HBX Business Blog

How to Negotiate (Even When Everything Seems Hopeless)

Posted by Professor Mike Wheeler on August 25, 2016 at 10:37 AM


This post was originally published on Linkedin Pulse.

If you want to be a great negotiator, you have to be a great improviser. There’s no choice in the matter. You can’t script the process. It’s too unpredictable. The people you deal with will have their own ideas about how things should go.

That’s why we all can learn from master improvisers in other fields, especially jazz. I described a business application of this principle in one of my early posts. In another—on the importance of paying heed—I quoted pianist Herbie Hancock of sometimes being so focused that “I’m listening with my toes.”

Today’s negotiation lesson comes from trumpeter Miles Davis who said, “It’s the notes that you don’t play that matter.” 

I found another great example of how this maxim applies powerfully to negotiation in my colleague Deepak Malhotra’s new book Negotiating the Impossible. Right there on page 145 in bold type he channels Miles by saying: “Ignore ultimatums. The more attention you give to them, the harder it will be for the other side to back down if the situation changes.” 

He’s absolutely right. (I only wish the book was available back in January when I wrote a post on dealing with take-it-or-leave it job offers, as his advice applies there, as well.) 

When someone says, “absolutely not” or “it’s against company policy,” the natural impulse is to ask why or ask for an exception--or to challenge the assertion itself. But often it’s smarter to let the remark pass without comment. Your counterpart may have spoken in haste. Given time, he or she may soften their position—provided you haven’t reinforced it. 

The worst thing to do is to rise to the bait. Don’t ask if they really mean what they just said. If someone paints themself into a corner, why hand them another bucket? Instead, let the moment pass, as Miles said. It’s in the same spirit of the feisty credo of the actress Ruth Gordon (the star of the cult classic, Harold and Maude.) “I never face facts,” she said. “I never listen to good advice. I’m a slow starter but I always get there.” 

But what if your counterpart persists? Deepak recommends re-framing the ultimatum using less rigid language so it’s easier for them to back down. If not now, then maybe later. For example, say something like, “I can understand how, given where things stand today, this would be difficult for you to do . . .” 

Note how much those three italicized words pack so much meaning into that short phrase: 

  • Understand is an acknowledgment that you have heard their problem, so they don’t have to state again;
  • Today reminds them that things may change, especially if you can jointly tackle their underlying constraints; and
  • Difficult sounds more pliable than impossible. It implies that somewhere within a tangled problem, there’s a solution struggling to find its way out. 

This style of response is what another colleague of ours, Deborah Kolb, calls a “turn.” It’s a deft rephrasing that keeps the door open for further discussion. Done well the transformation might take hold without even being noticed. 

Deepak realizes, of course, that some ultimatums are truly non-negotiable, but thinks there’s little harm in ignoring one when you first hear it. If it is real, he says, “they will repeat it over and over again, in all kinds of contexts and in all kinds of ways.” 

That advice reflects Deepak’s refreshing perspective on the overall negotiation process. He is skeptical about street wisdom such as never make the first offer, or always negotiate on your own turf. Depending on the circumstances, what would be right in one situation might be disastrous in another. 

It comes down to making judgment calls, he says, case by case. And that requires operating from more general principles such as controlling the frame, being mindful of optics, and helping others save face (all of which are factors in deciding how to respond to ultimatums). 

Thinking about the wisdom of (sometimes) not facing facts and ignoring ultimatums (at least the first time you hear them) reminded me of a case I was involved in years ago. I was a member of the local land use planning board. Seldom did all five of us agree on the applications that came before us. But in one instance, we turned down a developer’s proposal with an unequivocal five to zero negative vote.

When we announced our decision, the guy cheerfully said, “Okay. What’s the next step?” 

He acted as if he had just won the first round—which was nuts under the circumstances. Anyone with sense would have given up. But this fellow came back again and at least two more times after that. He revised his plans and we tweaked our policy. Ultimately his project got built. 

Hats off to him! And my guess is that Miles and Deepak would give him two thumbs up for ignoring our initial veto. 

