A Bold Business Agenda | Harvard Magazine

Srikant Datar had to overcome two disadvantages upon assuming his responsibilities as dean of Harvard Business School (HBS) on January 1, 2021: taking office in the middle of an academic year, and amid the pandemic. He did so by drawing on all his resources. A member of the faculty since 1996, he had ample perspective on his fellow professors’ teaching and research. His prior experience five senior associate deanships yielded broad exposure to HBS. Datar’s close working relationship with Nitin Nohria—his predecessor, who agreed to stay on six months longer than planned to accommodate the search during the pandemic—eased the transition. Finally, his own recent scholarship and teaching (on machine learning and artificial intelligence, and design thinking and innovative problem-solving) provided the tools he would use to reach out to the community and inform his agenda for the school.

During an interview early this January, Datar said his first 12 months were “definitely a challenging year.” But he has sounded an unexpected message, too: that “COVID is the passage to the school’s future.” Before he was, he played a large role in developing the remote learning technologies that HBS- appointed to sustain near- and oncampus learning during the 2020-2021 academic year (the rest of Harvard taught remotely). He sees such adaptations to teaching, research, and outreach accelerating HBS’s transition to its future. At the same time, the social schisms revealed by the pandemic, US racial inequities, and other severe problems that impair economic success are squarely on his list of priorities. These trends now shape his vision for HBS.

From the fall of 2020 Through last spring, Datar said, he talked with nearly 1,000 HBS constituents (every faculty member individually, and alumni, students, staff, and others in groups of 10 or fewer) and then ran the contents of those conversations through natural-language-processing tools to identify themes and to assess their proponents’ “energy level.” That assured that he captured their ideas and attitudes, he said, while removing any “listening bias.”

Consistent with HBS’s mission “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world” and his own commitment to design thinking, Datar sought to apply what he learned to something beyond incremental change. Instead, he has aimed to identify fundamental needs that people may not have fully articulated, and to devise innovative solutions with the potential to transform practices, products, and services: at HBS, in the education it provides, and through its students’ and other constituents’ impact on the world.

As he phrased the challenge, “How can we develop leaders who will be able to navigate the most important opportunities and challenges facing business?”—by which he means adapting both business and society. Addressing persistent inequality, inequity, climate change, and other threats, he emphasized, is “important not just because it is a moral and a social imperative, but because it is an economic imperative” for society to function, and so is fully aligned with the role of private enterprise.

Equally important, he continued, “We need to develop leaders who are agile in leading organizations where digital technologies and data science,” artificial intelligence and machine learning, are disrupting businesses, economic models, and operations. The result is “huge turmoil” now, with the potential for great gains in the future. To cope, he said, business leaders will “have to learn how to learn really fast,” throughout their careers.

In response, Datar has organized two overarching institutes through which the school aims to focus on these newly defined priorities. They are meant to help faculty members engage one another productively, assure students benefit from state-of-the-art thinking, and enable businesses and alumni to apply new research promptly.

• Business and global society. Although business has lifted billions from poverty and delivered valued goods and services, Datar emphasized, huge socioeconomic challenges remain. HBS’s Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society, under the faculty leadership of Tiampo professor of business administration Debora L. Spar, provides the scaffold for work on these issues. He highlighted a few of the programs already under this umbrella:

OneTen. HBS is the first academic partner of this business-led initiative, whose mission is to “hire, promote, and advance one million black individuals who do not have a four-year degree into family-sustaining careers” within the next decade, by emphasizing skills and competencies (rather than formal credentials, for those who lack access to them) to close the opportunity gap. School researchers, Datar said, will focus on ways employers can identify and develop “the multitude of individuals” who can do the work, broadening the pool of hires to reach “an ocean of talent that no one is even looking at now.”

Climate change. Many enterprises, he noted, have set goals for reducing carbon emissions. But few have any idea about how to realize them, even though doing so “is in their own best interest.” HBS can make a specific contribution, Datar suggested, by finding ways to measure and value indicators of business operations beyond the normal financial metrics. The impact-weighted accounts project, chaired by Williams professor of business administration George Serafeim, aims to create accounts that reflect companies’ financial, social, and environmental performance—thus guiding investor and management decisions.

