It was fascinating to read the NYTimes story about the decision process behind the creation of Harvard Business School’s new on-line offering called Business School Disrupted. The offering, called HBX, teaches “pre-MBA” classes via an elaborate multi-screened platform and is the business school’s answer to education and the internet.
The article set up the decision as something of a choice between Porter and Christensen’s views of how strategy, innovation and disruption happen.
Christensen is famous for his works on disruptive innovation. He wrote a book on innovation in education called Disrupting Class. Education is also a focus of his Christensen Institute. So it’s kind of interesting that he was not consulted in the development of the strategy. His view is summarized as seeing HBS as:
a potential Blockbuster Video: a high-cost incumbent — students put the total cost of the two-year M.B.A. at around $100,0000 — that would be upended by cheaper technology if it didn’t act quickly to make its own model obsolete.
Porter on the other hand is famous for his works on strategy and competitive advantage. He is close to HBS Dean Nitin Nohria and was reported to have played an important role in the development of the strategy. He was quoted as saying:
If Clay and I differ, it’s that Clay sees disruption everywhere, in every business, whereas I see it as something that happens every once in a while. And what looks like disruption is in fact an incumbent firm not embracing innovation.
If you’ve followed the writings of these thinkers over the course of your career (as have I), the debate is fun just to see them going head to head. But it’s also a really good example of the challenges of today’s intangible capital economy.
I’m left with two big questions that actually face most organizations today:
What is the organization’s mission? In this case, the internet is creating a huge tension today between the need to preserve and protect the exclusivity of educational brands—and the potential of the ideas of educators to reach beyond their (relatively) small communities. In this light, is HBS’s mission to run an excellent business school or to be an agent for excellence in management?
Who should be involved in a strategy process? In this case, the school developed and launched a strategy around education and technology without consulting its community (especially a professor who is world famous on the subject). Is it still appropriate to create strategy from the top downin an knowledge-intensive organization like HBS?
How could/should we scale what we do? In this case, the school literally built a virtual version of its classrooms. Is the essence of the process the professor and the wall of faces—or is it in staged discussions that can be replicated in some other way?
Not a lot of answers but lots of food for thought. What do you think?