PS: If you’re interested in learning more about Deepak’s work, here's a recent interview with him.


About the Author

Professor Mike Wheeler's current research focuses on negotiation dynamics, dispute resolution, ethics, and distance learning. He is the author or co-author of eleven books, and his self-assessment app—Negotiation360—was released early in 2015. Professor Wheeler is developing a new HBX program on Negotiation which will launch in early 2017.


Topics: HBX Insights

5 Ways I Grew My Network with CORe

Posted by Dr. Nupur Kohli on August 23, 2016 at 5:07 PM

Students meeting in person at HBX Connext

When I got my acceptance letter for HBX CORe, I did not know what to expect from the program. Aside from significantly enhancing my knowledge about the fundamentals of business, CORe also grew my personal network. Don't underestimate how powerful this is! Here are some ways I was able to meet new people thanks to CORe:

1. Getting social

After you get accepted into CORe, you have the opportunity to join your cohort's Facebook group. Not only do you get to share knowledge with your peers, but you also get to know your classmates from all around the world on a personal level. You will learn how everyone lives and works all over the world, what opinions they have, and they will definitely make you laugh from time to time!

2. On the course platform

Facebook isn't the only way to reach out to your peers; the CORe platform is set up in such a way that everyone fills out a profile with professional and educational details. You can also include social media handles as well as personal information - everyone is free to choose how much they want to share. Apart from that, there is significant interaction on the course platform with fellow students - you're even graded on your participation! You quickly get a sense for what others are good at and how they can help you, and vice versa.

3. Face-to-face meetings

I had the wonderful opportunity to travel all the way from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Harvard Business School for HBX ConneXt - an event with past HBX participants as well as the HBX faculty and staff. Meeting fellow HBX students face-to-face helped me to make better connections with my peers as well as to grow my network even more.

There weren't many students from my cohort in the Netherlands, so I hadn't had the opportunity to have any face-to-face meetings with my peers prior to coming to ConneXt. However, if there are HBX peers in your area, make sure you meet them. People who are part of HBX CORe are intelligent and have incredibly interesting backgrounds that you might only get to know about if you meet up in person.

4. Reaching out after the course

Even though I took CORe a year ago, I am still in touch with the friends I met through the program and am still growing my network. After working intensively together for months online, we are still just a click away if we want ask our cohort for help or just share a nice experience or success.

5. Past and future students

My network has continued to grow in the past year as I have connected with more and more people who took, are taking, or will take part in an HBX course. HBX offers multiple cohorts every year, and I've heard from a number of past participants and prospective students who want to know more about my experiences, share knowledge, or set up partnerships.

There are plenty of informal groups that have formed in order to connect with participants across different cohorts of CORe and I've even heard from some companies who saw my connection with HBX and wanted to share professional opportunities with me.

When you take CORe, you show that you are taking an extra step beyond your busy job, school work, and life to expand your knowledge or help make a decision about your future. People see that and connect with you. I am happy to tell everyone who asks that HBX CORe is not just another online course, but a great one that simulates a real-life class experience online!


About the Author

Dr. Nupur Kohli participated in the September 2015 HBX CORe cohort. She is author of the upcoming book Chill! How to Survive Stress and Improve Personal and Professional Productivity. Symptoms and Solutions to Chronic Pressure and is setting up a company, Lead In Shape, to guide organizations on how to manage corporate stress and increase productivity. She is an aspiring MBA student with a focus on medical entrepreneurship.

Topics: HBX CORe, Student Bloggers

Do You Speak the Language of Business?

Posted by HBX on August 19, 2016 at 2:57 PM


For over two years, HBX CORe has taught thousands of students from over 100 countries the language of business. Using Harvard Business School's case-based methodology, CORe provides an immersive and powerful learning experience.

But don't take our word for it - as one of our past participants said,

"CORe really broke down all of the business concepts I had vaguely heard of and introduced new material in the clearest way with unique examples."

See what CORe graduates have to say about us and how the program has impacted them educationally and professionally:

Interested in learning more?

