Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

When Mark Zuckerberg and his buddies first posted their ‘Facemash’ social media programme on Harvard University’s computer system almost nine years ago, they could never have imagined the extent of its future success.

The hackers unleashed a new form of electronic dialogue that is reshaping the way business schools interact with applicants, students, companies and alumni.

Misiek Piskorski, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, where he teaches a class called Competing with Social Networks, says social media are even changing what the school teaches and how. “It is critical for our students to understand these media,” he says. “Social media introduces a new way of approaching markets.”

Aided by their staff and students, business schools are pioneers in figuring out the commercial implications of social media and adapting to the new channels of communication.

“The change that is getting started now will impact all aspects of business school operations,” says Soumitra Dutta, professor of business and technology at Insead, near Paris.

Prof Dutta sees social media touching organisations in four main ways: branding, engaging, learning and leading.

What does this mean in practice? The borders are blurred in social media but schools are actively engaging. Brian Kenny, chief marketing officer at Harvard Business School, says HBS has “backed into” a strategy centred on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. “Including the Harvard Business Review, there are probably about 1.25m people following us across these networks.”

Such self-selected “followers” are the people with whom business schools want to interact, says Kim Keating, director of public relations at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. Prospective students are typically big social media users, so the school engages them on Facebook and Twitter. To manage its brand, Tuck also monitors Twitter and joins conversations where appropriate.

The traffic on social media travels in multiple directions. Stacy Blackman, an MBA applications consultant, says that because schools are tech-savvy, would-be students need to ensure their online presence is “appropriate”, including their posted images and tweets. Admissions staff may check to confirm or round-out information on an application.

But applicants can also use these tools to learn more about their target schools. Social media enable people outside schools to “meet” and “follow” schools, professors, current students and alumni. This is potentially a powerful way to exchange ideas and schools, businesses and entrepreneurs are exploring it in search of benefits.

In May, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched edX, an online education platform that carries course material such as video lesson segments and embedded quizzes, which receive immediate feedback. One aim is “to research how students learn and how technologies can support effective teaching both on campus and online”.

Many professors now blog and tweet about their ideas and research. It builds personal reputations but also changes learning dynamics. Prof Piskorski says tweeting during his classes enhances the volume and quality of discussion.

Social media are contributing to numerous changes in courses and content. Traditionally case-centred, HBS learning is becoming more field-orientated, encouraging students to experiment in the way social media entrepreneurs do. A clutch of courses within its MBA programme now look at the interface between social media and business. These include launching technology ventures, online economy and competing with social networks. Many of these courses are hands-on. Students may be required to launch a business, tweet, become video bloggers, etc. But Prof Piskorski, who wrote the Harvard case study of Facebook, says it is now possible to identify “what should and should not work” in online businesses.

Some schools are aiming to share their ideas through executive education. Prof Dutta identifies LinkedIn as “a wonderful tool to target executives in a particular function”.

Older bosses who attend executive education programmes often have huge power in organisations but have yet to grasp the commercial significance of social media, Prof Piskorski says. “We need to get them from ‘this is where my kids hang out’ to ‘this is where my customers hang out’.”

Shared personal videos – what better? Tuck has launched its social site, myTUCK, to help alumni stay in touch. The audience is older than the one Mr Zuckerberg was aiming for, but business schools have been building brand loyalty through mutually-beneficial social networks for years.

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