Heartland America. HBS operates a network of global research centers, including a Silicon Valley site. Now, Datar said, it wants to focus more directly on the mid-American regions where de-industrialization has been most damaging, and where new engines of growth (digital technologies, life sciences) have been less pronounced. HBS will deploy researchers widely in search of promising innovations and opportunities—businesses that could be models for other communities, and founders whose leaders and leaders could benefit from being connected to coastal peers, experts at the school, and other resources to enhance their prospects.

• Everything digital. The second initiative goes by the shorthand name of D3—embracing research and teaching on digital and technology transfer; data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning; and design thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Hintze professor of business administration Karim R. Lakhani directs this cluster of activities. The idea, Datar said, is that all three sorts of digital thinking need to proceed together to maximize their impact in the pursuit of HBS’s and businesses’ goals for the future. He noted that faculty members’ labs across the school touch on aspects of digitization and design thinking, from marketing and health technology to research on privacy, ethics, and algorithmic bias, to work on cryptocurrencies, the blockchain, and “fintech.” Since the faculty discussed the overarching initiative, he said, Lakhani has received nearly two dozen proposals for support. Advancing several of them together, Datar continued, should be synergistic for the work of each, and will facilitate connections to many other parts of Harvard and the world beyond Allston: organizations and innovations to study, expert networks, and channels for dissemination of findings and educational outreach.

One clear application of the initiatives is to HBS’s MBA and executive-education programs. Datar outlined the importance of making the first-year required curriculum dynamic, so the teaching keeps current with professors’ research. But he envisions more sweeping change, too. Hybrid classrooms, for example, could readily accommodate returning alumni “sitting in” alongside current MBA candidates for a refresher course or exposure to a new field. Technologically equipped teaching theaters could accommodate classes numbering hundreds of learners—many times the size of a current MBA section; trials are under way. And through Harvard Business School Online, Datar said, “We have the opportunity to reach many, many, many more individuals and learners than we currently reach”—raising the potential for executive education enrolling orders of magnitude more students than the several thousand the school Serves annually now.

Most ambitiously, he said, HBS is working with Amazon Web Services to determine how the school could draw upon all its contents—classes, cases, Baker Library resources, Harvard Business Publishing materials, the Working Knowledge series on new faculty research, and HBS Online —to devise an Amazon- or Netflix-like “recommendation engine.” He described that as the key to delivering lifelong learning to MBA graduates. That vision is over the horizon now, but, he said, it is feasible within five to 10 years—a model to be shared across Harvard for lifelong-learning ser vices.

Finally, and most important, is the human factor. Datar was emphatic about realizing the goals of the school’s Advancing Racial Equity plan, promulgated at Dean Nohria’s request in the fall of 2020. During the initial year of implementation—the end of Nohria’s tenure and much of the first year of Datar’s—HBS appointed Terrill Drake as its initial chief diversity and inclusion officer; made 21 faculty offers, incluing 14 to women and 12 to individuals who identify as people of color; diversified teaching cases across the MBA curriculum; and instituted financial-aid assessments that take into account applicants’ need plus their socioeconomic backgrounds.

Alongside such programmatic and demographic changes, Datar is focused on cultural changes, too. “When I think about the challenges we’re talking about,” he said, alluding to the school and society at large, “every time we have talked about technology on one side of the coin, on the other side is humanities and people. Any time you let those two get out of synch, the opportunity for division arises, and with it, economic harm.

“Leadership at the core,” he continued, “means always thinking about the impact on people, and on what you are trying to achieve through an organization” of people. As HBS becomes more diverse, its dean goes back to basic principles. His father, Datar said, was an ardent follower of Mahatma Gandhi. He kept in mind the “seven deadly sins,” as they are called—Gandhi’s formulation of conditions that are inimical to human success. Among them, three apply most immediately in his current context, Datar continued: “One of those is science without humanity. Another is commerce without morality. A third is knowledge without character.”

Considering how to conduct oneself ethically, in light of those principles, “is a productive way to think,” Datar said. “It’s not defensive.” In the largest context, said this scholar, now leader of the preeminent business school, “That’s design thinking—it’s thinking with empathy and understanding.”

Read a full account at harvardmag.com/datar-agenda-22.

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