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Harvard Leads Business Schools' Quest to Restore Trust in Business

Top MBA programs such as Harvard, Wharton, and Berkeley are introducing curriculum changes to tackle contemporary business challenges.

In 2010, the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, started to promote a leadership style focused on problem solving while measuring impact on the community. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania followed. It changed its curriculum to enable students to travel overseas to become better international managers. Wharton students would also be drilled on risk management, as well as analytical and communication skills to prepare them to lead.

This year, Harvard Business School decided to shake up its more than 90-year-old, case-based, instructional method by requiring incoming students to participate in mandatory international consulting projects. It's also boosting leadership and risk management education. Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria explains to The Boston Globe that he wants to change the opinion that business school is "all about credentials and connections," replacing it with a view that the process to become an MBA is about "enhancing competence and character."

"We needed to focus on cultivating judgment not basic analytical tools," Mr. Nohria adds in The Wall Street Journal.

Can MBA programs change business school culture?

Dean Nohria's comments and the preeminence of Harvard made the business school's curriculum changes, disclosed in January 2011, the most scrutinized.

"If Harvard wants to produce the people who will run the future of the world, then that's the criteria you have to be held accountable for," Harvard Business School grad Philip Delves Broughton told The Wall Street Journal. "And these changes seem pretty feeble."

The Economist's Schumpeter columnist is also skeptical about the potential for success of Dean Nohria's overall vision for HBS. "In our cynical age, Mr. Nohria's willingness to talk about shaping character is admirable," the columnist says. "But his obsession with 'professionalisation' and 'Hippocratic oaths' is puzzling. The moral values that business people should adhere to are universal ones, not a professional code. Business progresses through creative destruction, not through the application of rules."

The Schumpeter columnist also points out that other MBA programs already have initiatives similar to those introduced by Harvard Business School. "France's INSEAD has opened a campus in Singapore to put it at the heart of the Asian miracle," the columnist explains. "Many business schools started experimenting with "live case studies" long ago: the late C.K. Prahalad was particularly successful in finding plum assignments at interesting Indian firms for his University of Michigan students."

"Nevertheless," the columnist says, "HBS plays a vital role in making good ideas stick."

How is Harvard Business School changing its curriculum?

In fall 2011, Harvard Business School will introduce a compulsory global immersion experience into its MBA program. During the first year of study, business school groups will travel to companies outside the United States to consult as teams on projects. The second year should combine class-based learning followed by field-based courses.

"The case method will always be a central part of what we do, but we're now at a point in history when we can do some really interesting things in the field," Dean Nohria tells the HBS Alumni Bulletin. "Both methodologies--case and field--are absolute complements."

The idea is to teach students how to implement class learning on the field, work in teams and lead in real-life settings. It's also to force students to adapt to the work style of companies outside of the United States, where more students are seeking full-time positions after MBA programs. Wharton Dean Thomas S. Robertson tells The Wall Street Journal that already 25 percent of Wharton's MBAs are accepting international positions.

Harvard Business School, meanwhile, has also introduced the Risk Management for Corporate Leaders executive education program to enable participants to raise awareness in their companies of the need to find a balance between innovation and corporate risk management.

"Installing the appropriate infrastructure and processes to effectively manage risk should represent a highly favorable trade-off: investing now to avoid a much higher payout in the future should an unexpected and unmitigated risk event occur," says Harvard Business School Professor Robert Kaplan, faculty chair for this initiative, in a press release.

Despite the criticism, Dean Nohria seemingly doesn't give up on comprehensive business school reforms. "We need to return to creating real value for society," he tells the HBS Alumni Bulletin. "That's the best way to earn back trust. If we can educate students who understand that and go out and do that--build companies that create real value for society--then trust will be restored."