FIELD Trip: Conquering the Gap Between Knowing and Doing

Forget what you remember about school field trips. Harvard Business School is in its fourth year of a bold innovation that ships all first-year students on global excursions. FIELD leaders Alan MacCormack and Tony Mayo describe lessons learned so far.
by Michael Blanding

The mission: To sell more laptops.

The market: Rural China.

The challenge: The business partner wants to know what laptop features would be appealing to customers in rural China.

Landing in Shanghai with eight days to find out, a team of six Harvard MBAs did the most logical thing they could: They boarded a bullet train, headed west as far as they could, and exited in a village to start asking people what would make them buy a computer.

What they discovered surprised them. Wandering to an impoverished part of town full of corrugated iron shanty houses without running water or electricity, an older man led them to the back of one of the homes. Inside, he showed them a group of people huddled around the glow of two laptops, powered by a generator.

“More than any other course, it teaches humility”

"He said, 'All of my friends have computers,'" says Alan D. MacCormack, MBA Class of 1949 Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. "The team discovered that having access to laptops and finding uses for them wasn't the main problem. A greater problem was financing the purchase and having access to broadband Internet."

For the past two years, MacCormack has led FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development), a hands-on experiential learning program that has arguably revolutionized education at HBS more than any development since the introduction of the case-study method 90 years ago. In three modules—an intensive skills building boot camp, a global immersion field study, and a team-based entrepreneurial project designed to integrate knowledge from the first year curriculum—FIELD teaches students that what they have learned about business in the classroom doesn't always hold true out in the world.

"More than any other course, it teaches humility," says MacCormack. "The best lessons come when students say, 'I was convinced that the problem was this, and it wasn't.' If they end up presenting to a global partner something that they could have come up with sitting in an apartment in Cambridge, they probably didn't do a good job."

Learning By Doing

For decades, Harvard's case-study method has been the gold standard in business-school education, emulated around the world for its methodology that teaches students problem-solving techniques using real-world business cases. As efficiently as the method prepared future business leaders, however, Harvard faculty and administrators have long been aware of a nagging truth: learning how business operates and actually doing business are very different things.

No matter how well MBAs were prepared, there was always a learning curve in their first job. "We are talking about the 'knowing-doing gap,'" says MacCormack. "The very first time you put theory into practice, you learn all the challenges associated with applying the theory. We wanted to add a course that would require students to reflect on the lessons they'd learned, take action based upon these lessons, then adapt and iterate and react to what they observed."

Enter FIELD. First proposed at the end of 2010, the idea was so enthusiastically embraced by incoming Dean Nitin Nohria that he challenged faculty to implement it in time for the 2011-2012 academic year. "It was an incredibly aggressive timetable," remembers MacCormack, who was part of a team of ten faculty members from different disciplines who would be required to integrate their knowledge. Adding another wrinkle, Nohria insisted the program would be required for all 900 incoming MBAs.

"Other schools have pockets of field learning, but no one was doing it at the scale we were doing it," says Tony Mayo, Thomas S. Murphy Senior Lecturer of Business Administration, who will take over from MacCormack as new course head next month. "In the first years we were designing and delivering in real-time."

“Two-thirds of students graduate into industries where work is done predominantly in teams.”

Rising to the task, faculty initially faced a difficult paradox: how do you teach students when the biggest lessons in the course are outside the classroom? They quickly realized that most of their work would be behind the scenes, arranging for partnerships with global partners around the world, helping students prepare for and execute an eight-day intensive immersion in a foreign country—and then helping them to set up their own businesses while providing a sounding-board for their ideas.

"With the case study method, the delivery is in the classroom," says Mayo. "With FIELD, 80 percent of the success is in the design of the individual sessions and the overall program."

Most of the work that students do in FIELD is in self-managed teams. To equip students to effectively work in and lead these teams, FIELD begins with a five-week foundations module, in which students undertake a series of workshops on communication, feedback and coaching, emotional intelligence, and team dynamics. They also complete simulations designed to push them outside their comfort zone, demonstrating the power and the pitfalls in team-based work. At the same time, students are asked to write periodic reflections on their FIELD experiences, to help internalize the lessons they generate.

