Harvard B School's Professor Fixit

Kim Clark, the ultimate insider, is fast bringing the celebrated school of management up to speed

Within a week of moving into his spacious new office in Morgan Hall last fall, Harvard business school Dean Kim B. Clark dispatched his first message to the faculty--via electronic mail.

The note raised eyebrows not necessarily because of what it said--that Clark was launching a new technology initiative--but because his predecessor had never used E-mail. Indeed, even after Harvard encouraged MBAs to communicate via computer, former Dean John H. McArthur had refused to get an E-mail address because he didn't want students to inundate him with messages.

Eight months into his new job as dean, the 47-year-old Clark is not only creating a new open culture, but he's also using technology to remake the world's most influential business school. So far, he's surprising both insiders and outsiders with how rapidly he's bringing change to an institution that reveres tradition and ritual.

INSULAR. It's about time. In recent years, many critics have argued that Harvard B-school, like so many U.S. corporate giants, was increasingly out of step with fast-moving changes in the business world--changes that nimbler B-schools were leaping to address. With information technology playing a more central role in the economy, the only computer lab for students was closed in 1993. With corporations operating on a global stage, Harvard remained startlingly insular: Just 10% of all case studies involved international business. And in an era when forward-thinking managers were flattening hierarchies and fostering teamwork, America's high church of management education remained a sclerotic bureaucracy that seemed to do everything in its power to promote rivalry rather than cooperation among its students.

Through it all, it's true, Harvard's prestige remained high: This year, a record 7,800 applicants are vying for just 880 seats in the class, and 87% of those accepted will attend, the highest "yield rate" in business education. But the B-school was clearly a fading icon, losing ground to the likes of Stanford, Wharton, and Kellogg. Two years ago, it fell to No.5 in BUSINESS WEEK's biennial survey--its lowest ranking ever.

When University President Neil L. Rudenstine named Clark dean last September, some observers thought the reserved and methodical professor would move slowly. Others saw Clark, who had spent 25 years at Harvard as a student and professor, as too much of an insider to shake things up.

By all accounts, though, the tall, youthful Clark has moved forcefully to bring the business school up to speed. He has invested $11 million in a high-tech initiative that promises to transform the school and establish it as a leader in information technology. Already, 92% of exams are conducted on computers, and the school is using multimedia technology to recreate its trademark, the case-study method. The goal: to pump out 500 online cases over the next five years. If Harvard succeeds, it will transform the way business is studied in B-school and corporate classrooms around the world, because last year alone it sold 4.8 million case studies to outsiders.

At the same time, Clark is making critical alterations in the MBA curriculum. He has been pumping up the international content of Harvard's coursework. Now, 30% of all case studies involve international business. More classes are team-taught by faculty from different disciplines, and there are more group exercises to help students develop teamwork and leadership skills. As recently as three years ago, some MBAs complained that they participated in just three group assignments over two years. Students now say they have as many as two dozen team projects the first year.

To help spur such innovations and speed decision-making, Clark has decentralized authority, ditching committees and task forces where proposals often languished for months or years. And he has mounted an all-out attack on rigid rules--one of which prohibited faculty from ordering Post-it notes in any color other than yellow.

Clark is even changing the way the school screens applicants. Reversing a decision made by McArthur 11 years ago, he is again requiring the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Under fire for churning out investment bankers and consultants, Harvard had dropped the test, which measures analytical skills, in the belief that it favored students who would choose those careers. But graduates continued to shun Corporate America, while the school lost a key tool for gauging applicants.

Although many of these moves will merely bring Harvard abreast of competitors, Clark is winning plaudits for style and content. "Neil Rudenstine hit a home run in picking this guy," says Thomas S. Murphy, retired chairman of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. and head of Harvard's visiting committee. "Kim knows exactly where he wants to go and how he is going to get there." Rivals, too, have good things to say. "He's a scholar, a dedicated teacher, and a people person," says Michael Spence, dean of Stanford University's School of Business. "And he's moving decisively."

Even the B-school faculty--perhaps the largest single conglomeration of outsized egos and intellects anywhere in business--is applauding. "Kim understands technology and its power like few people do, and he is catapulting us into the future with it," says Michael Jensen, a professor who heads the organizations and markets group.

