Champion of the two-year course: Harvard Business School dean Nitin Nohria © Bryce Vickmark

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As dean of Harvard Business School, part of Nitin Nohria’s job is to mythologise its vast campus. The inauguration last month of yet another new building offered a perfect marketing opportunity.

“One way in which one can understand the evolution of business is to just walk through HBS and see the names of the buildings,” Prof Nohria declared in a video to mark the occasion, alluding to facilities named after the likes of bankers John Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Mellon and George Fisher Baker, a father of Citigroup.

The new building, a base for executive-level courses named the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, does indeed constitute a milestone for HBS by commemorating the rise of China. It was funded with $40m from James Si-Cheng Chao, a Chinese-American businessman, and named after his late wife. It is the first building at HBS to bear the name of a woman — appropriately, as four of Mr Chao’s six daughters went to HBS — or that of an Asian-American.

Tellingly, the temporary structure that housed the dining hall for visiting executives during construction was so plush and solid that it would not have looked out of place as a permanent fixture on less-endowed campuses.

The Chao Center is just one of the more visible manifestations of the heavy spending currently under way at HBS — some arising from donations, some from its own resources — as it tries to adjust to the changing global economy.

The outlay can be tracked in the un­usually detailed annual accounts that the school produces. Its 2015 fiscal year report showed its costs had on average increased faster than sales over the previous five years, dragging down its operating profit margin from 9.6 per cent to 6.6 per cent.

Although reversing this trend is a long-term priority for HBS, margins were expected to come under further pressure this decade as strategic spending continues to ramp up.

Investment in the MBA course that Harvard created more than a century ago accounts for part of the spending increase. While other business schools have diverted resources into one-year courses, such as the Masters in Management qualification aimed at recent graduates, HBS has remained wedded to the two-year MBA course catering for those with a few years of career experience.

The “core and soul of the school”, is how Prof Nohria describes the MBA in an interview with the Financial Times. “In the last five years we have been very determined to double down in some ways on the MBA,” he says.

“Many of the investments we have made, they have been investments to strengthen and make even more compelling why you should spend two years in an MBA programme.”

One of those investments has been into a curriculum innovation it calls “Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development”, or “Field”, to use the inevitable acronym. This is designed to complement the more abstract discussion of case studies in the classroom. A typical project might involve travelling to China to research the market for personal computers on behalf of Intel.

Not all are convinced that it equates to real experience, however. Henry Mintzberg, a McGill University management professor, is a long-time critic of MBAs and the case method, which he sees as too theoretical. He characterises the Field innovation as “young know-nothings shooting off their mouths about things they don’t understand”.

The stubborn focus on a two-year course has its risks in a world where workers often struggle to make time for even short courses. But the Harvard MBA, which each year sucks in 900 students and levies a $64,000 annual tuition fee, is still an attractive calling card for those seeking to run the world’s biggest companies. In the past month alone, Nestlé and US industrial conglomerate Honeywell have opted to be led by HBS alumni, for instance.

In spite of its huge resources the venerable institution has not yet been able to develop a reputation for fostering entrepreneurship that is equal to its lustre in the traditional corridors of corporate power.

An FT 2016 ranking of the best MBA programmes for entrepreneurship placed HBS in 13th position, for instance, whereas Stanford Graduate School of Business — with its strong links to Silicon Valley — came top.

Overall, HBS has this year’s second-highest FT-ranked MBA in the world, having come top in 2015 and 2014.

Harvard still has an entrepreneurial ace to play. This spring, the broader university won final approval to construct a new building next to the business school that will house the bulk of its school of engineering and applied sciences — a clear sign of desire to foster more partnerships between techies and MBAs.

Amid all the physical construction work and architects’ plans, there is another destination for HBS spending that could prove to be more significant than yet another building.

It has also been pouring money — the sum is confidential — into an online learning platform called HBX that targets different markets from its usual MBA and executive education offerings.

Launched a year ago, the product is very different from the Moocs — or massive open online courses — produced in vast quantities, often for free, by educational providers in recent years, with variable success.

There is the cost, for a start: a hefty $1,800 for HBX’s 12-week primer on the fundamentals of business thinking, say. There is an element of social learning, with students incentivised to answer each other’s questions. And the platform also contains a digital version of one of the scariest conventions of the Harvard MBA classroom — the “cold call”, where a professor randomly chooses a student to start the debate.

“HBX is a huge bet that we are making what will end up being a deeply important strand of our education,” says Prof Nohria. But HBS expects it will take time for the project to practise what it preaches — and make a profit.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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