05 May 2017

Harvard Business School Professor David A. Garvin Dies at 64

David A. Garvin

BOSTON—David A. Garvin, Harvard Business School’s C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, died at his home in Lexington, Mass., on Sunday, April 30, after a long battle with cancer. He was 64 years old.

An influential and prolific scholar, during a distinguished career that spanned almost four decades, Garvin studied business and management processes; the principles of organizational learning; the design and leadership of large, complex organizations; graduate management education; and case method pedagogy. He authored or coauthored 10 books and 37 articles.

“David Garvin was an extraordinary teacher and gifted scholar who excelled in reaching a wide audience on a broad range of topics,” said Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. A member of the HBS faculty since 1979, first in what was then known as the Production and Operations Management Unit (now Technology and Operations Management) and then in General Management beginning in 1994, Garvin taught a variety of courses in the School’s MBA and Executive Education programs. He served as faculty chair of the MBA program’s Elective Curriculum from 2006 to 2009.

Promoted from assistant to associate professor in 1984 and then to full professor in 1989, Garvin was named to the Robert and Jane Cizik Professorship in 1991. He became the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration in 2002.

At Harvard Business School, Garvin developed more than 70 case studies, along with multimedia exercises and technical notes. Nearly a dozen of his cases are among the most popular in the School's case collection, including Paul Levy, Boeing 767, and Emerging Business Opportunities at IBM.

“He was an amazing case writer,” said Nohria, “and anyone who saw him in the classroom, whether in the MBA or Executive Education programs, can attest to his mastery of participant-based teaching –and his love of a good quip to start off the discussion. What set David apart even further was his ability to help others understand the magic of case method teaching, whether through the ‘Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method’ multimedia instructional series or through his long-time role as faculty chair of our Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, which promotes and supports teaching excellence and innovation within the School.

“But what most people will remember David for is his incredible generosity,” Nohria continued. “He was a true collaborator, mentor, and steadfast friend to countless students, faculty, and staff on campus. He made everyone feel as though their relationship with him was a special one, and we all became better for knowing him.”

As a researcher and author, Garvin made important contributions to the understanding of American manufacturing, beginning with his 1982 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article "Managing as if Tomorrow Mattered" (co-authored with HBS professor Robert H. Hayes), which won the annual McKinsey award for the best article in the magazine that year.

Garvin then gained prominence with his indictment of American product quality in his 1983 HBR article “Quality on the Line,” which earned him another McKinsey Award. Covered by newspapers around the world, that article reported the results of his multi-year study of the quality and performance of U.S.- and Japanese-made air conditioners, documenting American failure rates that were more than a thousand times greater than those of Japanese competitors.

In his landmark 1988 book Managing Quality: The Strategic and Competitive Edge, Garvin examined what U.S. manufacturers needed to do at the time to close the quality gap with foreign rivals. Through his exhaustive research, he showed how a strategic approach that is more sensitive to consumers’ needs and preferences can be used to compete effectively. He also identified eight critical dimensions of product quality--including performance, features, reliability, conformance, and durability--that could serve as a framework for strategic analysis.

A theme in much of Garvin’s work was that general managers need to think about processes rather than organizational structures or discrete tasks to move their organizations forward and achieve results. In his 2002 book General Management: Processes and Action, he provided executives with a powerful foundation for designing, directing, and influencing the functioning of key processes, from strategic planning to business development to budgeting.

David A. Garvin

A thought leader on organizational learning, Garvin believed that enduring success requires building a strong culture of learning in an organization to counter the unpredictability brought about by shifts in customer preferences, market downturns, and technological advances. In Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work, published in 2003, he provided managers with practical guidelines and tools for building organizations that are adept at acquiring, interpreting, and applying knowledge to stay ahead of change and the competition. He argued that at the heart of organizational learning lies a set of processes that can be designed and deployed, while providing detailed examples of organizations that have successfully used learning to pursue improvement and change.