Acknowledging that "some things needed to be changed," Rudenstine says Clark, an insider who never held a leadership position, was the ideal person for the job. "He was not invested in making lots of the earlier administrative decisions," says Rudenstine. "Yet he was in a good position to understand what had to be done."

In many ways, Clark's background breaks the Harvard mold. Born in Salt Lake City, the oldest of three children, Clark grew up in a devout Mormon environment. His mother, Helen, enrolled him at age 5 in weekly three-hour elocution lessons. For four years, he memorized passages of Scripture and poetry for dramatic readings. "She was really ambitious for me," Clark says of his mother. "She said: `This is something that will help you throughout your life."'

EPIPHANY. At Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash., where the family moved when he was 11, Clark was no standout. He earned a mix of As and Bs, and lettered in baseball and basketball. In 1967, Clark headed east to Harvard as a pre-med student--a move that proved a near-disaster. Overwhelmed by the grinding curriculum, he stumbled through the year, his best grade a B in chemistry. "It was a real downer," he says. "I was homesick. I was miserable."

But he found a graceful way out. He decided to fulfill his obligation to serve as a missionary for the Mormon Church. Spreading the church's gospel in Germany gave him a taste for teaching. After two years abroad, he enrolled at Utah's Brigham Young University, where he met Sue Hunt and within a month became engaged. They wed in 1971, and soon after, he went back to Harvard as an economics major.

This time, Clark won the department prize for best honors thesis and graduated magna cum laude, with highest honors in economics. He went on to earn a master's and doctorate degrees before crossing the Charles River and joining the business school's technology, operations, and management (TOM) group in 1978.

Clark had been turned on to management while still a master's student by John T. Dunlop, a professor of economics. Reviewing Dunlop's vast proprietary data on the cement industry, Clark had an unlikely epiphany when he discovered that one plant in Texas was 70% more productive than another, nearly identical one. The difference, he figured out, was management. "It was one of those life-changing events," Clark says. "Nothing that I studied in economics prepared me for it."

On joining the TOM faculty, Clark was immediately tagged as a professor with huge potential. "He was terribly bright and curious about everything," says Robert H. Hayes, who hired Clark and is now a senior associate dean. As a teacher, Clark was a believer in teamwork and hands-on exercises. In the early '90s, while teaching a second-year course, Managing Technology, he was approached by an alumna, Jeneanne Marshall Rae, who suggested that a product-design effort be part of the class. Within six weeks, Clark created an exercise in which students designed and developed mock products. He made it the centerpiece of the course. "Usually people just sit on things for a while, but he was just gangbusters," says Rae.

INFORMATION AGE. After Clark was named chair of the TOM group in 1990, he soon found himself frustrated by the B-school's slow-moving bureaucracy. A couple of years ago, for example, the group, which had created its own computer lab and network, wanted to be hooked up to the Internet. "Then we discovered there was a committee responsible for figuring out what a Harvard business school home page should look like on the Internet," he says. "There were lots of memos, meetings, and debates on what typeface should be on the home page."

Once he became dean, Clark vowed to cut the red tape. He eliminated the top-heavy structure McArthur had created, shifting power away from the senior associate deans and pushing authority down to the heads of the school's 12 academic units.

At the time, the school was on the verge of outsourcing its entire information-systems network to IBM. But Clark balked at handing it off to an outside vendor. Having spent the better part of 15 years studying how organizations can effectively manage technology, he saw it as a way to launch what he calls "a profound transformation" of the school.

Clark's decision to invest nearly $11 million--far more than the annual budgets of most graduate B-schools--has astounded observers. "It's just incredible for a school to spend $11 million on anything in six months," says David Blake, president-elect of the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. "But it's one thing to get computers around the place," Blake adds. "It's another to use them in an innovative way."

In fact, Clark hasn't simply opened the school's hefty checkbook. He is using technology to create a greater sense of community among the 1,704 MBA students, 174 faculty, and 500 staffers and to reaffirm Harvard's commitment to the case-study approach. The B-school now has a new info infrastructure with a single campuswide E-mail system that is fully compatible with the Internet. And Clark has put new computers on the desks of most faculty and staff and built a state-of-the-art computer lab with six desktop publishing stations and 100 Macintosh and IBM computers that can deliver digital video on the desktop.

