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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Parallels between Peace Corps Training and Harvard Business School

The Peace Corps and Harvard Business School (HBS). One program is experiencing rapid growth and becoming increasingly relevant while the other program has been pronounced an outdated relic. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), (HBS), the program with the $3+ billion endowment and its own gym is the one facing an inflection point (for some reason it's really hard to refrain from using HBS jargon when writing about HBS). The Economist's Schumpter's recent piece about HBS's programme was not coloured (hard to refrain from using British english when quoting the Economist) by recent times as much by the approach of the new dean, Nitin Nohria.

I generally agree with the Economist's analysis of the state of MBA affairs because they avoid taking a 2 year view of MBA's behaving badly and pronouncing them irrelevant. As long a masters degree is a requirement for certain levels of jobs, an MBA will continue to be a good masters degree to get. On a simple level, it really helps you get a job by teaching resume writing and interview skills, providing access to companies and internships, focusing on the job search, and providing all kinds of statistics to track this progress. A Masters in History also teaches students new material but nudges graduates towards PhD programs as opposed to business schools' approach of flinging its graduates into whatever employment target they can hit.

Back to the topic on hand, Nohria's new approach at HBS focuses on "competence and character" as well as getting its students' boots dirty. Competence and character is a general prerequisite when your graduates have been accused of behaving like a Viking hoard who pillaged and plundered the global economy. The only hint of an apology that followed the burning of the global village was preceded by a loud belch. Getting boots dirty refers to more hands on internships with companies as part of the classwork. Less theory, more application, and more real work. It's not about looking good in boots with stiletto heels but getting functional with Gore-tex boots.

The Peace Corps got its volunteers already dirty boots even dirtier with a change in its training programme (oops still using British) er program 10 years ago. The 3 month training prior to starting the 2 years of service was labeled as too theoretical with not enough application. Volunteers generally lived in close proximity to each other in comfortable suburbs near capital cities with classroom based training. At night, everyone got together and partied- I mean networked. There was a shock and adjustment period when volunteers started their 2 years of service in more isolated rural environments and their work was no longer in a controlled environment. Therefore, Peace Corps training got more hands on. Volunteers were more spread out in starker environments and their training involved working on existing projects. Their development worked started during the training period not after completion.

I don't have any data on the impact but as you can imagine from the logic and general movement of all Peace Corps country training programs, it was a successful model. It's fairly logical and makes sense that HBS would move in this direction.

The drawback to this approach is by spreading volunteers or business students in small groups with immediate work and deadline, there isn't enough time to bond as a group. My Peace Corps training involved all 25 of us in close proximity. The classroom schedule allowed for ample social time and adjustment which I frankly needed to prepare for my 2 years of Peace Corps service. I was not ready to get my boots as dirty as some of my fellow volunteers. The bonding as a group in business school forms the basis for the vaunted future HBS network and from learning from talented classmates.

My Peace Corps Volunteer group was incredibly close and we still stay in touch over 10 years later. I don't know if I would have that connection with the more applied hands on training model and time will tell if HBS and other business students have sufficient time to forge their bonds and future network. Since business school curriculum changes with every fluctuation in the MBA application cycle, I am confident that this will be evaluated and changed if necessary. Like a good pair of boots, the MBA philosophy and curriculum gets resoled at least every 10 years.

1 comment:

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