Hypothetical question: Should you land in the hospital and find that your treatment will be managed by a medical student rather than an attending physician, would you feel a bit panicky, or proud to play a role in what is known as a "teachable moment"?
In the latest issue of Harvard Business Review, dean of Harvard Business School Nitin Nohria says that disconcerting or frightening though it may be, we have an obligation to help train the next generation of doctors—and business schools can learn a lot from the medical profession.
But inserting business students into real-world managerial situations is no easy undertaking. Unlike med students, who often help make life-and-death decisions, Nohria notes that M.B.A. candidates typically rely on case studies to navigate thorny business scenarios, albeit from a safe distance. At HBS, that all changed a few weeks ago when more than 900 first-years embarked on the global immersion component of the new M.B.A. curriculum module known as Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD).
[Learn about Harvard Business School's FIELD experience.]
Working in teams of six, students connected with 140 organizations to create a new product or service for one of them for a developing market. If sending the entire first-year M.B.A. class to a dozen cities in 10 countries scattered across the globe sounds ambitious, it was.
Harvard had to establish partnerships with foreign companies to help students secure visas and obtain the necessary immunizations, and it had to familiarize its students with the customs and business etiquette they would encounter. It's easy to see why Poets & Quants called it the "boldest experiment ever carried out in graduate business education." (To better understand the course from a student's perspective, M.B.A. blogger Parker Woltz provides an engaging description of her FIELD experience in Vietnam.)
HBS has clearly seized the "go big or go home" philosophy in an effort to close what the dean calls the "knowing-doing gap"; however, HBS is by no means the first elite business school to embrace managerial field training.
[Read about how business schools are reinventing the M.B.A.]
In 1992, the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business introduced the groundbreaking Multidisciplinary Action Projects (MAP) course, an intensive field-study experience requiring teams of first-year students to spend an entire semester collaborating to resolve high-stakes business challenges inside actual organizations.
The action-based learning approach is the cornerstone of the Ross experience, and after executing more than 1,500 projects for 750 organizations worldwide, Alison Davis-Blake, the school's dean, asserts in her latest blog post that "Experiential learning is a true differentiator in our graduate programs, especially in the global context."
One of the more unusual examples of a field experience comes from the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business. In professor Viva Bartkus's course "Business on the Frontlines," M.B.A. students study about and then travel to countries struggling to rebuild their economies after a war or violent conflict.
The aim is to examine the role of business in these countries' attempts to restart their economic growth, pull their populations out of poverty, and stabilize society. The course has a lengthy waiting list of students, says Mendoza's Carol Elliott, and has recently expanded in both size and scope to include students from the Peace Studies Institute and Notre Dame's law school.
Most business schools today acknowledge that a global career is inevitable for incoming students, and field experiences that transcend sector and geographical borders are one of the best ways for M.B.A. students to prepare for a competitive job market.
But Nohria, Harvard's dean, admits the FIELD program will probably face some bumps in the road for the first few years. "Like hospital patients being treated by a new resident, everyone involved will experience some nervousness and discomfort," he says. "But in a global economy that will put heavy demands on the next generation of managers and leaders, that's a small price to pay for knowledge and experience."