23 Mar 2022

New FIELD Immersion Course Launches with a Domestic Focus


by Shona Simkin

Students visiting their partner company in Brazil in 2016.

Harvard Business School (HBS) staff and faculty build an all-new pedagogical experience focused on domestic challenges and opportunities, with the assistance of the new Mid-US Research Office.

After two years of cancellation due to COVID-19, on March 2, 2022, more than 1,000 first year MBA students received their project assignments for FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) Immersion, a required course that this year takes students across the US for the first time.

For the past 10 years, this required course has sent first-year MBA students around the globe in an immersive learning experience that pairs them with companies to introduce a new product, service, or customer experience for the local consumer. Over the spring semester on campus, teams of six students progress through increasingly more rigorous exercises, working remotely with their partner organization. The course culminates in a week-long visit to the company’s location, where they meet with the organization, interview customers, and immerse themselves in the city’s culture. At the end of the visit, students present their insights and recommendations to company leadership.

When it became clear that the program would need to be cancelled again in the spring of 2021, the team did so with the intent of exploring domestic opportunities. International travel was still in upheaval, vaccines were not equally available around the world, and the inequities surfaced by the summer of 2020’s racial unrest inspired a deeper pedagogical commitment.

“As crises are wont to do, fault lines were exposed in the convergence of COVID, the tragedy of George Floyd, and the rise and resurgence of Black Lives Matter,” said Professor Carrie Elkins, course head for FIELD Immersion. “Issues such as segregation via redlining, redistricting, or urban renewal projects are evident in cities across the US. It’s one thing for students to see it on a map in a classroom and another to see it right in front of them and to interview people whose lived experiences and livelihoods reflect those inequities.”

In less than a year, FIELD Immersion faculty worked with Stephanie Galloway, senior director of the Global Experience Office (GEO), and her staff, as well as with the MBA Program staff, to build an entirely new immersive experience. The team researched locations across the US, developed relationships and projects with companies and organizations, planned contextual experiences such as meetings with local leaders and historical tours, and fine-tuned the course details and extensive logistics required for sending 1,000 students to 15 new locations. The FIELD Immerison faculty also undertook significant revisions of the course’s three modules: contextual intelligence, team effectiveness, and design thinking.

HBS students on campus in design thinking exercises.

“We intentionally selected cities in areas we felt that the majority of our students would not have had experience with. For many of our students, Milwaukee, Birmingham, or Chattanooga will be as distant culturally as Santiago, Accra, or Shanghai,” said Elkins. “These smaller cities are thinking about shared prosperity, inequality, and issues related to overall country and city growth in ways that are not dissimilar to those in other parts of the world—cities that are lesser known but extremely important drivers of employment and in the lives and livelihoods of a vast majority of the country’s population.”

Projects range from a company seeking to attract and retain more underrepresented minorities, to an organization wanting to design a program providing mortgage loans for Black and minority homebuyers, to a startup bringing dental services to traditionally underserved neighborhoods.

“The faculty have worked hard to understand the key issues of each location and have created a representative mix of projects,” said Galloway. “Each city presents a different, unique environment—they are innovative, fast paced, and dynamic, and their smaller size means they can implement change rapidly. Our team loves this course. It’s been an exciting opportunity for us to build these experiences and learn the deep history of our own country.”

Simultaneously and presciently, the HBS Global Initiative was ramping up plans to add another center to its US-based operations. Started more than 25 years ago under Dean Kim Clark, the Global Initiative brings international expertise into the classroom with 10 centers and seven offices around the world. Each is a base for faculty research, case writing, and engagement in regional academic programming and partnerships. Ten years ago, Dean Nitin Nohria shifted the initiative’s focus from regions where the School was already deeply involved to those geographies that were less well explored yet crucial to the global economy. This resulted in the opening of outposts in such cities as Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Tel Aviv.

In 2018, the Global Initiative team started thinking about a similar effort in the US. With the West Coast of the US well-represented by the California Research Center, they sought a better representation of the middle of the country and its role as a vital, but often underrepresented, part of the US economy. In October of 2021, the Mid-US Research Office opened, and its director, Alicia Dadlani (MBA 2003) jumped into helping the GEO team source locations and partnerships for the upcoming semester.

“The Mid-US has over 200 million people, two-thirds of the Fortune 500 companies, and its GDP of nearly $12 trillion would be the third largest in the world,” noted Dadlani. “The area has a longstanding relationship with HBS—Cleveland was the very first alumni club and recently celebrated its centennial. There are many diverse opportunities and challenges to the region, and I look forward to continuing to build and strengthen our connection here. I am optimistic that students will be pleasantly surprised by what they discover during FIELD.”

For Elkins and the rest of the FIELD Immersion team, the new US focus is an exciting opportunity to bolster the course objectives and equip students with a toolkit that can be called upon throughout their career.

“We want students five years from now to look back on this FIELD Immersion course and be able to go to China or Detroit and know how to go about getting their arms around the city and understand a context that is very different from their own,” said Elkins. “We see this as an enormous opportunity for our students to understand what is driving the processes and the ways in which economies are functioning, how we think about inequality and shared prosperity, the role of business today in cross-sector collaboration, and how business can deliver skills training and greater equity when it comes to access in education—these are all very transferable concepts, whether you’re in the US or anywhere else in the world.”

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