Managing Human Capital - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Managing Human Capital

Course Number 2060
Associate Professor Ethan S. Bernstein 
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
28 Sessions
Exam (with Paper Option)

Career Focus

The Managing Human Capital course has been specifically designed to teach practical skills for the future general manager (not just the human resource practitioner) who seeks to manage both other people and her or his own career with optimal effectiveness. We will explore, at a more advanced level than was possible in LEAD, those people-related issues and challenges that any good general manager should understand to be effective.
The term human capital implies that people have the capacity to drive organizational performance. The basic premise of this course is that how one manages others can be the source of sustainable competitive advantage for organizations and for individual leaders within them. Any and all students who believe they will need to effectively manage other people to produce superior business results (revenues, profits, growth) while also creating a unique place to work (such that superior business results are sustainable) should take this course.

Educational Objectives

The objective of Managing Human Capital can be captured in a simple question: How can I create places where talented people will gather, produce, develop, and thrive?
While the question is simple in concept, it is remarkably difficult to execute. Future graduates of HBS, like the population at large, will have more and more choices about how to work and how to manage work, especially given advances in “big data,” AI, and other workplace technologies. They, and their companies--from the great global enterprises of the 21st century to the smallest entrepreneurial venture--will struggle with common questions and concerns about the people who work in their organizations, such as:

  • Module 1 (Hiring): What kind of people do I need, and how do I hire them?
  • Module 2 (Socialization): How do I effectively on-board them, setting them up for success?
  • Module 3 (Performance Management): How do I keep them fully engaged and productive?
  • Module 4 (Compensation and Rewards): How do I make sure they are properly incented to do what the organization needs them to do?
  • Module 5 (Coaching Effective Managers and Talent Development): How do I develop them over time, so they are prepared to take on bigger roles down the road? How do I let go those who are not contributing?
  • Module 6 (Structure): How do I architect my group, team, division, or organization to make the management of human capital easier, not harder?

In each module, we will intentionally discuss cases that frame both traditional and bleeding-edge “Future of Work” approaches to each human capital challenge. The ‘answer’ will often lie somewhere in-between the extremes but will, with regularity, come back to a set of guiding criteria that connect how human capital is managed with the goal of organizational performance. We will also aim to collectively answer the question: how can I be ready for the way human capital will be managed when I come back for my 10th or 20th reunion--and what experiments should I conduct in my teams and organizations the interim to stay on the leading edge (without accidentally reinventing the wheel and rediscovering things we already knew)?
In each module, and indeed within almost every session, we will explore these topics through three lenses: managing othersbeing managed by others, and managing our own human capital.

Course Content and Organization

We are all in the class to learn new ways to manage human capital. But we all learn differently. As a result, this course will draw on a range of different ways to learn.
Cases. A majority of classes will be case-based, using materials that highlight and illustrate issues in the management of human capital.
Workshops. Learning can sometimes be best done in exercises designed to apply and practice what I teach about the management of human capital. I have carefully selected (and, in some cases, designed) workshop exercises that relate to most modules of the course.
Research and Technical Knowledge. An article or chapter that discusses good practice for each of the levers discussed in the course will accompany most case discussions.
The Class. This is a discussion-based class, where we learn from each other. With these topics, there will be ample opportunity for people to wrestle with the best way to manage. As always, our best conversations will be when we choose to find both areas of difference and areas of agreement.
The Instructor. My career, both prior to academia and now as an academic, has been focused on exploring how to run organizations such that they make their people more effective, not less. I hope to share my own perspectives, as well as those from more general research, during our classes.
Guests. We will have a wide range of guests in our class. We will have guests who are protagonists in a case, subject matter experts, and successful C-Suite executives. My goal with these guests will be to understand their perspective on the core issues of the class.
Brief “Live Case” Assignment. I believe we learn best when we are engaged directly with organizations and the people leading them. The brief “live case” assignment will be an opportunity for you, in a team of 5 students, to talk directly to those managing human capital in a way you find interesting, relevant to your learning, or even weird/experimental. I will ask that you to speak with 1-3 key executives or owners of a company to understand, diagnose, and make recommendations about a specific and innovative aspect of the way they manage human capital. The deliverable will be a short, written brief. Ideally, it will be focused on only one of the course module topics, and it will aim to explore (both with praise and critique) the innovative way(s) that firm is approaching that aspect of managing human capital. My hope is that seeing these concepts in action will help you understand what works well and what doesn't. Although you are welcome to choose any organization to which you can gain access, the MHC course’s vast alumni network will be accessible to you as well. I will devote a couple class sessions to the live case assignment to ensure you have time to work as a group to complete the assignment.
The final grade will be determined 50% on class participation, 50% on written work (the final exam and the brief live case assignment). For the written work component of the grade, students may request to substitute the exam for a more significant version of the live case assignment if desired.
Because of the nature of the exercises, workshops, simulations, and conversations in MHC, each section will be limited to 65 students. As a result, cross-registrants are rarely accepted but may submit a request via this link.
Please email professor Ethan Bernstein ( directly with any questions.