Learn more about HBX CORe

Topics: HBX CORe

Confirmation Bias - How It Affects Your Organization and How to Overcome It

Posted by Patrick Healy on August 18, 2016 at 2:29 PM


There’s been a lot written about cognitive biases in the last decade. If you walk into the Psychology section of Barnes of Noble today or browse Amazon for “decision-making,” you’re sure to see a library of books on how irrational humans can be.

These human flaws, or biases, are fun to learn about—it can be amusing and informative for us to discover things about the way we may operate. In my opinion, most cognitive biases really stem from three core human distortions—a trio of errors that can befall even the smartest of fellows. This trio extends to all reaches of the globe and can afflict all individuals and businesses alike. In this series of posts, I’ll address this trio and what managers and employees can do about them.

So—what is the first of these three major biases?

Confirmation Bias

Anyone who has ever been in a decision-making meeting knows this bias well. Confirmation bias is the human tendency to search for, favor, and use information that confirms one’s pre-existing views on a certain topic. It goes by other names as well: cherry-picking, my-side bias, or just insisting on doing whatever it takes to win an argument. We all know someone like this. 

Confirmation bias is dangerous for many reasons, but most notably because it leads to flawed decision-making. Imagine a business considering launching a new product. The head of the company has the best idea for the “next big thing” so he directs his team to conduct market research to explore its feasibility. The team then conducts surveys, focus groups, and competitive analyses with this in mind.

I hope you see how there is confirmation bias all over this scenario. First, the company head is using market research as a sham to confirm his preconceived beliefs about a product idea. He’s not letting data do the talking at all. Next, the team is launching into the product development process knowing what their boss wants. As a result, the questions they craft for their research will likely be biased to give him the answers that he wants. While this is a hypothetical scenario, it’s all too common for companies to do this today.

How can you, as a business leader, combat confirmation bias? Taking a page out of a statistics textbook may actually be helpful. When gathering data, it’s always important to remember that the question you ask and your method of measurement will have a big impact on your results. When conducting a survey, for example, what you get depends upon what questions you ask. And what questions you ask depends upon what answer you want to get. Make sure to try to craft unbiased survey questions and have an objective third party vet your survey before releasing it. For example, instead of asking, “Do you think x is a good idea for a product? Would you be interested?” you might ask consumers to rank features of products in the form of a conjoint analysis to discover their preferences.

Another option would be to appoint someone on your team to play the role of a “devil’s advocate” when a big decision needs to be made. A devil’s advocate is someone who takes a position they don’t necessarily agree with for the sake of debate. Does your company create dissent in its decision-making process?

Confirmation bias is also the culprit behind many regrettable hiring decisions. Think about a traditional hiring process. HR or a hiring manager typically sits down with a candidate and asks them to sell themselves to the company. If they like the candidate, they might even give them a softball question about weaknesses for them to knock out of the park, just to assure themselves they are going with the right person. If all goes well, they then proceed to ask the person trying to get the job to provide their own references. How much negative or even neutral information do you think is revealed about the candidate in this process? Probably little to none. For many companies, the whole process is nothing more than a series of confirmatory checkboxes on the way to hiring the wrong person. And the result? Employee turnover and big headaches.

A better way would be to structure the interview process completely around disconfirming evidence. “Why aren’t you the person for this job?” “What did you hate about your last job?” Ask references for contact information of other employees that the individual worked with. They are much more likely to provide an objective perspective on their work.

Confirmation bias is extremely difficult to overcome, in both our personal and professional lives. Humans don’t like to be wrong and we will search for any evidence to prove the path we are pursuing is right. But, through some of the strategies above, you as a manager can stir up debate and ask some of the tough questions necessary to become a more rational, and successful, organization.

To learn more about confirmation bias, check out THIS article from Scientific American.

Look out for the second bias that befalls many organizations, coming soon.

Learn more about HBX CORe


About the Author

Pat is a member of the HBX Course Delivery Team and currently works on the Economics for Managers course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program. He is also currently working to design courses in Management and Negotiations for the HBX platform. Pat holds a B.A. in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College. In his free time he enjoys playing tennis and strumming the guitar.

