Harvard’s two most famous business professors are at odds over online MBAs

A very polite disagreement.
A very polite disagreement.
Image: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi
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Late last year, Harvard’s prestigious business school announced that it was making a foray into online education. Its approach, called HBX, is dramatically different from that of Wharton and other universities, which have used platforms like Coursera to reach millions of students. Harvard’s is a proprietary platform that will start out by offering a series of classes teaching business fundamentals to recent undergraduates, complete with case studies. A nine-week set of three courses will cost $1,500.

Clayton Christensen, arguably the institution’s best-known professor and definitely one of its most well-known authors, completely disagrees with the school’s strategy, according to a profile of the new program in The New York Times (paywall). Cheap, simple, and open are the way to go, he argues. (He says he wasn’t consulted for HBX.)

Christensen, the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and the originator of the now-ubiquitous idea of “disruptive innovation,” thinks that the school’s approach is completely off base. He dismisses it as an extremely expensive system that could potentially be upended by a cheaper technology option.

“What they’re doing is, in my language, a sustaining innovation,” Christensen said (paywall). “It’s not truly disruptive.”

He means that Harvard is relying on the strength of its core business and changing incrementally, rather than being willing to cannibalize its core to create something truly new, like a vastly cheaper and more accessible version of an MBA. If it doesn’t take such bolder steps, he warns, someone else will.

Put baldly, Harvard is putting itself on track for irrelevance, more like Kodak or Blackberry than like Google, Christensen argues. Wharton, by contrast, has reached millions of people via Coursera. For now HBX’s ambitions are much, much smaller.

The school is following a strategy closer to one espoused by the long-time professor Michael Porter, putting two of the school’s best known professors at (extremely polite) odds.

Porter has argued in the past that one of the consequences of the rapid rise internet is that companies will rush to offer cheaper and more widely available products, sacrificing profit for customer gain, and ignoring their competitive advantage. For Harvard, following Porter means creating online courses, but in a way that uses its strengths without hurting its current business.

“I think the big risk in any new technology is to believe the technology is the strategy,” Porter said (paywall). “Just because 200,000 people sign up, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

To a certain extent, the approach Harvard is taking has been validated by the market. Both Coursera and Udacity, the two biggest for-profit online education companies by reach, have pivoted to focus more on providing credentials and career-focused training, rather than on their initial mission of educating the world and upending the economics of higher education. And Harvard has identified a clear area of need in targeting early-career graduates who don’t have a business background.

And at the end of the day, Harvard is Harvard. Its MBA graduates are making a tremendous amount of money. And along with the traditional paths of consulting and finance, more and more are aiming for work at technology companies, so demand doesn’t look likely to slacken. Given the networking, access, and prestige of the degree, the less disruptive approach seems defensible.