Garvin’s 2010 book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at the Crossroads (coauthored by HBS professor Srikant Datar and then-research associate Patrick Cullen and selected as one of the best business books of that year by strategy + business magazine) reported the findings of a comprehensive research study on the future of MBA education, which began in 2008 as Harvard Business School celebrated its Centennial. Based on extensive interviews with dozens of business school deans and executives and a detailed analysis of eleven top MBA programs, the authors identified a large set of unmet needs in MBA education in areas such as leadership development and critical thinking. In-depth case studies of leading business schools illustrate a diverse set of approaches to meeting 21st-century challenges, including radically redesigning curricula, offering greater customization, and linking knowledge to application through experiential learning. “Much of what we talk about is the need for more applied or field work, where students work on global experiential projects and engage in reflective exercises that underpin effective leadership,” Garvin said.

This research led to changes in the Harvard Business School’s curriculum, including the creation of a new experiential course in the first-year required MBA curriculum called FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development). In keeping with the prescriptions provided by Garvin and his coauthors, the FIELD Method now complements the Case Method at HBS and provides opportunities for Harvard MBA students to learn by thinking, doing, and reflecting.

David Alan Garvin was born on May 12, 1952, in New York City, the son of Joyce (Solow) and Aaron Garvin. He grew up in Paramus, NJ, where his parents taught him to cherish and love learning from an early age and pointed him toward his lifelong pursuits in academia. In 1974, he received an AB in economics, summa cum laude, from Harvard College, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979.

After completing his doctoral studies, Garvin came to HBS as an assistant professor. Among his mentors was the late Professor C. Roland Christensen, who was widely regarded as the world’s greatest authority and exponent of the case method.

Christensen invited Garvin to co-host a case method colloquium in honor of the School's 75th anniversary in 1984, an event that drew 85 participants from 60 universities worldwide. The two later collaborated (with Ann Sweet) as editors and authors of the influential 1991 book Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, a collection of insightful essays on discussion-based teaching that has long been studied by educators across academic disciplines, including education, government, and medicine.

For the rest of his life, Garvin continued to devote much of his career to helping other teachers hone their classroom skills. His 2003 article “Making the Case: Professional Education for the World of Practice,” an eloquent history and explanation of the case method, won the Smith-Weld Prize, given annually for the best article on the University in Harvard Magazine.

Garvin’s advice and insights live on in the School’s 2007 video titled “Inside the HBS Case Method.” One of the major benefits of the case method, he explained, is helping students learn "the courage to act under uncertainty," adding that his “favorite classes are the ones where the debate is still raging 20 minutes after the end of class.”

Just a few weeks ago, he used Skype to teach a two-session program on high-performance leadership teams to Harvard Business School’s administrative operating managers. Eager to embrace new pedagogies until the very end of his life, at the time of his death he was working with HBX, the School's online, interactive digital learning platform, to complete a new course, “Becoming a Better Manager,” which focuses on the variety of processes that managers work through to move their organizations forward and achieve results through decision making, change management, effective implementation, and learning and improvement.

Among his many other awards was the Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize in 1998 for the best Sloan Management Review article on planned change and organizational development. He also won two Robert F. Greenhill Awards for outstanding service to Harvard Business School.

He served on the board of overseers of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the Manufacturing Studies Board of the National Research Council, and the board of directors of Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.

Garvin avidly supported wilderness preservation, and in his spare time, he was an accomplished mountain hiker and cyclist. But his most important priority in life was his passion for and commitment to his friends and family – his wife, Lynn A. Garvin, PhD (MBA 1982), a clinical assistant professor in the Boston University School of Public Health, of Lexington, MA; his daughters, Diana Garvin, PhD, a Visiting Scholar for the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Boston University, and Cynthia (Cindy) Garvin, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology; and his sister, Vicki Lynn Garvin, PhD, a psychologist in Glastonbury, CT.

Garvin enjoyed traveling the world with his wife and daughters – his “three ladies,” as he called them – exploring exotic locales and immersing himself in new cultures. His courage, wisdom, and integrity will continue to inspire all who knew him.

Friends and colleagues may call at the Douglass Funeral Home, 51 Worthen Rd, in Lexington, Mass., on Friday, May 5, from 5 to 8 p.m, to visit with the family.

A memorial service will be held at the same location on Saturday, May 6, from 1 to 2 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the David A. Garvin Wilderness and Environmental Conservation Fund, established by friends and family at Harvard Business School to further its faculty and student involvement in this social responsibility field. Please email: gifts@hbs.edu or contact Kerry Cietanno, Harvard Business School, Teele Hall, Soldiers Field, Boston MA 02163.


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.