Topics: HBX Insights

Where to Find Answers to Your Most Pressing HBX Questions

Posted by HBX on August 16, 2016 at 1:42 PM

HBX CORe Platform on a laptop screen

Considering enrolling in an HBX program but still have questions? The HBX team has done a little roundup of existing resources to help you find the answers you've been looking for! 

1. Start With our FAQ Pages

Whether you have questions about course structure, the admissions process, grading, fees, or financial aid, check these pages for answers to dozens of the most common questions we get about our programs:

2. Read Through Facebook Reviews and Past Q&As

We are lucky to have such a rich and supportive community of learners from around the world. Some of them have been kind enough to write up thoughtful reviews of their HBX experiences or join us for Facebook Q&A sessions, answering questions for prospective students. You can read through the entire conversations here: 

3. Learn About Other Past Participants Through Their Student Profiles

“Is this program right for me?” This is a question we hear all the time, but it's a difficult one for us to answer objectively. Often times, what people are really asking is if their educational background, professional goals, interests, or existing skill set will position them for success in an HBX course or if they will find the investment of time, energy, and money to be worthwhile. 

Our Student Profiles are a great resource for anyone who wants to hear firsthand from a variety of past participants about why they chose to participate in our programs, what they hoped to gain from the experience, and how they are using what they learned. 

4. Browse the HBX Blog

The HBX Blog is a place where you can dive a little deeper into the subject areas covered in the HBX programs (i.e. What does Cash Conversion Cycle mean, or why should I study accounting), or for those who want to hear more from students who have participated in an HBX program. Here are a few types of posts you may be interested in:

5. Still have questions? Ask them using #AskHBX on Twitter!

If you've read through these resources and still can't find the answers to some of your burning questions, feel free to ask them on Twitter using #AskHBX. We will keep an eye out for questions and answer as many as we can!

Topics: HBX CORe, HBX Courses, HBX Finance, HBX tips, HBX Disruptive Strategy

3 Keys to Understanding Jobs to be Done

Posted by Chris Larson on August 11, 2016 at 4:54 PM


Taking the Disruptive Strategy with Clayton Christensen course was the first introduction I had to the idea of “jobs to be done.” Professor Christensen's theory essentially explains that people “hire” different products to do “jobs” that they need done. Sounds easy enough, right?

That’s what I thought, too. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn’t really understand it. Certainly, things in the course helped me better grasp the concept. I could explain the theory to you, give you examples, but I was still missing the deeper understanding of where I could apply it to my everyday life.

I finally had my “ah-ha” moment when I was riding with my mother in the car and watching her simultaneously put on makeup, drive, and talk on the phone. Here is what I learned from this terrifying experience.

1. Observe

You can’t find jobs to be done without observing people. This was my first lesson. Maybe it was the fact that I was scared for my life. Maybe it was because I have seen many women struggle to drive and put on makeup. Whatever the reason, it was in that moment with my mom where my time spent thinking about jobs to be done clicked.

The thought popped into my head, “how could I make this easier and safer?” Then I made the important connection, what was the job to be done here? Help me put on makeup and drive safely? It was the mindset of not taking an idea and then defining a job to be done, but rather observing people and asking the important question, “how could I make this easier/cheaper/better” that led to me seeing a job to be done that my mom could hire a product for.

2. Focus on the Job, Not the Product

Upon further reflection I realized that in that moment of terror and enlightenment, I wasn’t at all worried about the product. Jobs to be done isn’t about the product; that comes later down the line. I had been so focused on the development of the end product that I missed the bigger picture. Finding the product is the end goal in most brainstorming sessions and I think, because of that, we tend to miss the bigger picture: What job are we hiring for? The product will come once the right job is found. That is the truly difficult part.

