes the phrase, "Do good, do well." The message, oft repeated, is that only businesses that are genuinely doing good for the world are viable. A business that makes money, but doesn't actually deliver on the public good front is voted off the island.

In a similar vein, current events are sometimes part of the class. In one case, the day after we discussed it, the former CEO of the company was indicted for allegedly receiving kickbacks. This led to a discussion about ethics and came back to details in the case that hadn't quite made sense. The message? Pay attention to details. Do your due diligence. Don't enter into arrangements if something doesn't seem quite right. In other words, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

The last thing I'll comment on may be pecuiliar to this course -- after all, we're not talking about innovation in general, we're talking about innovating in health care. It's possible that healthcare attracts a different type of person. I've met with many students in the class, usually to discuss the business plans they are developing for this course. They are a sincere, passionate bunch, who are looking for a way to make a difference; not a way to make a buck, but a way to make the world a better place. Their backgrounds are as varied as their business plans, but each one has done something interesting since graduating from college and is determined to do something both interesting and good.

The business school is a quite wonderful place; I'm grateful to feel less like a stranger there now.


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