With the foundations module complete, the globalization module begins with 150-plus diverse teams working with global partners to develop new products and services. To help facilitate this process, faculty teach the concept of "design thinking," allowing students to generate ideas, quickly find out what's wrong with them, and then to create new and better ideas as a result.

One much-anticipated event in the fall, for example, is the "36-hour DASH" exercise, in which students practice the skills they will need for their international project, but in a domestic context. A student team charged with increasing the adoption rate of banking services in Vietnam, for example, might go to an inner-city neighborhood of Boston with a high concentration of foreign nationals, to survey them on their banking habits and test out new ideas for changing these habits.

Theory Into Practice

Once they arrive in their assigned country, students spend the first day talking to the global partner and reviewing objectives. The next day, they take cars and translators to interview potential customers. If all goes well, they'll generate insights like those students had about laptops in China.

"Often within that single day, everything they thought was the right answer becomes the wrong answer," says MacCormack. "Being there on the ground and observing yourself is different from learning something in a report from afar."

Mayo estimates that about a third of global partners adopt student recommendations without modification, and a third adopt a modified form of the recommendations. However, global partner surveys report that 99 percent of FIELD partners want to work with FIELD again. The reason: Their local management teams enjoy the collaborative process of working with a team of MBAs to solve complex business problems. They benefit from a fresh and open perspective.

For students, meanwhile, the experience of generating insights that could have real-world repercussions in a foreign country is empowering, says MacCormack, even if they never plan to work outside the US in the future.

"Our students are going to be general managers for global businesses," he says. "They are going to make decisions based on reports from countries where they've never set foot. FIELD helps them understand the limitations to this decision-making process."

There have been lessons for faculty as well. One team was supposed to go to Qingdao, China, to help with a chain of beauty salons. Conversations were difficult given language barriers, leading to difficulties understanding the scope of the business until students were just about to leave. "Eventually we found out that it was just a woman giving haircuts out of the back of her house, selling chemical products on the side," laughs Mayo. "To their credit, students were excited to help with the business despite the tiny revenues, but we decided to pull the plug and found a more suitable project with a partner in a different city in China."

After they return from their experience abroad, students join a new team for the spring semester with the goal of integrating all that they have learned in the first year of the MBA program to create an original entrepreneurial business. Student teams compete to see who can create the most valuable products and services.

It's not always the flashiest idea that wins. Mayo gestures to a striking lamp on his desk with a lampshade depicting the HBS campus. Hand-painted by an artist in New Hampshire, the lampshade is beautiful; however, selling them at a cost of $200 each, the business itself was a flop. "I get a lot of compliments on it—but the price point is way too high," says Mayo.

By contrast, he pulls out a folded paper map with the title "Harvard Star Map." With landmarks where famous and infamous Cantabrigians from John F. Kennedy to Ted Kaczynski lived and ate, the simple concept was a runaway success for the students who created it. "They could produce this map for a few cents, sell it in Harvard Square for a few dollars and turn a quick profit. From a financial revenue perspective it was very successful," says Mayo.

The Power Of Teamwork

At the same time that FIELD faculty has dealt with the challenges of sending 900 students to 14 different countries and registering 150 startups in Delaware, they've tweaked the design of the course over the past three years. Originally, students were randomly assigned to teams for both the global and the entrepreneurial stages of the program; but student feedback strongly suggested they should be allowed to choose their own teams for the venture. Starting in the second year, MacCormack says, students were granted their wish.

"This helped in two ways," he says. "One, this approach more closely matched how a startup is formed, and two, students quickly realized it didn't solve all of their problems. If you are in a team and somebody is not pulling their weight, are you more likely to call them out if you don't know them or if you already have a strong relationship with them? It turns out that it not an easy question to answer."