Many other schools have more computers or are using technology differently. Carnegie Mellon University's business school, with a quarter as many students, boasts 12 computer labs with 150 machines. MIT's Sloan School has a $3 million computerized trading room--the equal of anything on Wall Street--that enables students to analyze market data and test trading strategies. Wharton has one of the most advanced Web sites for corporate recruiters and alumni. But no other B-school dean has articulated a vision of using technology as a tool of reinvention as Clark has.

ON THE CASE. A harbinger of how Harvard plans to capitalize on its investment can be glimpsed in Developing, Managing, and Improving Operations, the first paperless class in the school's history. Students can use the Web to access all of the course's teaching materials, including class schedules, case studies, supplemental readings, assignments, and teaching notes. After each class, David M. Upton, a gung-ho, young prof who is among the leaders of the technology initiative, puts up his slides for students to download. Harvard claims that within a year, every MBA course will be online.

Upton also has developed Harvard's first electronic case study for MBAs. Based on a Beijing Pacific Dunlop Textiles Ltd. sock-making factory in China, it illuminates how Harvard plans to use multimedia to develop and teach case studies. With the click of a mouse, students can view videos of executives discussing the troubled Beijing company or examine key processes inside the noisy plant. Students can also use an online simulation to see how changing production schedules will affect the plant's revenues, inventory, and costs. Says Upton: "This will help us make the case method more relevant than ever."

F. Warren McFarlan, a senior associate dean who is overseeing the technology transformation, envisions Harvard profs routinely lugging video equipment along on research trips. He expects to develop 100 paperless cases in each of the next five years. McFarlan believes he can create these electronic cases for an average of $35,000, only 15% more than the typical cost of a paper case.

Clark's high-tech focus will extend well beyond the classroom, promising to change every aspect of the business school, from the way it runs Baker Library to how it links up with its rich and powerful alumni. Next year, all entering students will receive lifelong E-mail addresses intended to link them with one another during their school years and let them stay in touch after graduation. Corporate recruiters will be able to search a database of upcoming grads.

SENSE OF BELONGING. Looking beyond technology, Clark is implementing major changes in the MBA curriculum--the result of a three-year review begun under McArthur in 1992. While the faculty nixed some of the more radical recommendations, it approved several dramatic alterations. So far, these have had their greatest impact on the so-called January cohort, the class of 253 students who enrolled in January for a new, shorter 16-month program that eliminates time for a summer internship.

The new option began with "Foundations," two and a half weeks of lectures, projects, and case studies in quantitative methods, leadership, ethics, and business history. To foster a sense of belonging, the new students were divided into groups of 16, which were reshuffled throughout the exercises. The B-school is providing Foundations on a pass/fail basis to ease new students into its competitive culture, long reinforced by a forced grading curve. The Foundations innovations will be rolled out to all entering students this fall.

Early reviews are positive. Observes one member of the January cohort, former McKinsey & Co. analyst Sumir Chadha: "You get a sense that all the professors are talking to each other now. They know what the other professors are teaching every day, and there's more integration of the courses."

As part of the B-school's new openness, Clark's administration is seeking students' views on every aspect of the program. Clark has named Steven C. Wheelwright chair of the MBA program and charged him with seeing to it that the administration no longer turned a deaf ear to students' concerns. In addition to making himself available via the Net, Clark has held many dinners and meetings with students. "It's not just Dean Clark who is more accessible," says MBA student Rilla Delorier. "His other administrators have become more visible and more approachable."

There have been some bumps, of course. When the school announced the resumption of the GMAT requirement last month, some MBAs groused that they had not been consulted. "We have a lot of skin in the game," says Paul D. Conforti, a first-year student. "We're major stakeholders and want to give our opinions."

What of the future? Because one-third of the school's tenured professors will be retiring over the next five years, Clark has an extraordinary opportunity to remake the faculty. He expects to reach out to Harvard's medical and government schools to create new programs in health and nonprofit management. And he plans further innovations in the curriculum, putting more field projects and interdisciplinary teaching into courses. "We've just barely scratched the surface," says Clark.

True transformation, of course, doesn't come easily. But Clark is off to a fast start at an organization that has long resisted change. The faculty can be sure that it will receive lots of E-mail from this dean in the future.

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