The Intellectual History of Harvard Business School

This colloquium held at HBS in April looked at key developments in the areas of entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, accounting, and strategy, among others. HBS professor Richard S. Tedlow describes the highlights.
by Richard S. Tedlow

Date: April 17-18, 2008
Faculty Chair: Richard S. Tedlow

Faculty Summary Report:

Colloquium: The Intellectual History of the Harvard Business School: Six Case Studies

What were the overall goals of the colloquium?

The colloquium had three goals. The first was to explore how seminal ideas have been created, developed, and refined at HBS during the past century. The second was to illustrate the variety of ways in which those ideas have influenced students, the business world, and the academy. And the third was to encourage future innovation by showing the mechanisms through which these high-impact ideas have been developed.

What were a few key developments in the history of Harvard Business School in the areas of entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, accounting and management, values and ethics, and strategy?

For the sake of space, let me select one area of inquiry, and that is Leadership and Organizational Behavior. The key developments include the original teaching of scientific management by Frederick W. Taylor; the change in perspective from Taylorism to the Human Relations approach, which resulted from the Hawthorne studies; and the later development of "contingency theory" as advanced in the classic by Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch, Organization and Environment. This extraordinarily rich heritage has exercised an impact around the world and continues to inform the teaching of Leadership and Organizational Behavior here at the Harvard Business School and elsewhere.

The Leadership and Organizational Behavior course in the First Year of the MBA program has a number of daunting assignments. First, it has to overcome the skepticism that some people have about whether leadership can in fact be taught. Then it must locate the organization to be led in the environment in which it exists and develop materials which generate discussion about a variety of issues which, though of critical importance, are often not susceptible to proof. The Leadership and Organizational Behavior course succeeds because, among other reasons, the richness of the field's history informs the faculty, which in turn develop materials which allow for an in-depth exploration of organizational dynamics.

The “starbursts” session provided brief yet in-depth looks at five unique figures in HBS history: John Lintner, Howard Raiffa, Georges Doriot, Theodore Levitt, and C. Roland Christensen. Is it possible to capture in a few words how these five very different people contributed to the life of HBS and to describe their impact outside the School?

Although these people are very different, there are nevertheless important lessons to be learned from them. Each of the five had a signature insight which established his reputation permanently. To be brief:

  • John Lintner—the capital asset pricing model.
  • Howard Raiffa—Bayesian decision theory.
  • Georges Doriot—venture capital.
  • Theodore Levitt—marketing myopia.
  • C. Roland Christensen—the art of case-method teaching.

What is remarkable is that five such extraordinarily different personalities could flourish at our institution. Their backgrounds, both intellectual and personal, were highly diverse. Christensen, for example, was perhaps the School's foremost apostle of the case method. Doriot, in complete contrast, was the only professor at the School who didn't teach by the case method.

There are two characteristics which unite these five people. One is a profound devotion to the School and to its students. Two is that they all aimed high. The goals of all five of these people were very ambitious. The combination of their particular genius and the institution of which they were a part permitted their ambitions to be realized.

What insights or surprises did you walk away with?

I found it remarkable that so many of the most important figures in HBS history, and indeed so many of the people who were making presentations about them (and are very important at the School today) had to make a leap to become a part of this community. They had to leave their comfort zones. They had to abandon the normal methods of career advancement in the fields in which they were trained.

Without this willingness to take a leap, the greats of the past would never have fulfilled their destinies. Nor would the presenters.

I was also deeply impressed by the difficulty of maintaining this special edge as the special edge as the School grows and as business becomes global. The School has always exerted a powerful magnetism for a certain set of remarkable people. There is nothing automatic about this particular magnetism.

Judging from the history of the School, the challenge of the future is to find new ways in a new era to remain a special institution.

Will there be publications or other output from this colloquium?

I am hoping to write a book based on the colloquium.

The colloquium was video- and audio-taped, and there is already an interest by some people who were unable to attend in seeing some of the sessions. Some of the sessions may be edited and used, for example, to help new faculty to orient themselves to the School.