3. It is a Process

This is a process, a way of thinking. First, I had to understand the theory. I spent time with it and the cases; I thought about it while I was walking around, trying to apply what I'd learned. But, it wasn’t until my understanding of – and mindset towards – the concept had changed that I finally witnessed it firsthand with my mom. I wasn’t contemplating the theory when I was watching her, I was just sitting there with my life flashing before my eyes. But the theory had become a part of my outlook on the world, part of me, and because of that I was able to make the connection.

Maybe jobs to be done is easier than I made it out to be, but for me there was a difference between being able to explain it and find a "job to be done" for already existing products, and identifying a job to be done in real life, from which a product could be developed.

Learn more about Professor Christensen's "jobs to be done" theory HERE.

Want to learn more about "jobs to be done" and other theories from Professor Christensen? Disruptive Strategy will equip you with the tools, frameworks, and intuition to make a difference.

Learn more about HBX Disruptive Strategy with Clay Christensen


About the Author

Chris Larson is an intern at HBX working with the marketing and product management teams. His background is in all things Russian, but he is interested in business and will be starting his MBA at Oxford University this fall.

Topics: Disruptive Strategy, HBX Insights, HBX Disruptive Strategy

6 Ways Understanding Finance Can Help You Excel Professionally

Posted by Brian Misamore on August 9, 2016 at 2:19 PM


For many people in the workplace, finance is a department shrouded in mystery. But finance affects each and every person in a company – it explains how their actions impact the company’s success, creates guidelines for the future, and sets meaningful metrics to determine performance. But what if you could see inside the mysteries of finance? How can understanding finance benefit you?

1. Learn how to analyze performance for your department

Finance gives you the tools you need to determine how well your department is performing, both by itself and as part of the greater company. Are you doing well? Who should you be compared to? What measures should you use for performance? Many companies choose the wrong metric for performance, or use the same metric for every department, and miss the unique ways in which each department contributes to corporate profits. A company that measures performance strictly in increased revenue targets, for example, may entirely miss the costs of increasing those targets (even as they may grow higher than the increased revenue!).

2. Interact better with your company's finance department

Many people think of their company's finance department as gatekeepers – a group primarily designed to say “no” to promising ideas. With the language of finance and an understanding of the factors they are considering, your finance department can become your partners, improving ideas and generating value-creating opportunities.

3. Unlock the true sources of value creation

Where does value come from? How do you improve your company’s worth to investors and the public? Is the project you’re working on actually making the company better off than if it were not done at all? Finance gives you the knowledge and the skills to answer these questions and to ensure that every project you take on will directly and meaningfully impact your company’s success.

4. Understand that actions tell stories

Everything that you or your company does tells a story that will be interpreted by someone else. What story are you telling? Are you accidentally sending a signal to your investors that hard times are coming? Or are you intentionally ensuring that your actions line up with your words and paint an accurate picture of the future of your company? In a world where investors must make guesses about what goes on inside a company, everything is analyzed – are you sending the right messages?

5. Appreciate the impact of your job

Ultimately, every position impacts the bottom line of a company. But how? It’s easy to see the impact that the Sales department may have on increasing revenues, but what about the IT department? Or accounting? Every department makes a measureable impact to the success of the company, and understanding the impact of your own job, using the tools of finance, can be the best first step to reaching a higher level of performance.

6. Understand investing and capital markets

Everyone interacts with capital markets, whether they know it or not. Your retirement fund is likely invested in a pension plan. Your personal investment portfolio is managed through a broker or packaged in a mutual fund. Finance can help you understand what makes a good investment – the places that can give your savings a secure and prosperous place to grow and multiply. Equally as important, it can show you what people are looking for in terms of investments and how your actions at your company can help to give it to them.

Finance doesn’t have to be a mystery. It can instead be the secret to your – and your company’s – success.

Interested in gaining a toolkit for making smart financial decisions and the confidence to clearly communicate those decisions to key internal and external stakeholders?

Learn more about Leading with Finance


About the Author

Brian is a member of the HBX Course Delivery Team and is currently working on the new Leading with Finance course for the HBX platform. He is a veteran of the United States submarine force and has a background in the insurance industry. He holds an MBA from McGill University in Montreal.

