Harvard’s Kodak Moment?


Nitin Nohria, Dean of HBS — and man in the hot seat

Have you ever been in the position where you thought, “gee, if only I was better educated, or just smarter, this complex decision in front of me would be easy.”

In the innovation world the agonizing decision of whether to embrace a new trend and leave behind your old business model is always brutally dificult. Organizations have been torn to shreds in the conflict about what to do. Some have made those big choices and survived, like IBM, or, made bad choices and bit the dust, like Kodak.

Part of the psychology of leadership is the doubt, the fear, that you’re not quite smart enough to make a good decision. One of the reasons people flock to Harvard to get their vaunted MBA is because it addresses that fear. With a Harvard MBA in hand one could be confident right?

Not necessarily.

One thing that makes some under-educated entrepreneurs successful is simply that they make quick decisions and adjust. Sometimes that’s massive ego (“I’m so smart.”). Sometimes it’s that they’ve got nothing to lose, which makes things easy.

You’d think that if you were The School where two of the world’s leading theorists on innovation reside — tough business model decisions might be a bit easier. You’d have all the tools, all the resources.

Apparently not.

It would seem that when it comes to strategic innovation decisions even Harvard Business School has a hard time. Read this excellent article in the New York Times for the details.

The essence of the story is HBS doesn’t quite know what to do now that traditional business education has been turned on its head. MOOC’s are the wave of the future, or at least that’s the prevailing wisdom. MOOC’s are a “Massive Open Online Course”. Schools like Stanford have gone whole hog offering top professors and sexy topics like Tina Seelig’s “A Crash Course on Creativity“. Anybody in the world can participate in that class — it’s unheard of — a top school offering free classes to anyone. It’s a sea change.

And yet, Harvard can’t quite jump into the “open” pool — and it’s an interesting culture clash. The clash pits the brilliant Michael Porter (“The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy”) against the equally brilliant Clay Christensen (“The Innovators Dilemma”). In my top five of all time business writers and thinkers I’d include both Clay Christensen and Michael Porter, both Harvard professors. But when it comes to Harvard’s MOOC strategy these two mavens find themselves on opposite sides of the fence. 

Christensen would appear to be the more disruptive, saying Harvard should “do it cheap and simple and get it out there.”

Porter’s idea is to do online in such a way that it aligns with Harvard’s current leading-brand-high-priced-spread strategy. At the end of a pretty involved debate the Dean (Nitin Nohria, a leadership guru in his own right) of the school has chosen to go this route. Harvard is developing it’s own courseware to be complimentary to it’s MBA program and not compete with it in terms of content. In essence, they are protecting the existing brand, the crown jewels.

Only time will tell if they made the right decision, this could be Harvard’s Kodak moment, or, it could be a strategic move that further enhances an illustrious brand. Innovation strategy and planning is difficult no matter what your level of education might be. These are simply difficult choices.

I find that reassuring.

To my fellow innovators on the fence with a strategy decision — who are you? Porter or Christensen?

Posted in Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Innovation, Open Innovation, Training