Much of the success of students in FIELD depends on how well they answer questions like these. "Two-thirds of students graduate into industries where work is done predominantly in teams," says MacCormack, "So for all we teach them about being a great orator in the classroom, learning to work cooperatively with fellow students is just as important to their future success."

Other innovations to help students manage the difficulties of team-based work have been added along the way, such as the artfully named "pivot day." One month into the entrepreneurial project, teams are encouraged to take a tough look at the work they've done and the feedback they've received, to decide whether they are on the right track or need a radical course correction to succeed.

And as a side benefit, faculty have also benefitted from the teamwork inherent in the program, which has pushed them to collaborate with colleagues in new ways. "Our faculty are gods with the case method," says MacCormack. "But this is a different form of pedagogy, so it's stretched us in different ways. Given FIELD is taught by a cross-functional faculty group, it's also been a great integrating mechanism for HBS faculty to share our knowledge about different aspects of business among one another."

Three years into the program, it's clear that FIELD has achieved the original vision of providing HBS students with new and powerful ways to learn by doing. At the same time, faculty are continuously exploring ways to improve the program, for example, by designing new class sessions, or improving the way projects are sourced for the best student experience. "We've achieved a steady state of continuous improvement," says MacCormack as he passes the torch to Mayo to continue the program. "Every year, we gather feedback and explore new ideas."

In other words, with FIELD, it's not only students who are learning by doing, but faculty as well.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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    • Eric Budd
    • Improvement Coordinator, Peaker Services, Inc.
    Going to where the real work is done (Gemba) is a long-practiced approach in many industries. Generating learning by doing is also well-known in many industries, via PDSA cycles. It is good to see that Harvard is learning in this manner.
    • Kim Forbes
    • Manager, Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand
    Good to see a University making it real. CXOs need to learn from this and get into the field as well. Too much ivory tower syndrome is creating huge cost at the field level or coal face.
    Like sailing a ship; a good Commander knows all his crew and every inch of his ship from the 'Bilge to the Bridge'.
    • Dr. N. Jayasankaran
    • former Vice Chancellor, NMiMS University India
    This is a thousands of year old Indian concept in learning. Students should develop Sravanam,.mananam, Nithidyasanan. Listening, reflection n practice. Three Shakthis to develop: Iccha, Kriya, Gnana. Ability to dream, ability to execute and an ability to acquire knowledge. Am happy HBS is following this.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    It is absolutely true that knowledge sans practical action in the field (job) leads us no where. Applying the classroom knowledge to real life situations perfects and this is what ultimately is very necessary. A shoe lying in the show room means little until it is worn. And then, "only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches".
    We gat a variety of experiences doing tasks ourselves - one may have to face difficulties in tackling tough situations but by dint of proper actioning solutions would also come. Thereby one becomes confident to proceed further.
    In these days, we need to be alert to know as much as possible, firstly relating to our job and alongside about the other environment around us. In a sense, we are counted if we are jacks of many trades.
    Leadership must exercise its role to reduce the gop between knowing and doing. The Harvard project is, from this angle, commendable.
    • Hugh Quick
    • home, None
    I still remember that one of the features of HBS when I was there, 60 years ago, was that the faculty members were experienced, they knew what they were talking about because they had done it.
    • Varun
    Facts in rural Asia depict that these days given an option to choose between a television set and a laptop/smart devices, people, in particular youth, prefer the latter option. The primary motivation for those people who were willing to purchase devices was because it challenges their intellect. The gap between willingness to purchase and not being able to purchase in few regions of India were most effectively addressed with easy EMI options & quick approvals that are attained with limited guarantee (of course, irrespective of whether they are employed or self-employed, people in rural regions are thoroughly judged upon their truthful or genuine credit history or 'credit discipline' - what we call in 'Desi' terms - before any financial offerings are made).

    FIELD sounds exciting because students explore the opportunity to give new shape to what they learnt before in traditional class room setting. And most importantly the outcome is tremendous- as they return back with new perspectives, students can effectively fine-tune their knowledge by applying within the school before they land into their post MBA jobs.