Topics: HBX Insights, HBX Finance

Virtual Classrooms: Tech Insights from the HBX Executive Director, Part 2

Posted by Patrick Mullane on August 5, 2016 at 11:18 AM

phone-world-2-to-1.pngThis is an excerpt of a post that originally appeared on Flarrio.

In my last post, I looked back some of the key lessons that have guided the development of HBX, the online learning platform of Harvard Business School, to date. So, what does the future hold?

Given how fast technologies change, are adopted, and abandoned, that’s difficult to say. That said, at HBX, we are actively trying to address several questions:

How Does Mobile Factor in to Our Strategy?

For example, how does online learning translate to a mobile device? Given the ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, this is an area where the borrow/release principle will play in a big way. Trying to adapt the desktop platform completely to a mobile one may not be the best path forward for us.

However, there is much to borrow not only from our own platform and other mobile ones but from some of the technologies mobile devices offer. Geo-location is a wonderful example. How might this capability allow online learners to connect in person to form study groups or work on a project? The cameras on mobile equipment also suggest an opportunity. For example, could student-supplied videos and pictures augment a case discussion?

How Can New Technology Enhance Peer-to-Peer Interaction?

In addition to this work, we also are considering how peer-to-peer interaction in the context of a case activity might be facilitated through new technologies or adaptations of current ones. In the Harvard Business School’s negotiations course (offered in the on-campus MBA), students are asked to pair up and negotiate with each other after each is given information that allows them to take on the role of a principle in the negotiation. In the physical classroom this is easy. And certainly technologies exist online that would facilitate such a scenario in the virtual world (e.g. Skype).

But if we are to create a seamless experience for our learners conducting a negotiation exercise on our platform then it should be as easy as turning to the person next to you in a physical classroom. This is where the principle of student first comes in. What role could virtual reality (VR) play in this case? As more smart phones ship with VR goggles and full-featured goggles come to market, could students feel as if they were in a boardroom in New York City sitting across from a counterpart, negotiating a major merger? And even if they could, would this have value?

What Value Do These Technologies Add?

It is that question – would this have value? – that we must not lose sight of. Technology for technology’s sake is the express lane to irrelevance, poor learning outcomes, and user frustration. We must push boundaries, but not at the expense of students actually learning. This is our EdTech Hippocratic oath.

Immediately after graduating from college, I served four years in the US Air Force operating intelligence satellites. Inevitably, when I told people this is what I did, they asked, “Can you really read a license plate from orbit?” I was not allowed to answer, but I always turned the question around: “Why would you want to?” There are easier ways to track somebody and, in any case, the laws of physics don’t allow a satellite in low earth orbit to “hover” over a location despite what the movies show you (although this is something drones can now do). The message was this: just because technology can do something doesn’t mean there is efficacy in doing it. And this couldn’t be truer than in the digital education space.

I am confident that we will be surprised and amazed by how technology will revolutionize education in the years to come. I am also confident that some will use innovations even when they do little to further learning. But by focusing on student first, reinforcing community, and borrowing what works and releasing what doesn’t, we believe it’s possible to create a rich, immersive educational experience that stands the test of time … at least until somebody invents a Holodeck.   


About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School - to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.

Topics: HBX Insights, Executive Insights

Virtual Classrooms: Tech Insights from the HBX Executive Director, Part 1

Posted by Patrick Mullane on August 4, 2016 at 10:29 AM

This is an excerpt of a post that originally appeared on Flarrio.

In the science fiction series Star Trek: Next Generation, many episodes featured a technology that used holographic tools to enable crewmembers to simulate various scenarios in a near-to-real-life way. The “Holodeck” immersed the user in artificial worlds that felt real, enabling quixotic escapes or serious training. As with many things in science fiction, Hollywood overshot what is currently possible (a necessary aspect of sci-fi to be sure). But also like many things in science fiction, the demonstrated technology hinted at tools to come and ways to use them. And as somebody who works in the education technology (EdTech) space, I can’t help but think of how such tools will drive the future of education.

I’m no savant with respect to where technology is going, but my experience as the Executive Director of Harvard Business School’s (HBS) digital education initiative, called HBX, has shown me that while hardware and software elegantly created and coupled can – and will – matter, it is the intersection of student, pedagogy and technology that really makes a difference. As we think about the use of even newer technologies to educate, it’s useful to consider how we approached using the Internet to deliver effective business education before turning to thoughts about the future.

It can be argued that the first “online” education in the United States took the form of public broadcasting from universities. Educational programs sprung up at numerous institutions in the 1920s that featured a professor lecturing to a microphone. Interestingly, this transfer of a known pedagogy to a new technology without considering the new technology’s capabilities and limitations was not very effective.

As researcher Paul Saettler noted, “the first years of [American] university broadcasting were generally ineffective because many a professor repeated his classroom lecture before the microphone without realizing that a good lecturer was not necessarily an effective broadcaster.” Early Internet instruction suffered the same flaw as many learned that just putting a lecture online did little to inspire and educate the students who received the message over the ether. 

Fortunately, for many of us in the EdTech space, others ventured to experiment in the online world when technologies and best practices regarding how to use them were nascent. Standing on the shoulder of these giants, those who got HBX off the ground were keenly aware of how technology alone wouldn’t make online education compelling based on several lessons from early participants in the EdTech space. Here are some of the key lessons we've learned so far:

Start with the Student

Put yourself in the student's chair and understand how the pedagogy will be executed in the new medium. At HBS, there was perhaps more focus on this than at other organizations since no standard platform had been built to support the method of instruction the school had used in its classrooms successfully for a century: the case method, an inductive, rather than deductive, form of instruction. Deductive learning is what most of us are familiar with. If you’ve sat in Chemistry 101 your freshman year of college, you likely experienced deductive learning: a lecturing professor explaining how to get to an answer through a formula or process. In deductive learning, students apply general principles to specific situations. It is this “lecturing professor” model of deductive learning that most permeated early online education efforts, perhaps because it was relatively easy to do.

By contrast, inductive learning forces students to “notice” concepts while working through a presented problem; students induce principles from general situations. This is the case method at its core. Putting the student at the center with the pedagogy in mind pointed us to building our own platform to ensure that the method of instruction would not be compromised. 

Cultivate an Engaged Community

Learning is better when students help each other, when there is a community aspect to their experience. In a physical HBS classroom, students aren’t asked to individually address the problem presented through the case, they are drawn into a discussion with their peers, debating each other and answering questions. This helps the inductive process develop and keeps student engaged. The power of peer learning is well known but to date has been infrequently used. In the book Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning, the authors note that peer instruction “engages the students in the underlying concepts of the … material; reveals students’ problems in reaching understanding; and provides opportunities for them to explain their understanding, receive feedback, and assess their learning compared to other students.”

So, when we built HBX CORe – a 150-hour credential course that teaches students economics, accounting, and data analytics – we ensured our course platform had rich interactive tools. HBX students can seek out help from their peers by asking a question that is tied to the content on the page they are studying. Likewise, they can answer questions members of their cohort have posted. They can view a live map showing which of their cohort peers are online and learn more about them. Each of these features helps students feel more connected to each other and engaged in the course material.

Adopt a Borrow/Release Mentality

This one may be counter-intuitive, especially given the earlier reference to replicating aspects of the classroom experience. We've adopted a mentality we call “borrow/release,” and it comes down to this: don’t try to recreate everything as it exists in the physical world. Rather, borrow the best of the other world and integrate it into the new, technology-enabled platform while letting go of things that just won’t work.

At HBX, we created a virtual classroom in a studio at Boston’s public television station, WGBH. As in the physical, tiered-seating amphitheater in a classroom at HBS, students are organized on a video “wall” four rows high. The professor can conduct a case discussion in a completely synchronous manner and allow students to debate each other and answer questions in real-time. It feels very much like being in a classroom and those who have participated are blown away by the realism of the experience. HBX Live is our education “Holodeck.”

But there are a few things lost in this version of the real thing. For example, students who are not talking directly to each other at the instructor’s invitation cannot really see the rest of their peers in class by scanning the “room.” Also, students can’t, in the middle of a session, be broken up into small groups in real-time to address some issue or come up with ideas and then immediately reconvene. We recognized these limitations and are comfortable that little is lost in giving these things up.

But there are aspects of HBX Live that best the physical classroom. Students can broadcast chats that appear in an electronic ticker along the bottom of the video wall. Professors have commented that this gives them a chance to get insight into what is on all students’ minds in an efficient way, something that is difficult to do in a classroom where only one person can be called on at a time. Using HBX live, it’s relatively easy for a professor to post a poll and get instant feedback from students, including from any number of observes who are not on the video wall but watching the classroom video and audio feed. And, of course, HBX Live collapses geographies, allowing sixty people from around the world to attend a case discussion without leaving the comfort of their home in Paris, Dehli, Los Angeles or Nairobi (for an example of how HBX works, see: BBC 4's The Global Philosopher). Try doing that from your grandfather’s classroom!

With the lessons of putting the student first, cultivating a community, and borrow/release front and center, we believe we have created a unique digital experience that our learners value. With course completion rates between 85% and 90% (most online courses are below 15%) and satisfaction scores that indicate users love their experience (particularly the community aspect of case learning), there is data to suggest we are on the right path. 

Continue on to part two of this blog post featuring Patrick's thoughts on the future of HBX and online learning.


About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School - to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.

Topics: HBX Insights, Executive Insights

3 Reasons You Should Take Statistical Significance with a Grain of Salt

Posted by Jenny Gutbezahl on August 2, 2016 at 12:08 PM


If you read the results of any type of study, you've likely been told that results are "significant" in at least some cases. Clickbait headlines may use the word "significance" to make readers think the finding is important. But significance and importance are two very different things.

What is statistical significance, again?

Statistical Significance: A statistic is considered significant if the likelihood of it occurring by chance is less than a preselected significance level (often 0.05 or less).

If you're in need of a more in-depth refresher, check out this helpful article from Harvard Business Review HERE.

How can you tell if a finding that is statistically significant is actually important? Here are three things to keep an eye out for.

1. Just because something is statistically significant does not mean that it isn't due to chance.

For example, if you tossed a coin 5 times, it is unlikely to come up heads all 5 times. There are 32 possible outcomes for tossing a coin 5 times and only one way to get 5 heads. So you'd only expect to get 5 heads one time out of 32 on average, or about 3% of the time. Generally, anything that would happen by chance less than 5% of the time is considered to be statistically significant. Thus, an unscrupulous researcher could get "significant" effects simply by conducting a lot of analyses and picking the ones that reach the threshold.

2. Just because something is not statistically significant doesn't mean that it isn't due to a real effect.

If one hundred people each tossed a fair coin 5 times, we'd expect 3 of them to get 5 heads in a row. Similarly, just because something is not statistically significant doesn't mean that it is due to chance. If a weighted coin that comes up heads 80% of the time is tossed 5 times, it may well come up 4 heads and 1 tail, a distribution that would happen 16% of the time by chance with a fair coin, so it would not reach statistical significance. Thus, an unscrupulous researcher could report "no effect" of something simply by conducting a study with a very small sample and little power to detect differences.

3. Just because something is statistically significant does not mean that it is practically significant.

When I was in graduate school, I fractured my navicular bone, a small bone in the wrist. My doctor told me that I could get a cast that stopped either right below my elbow, or one that continued past my elbow & would keep my arm bent until the cast came off. He informed me that medical research indicated that people spend (statistically) significantly longer in a cast if it stops below the elbow.

That certainly seemed like a good argument for getting a longer cast! But I asked for the average time spent in a cast under each condition. He told me that people who got the shorter cast spent, on average, a full six weeks in a cast while those who had their elbow immobile were out of the cast in only five weeks and six days! This may have been statistically significant, but the practical significance was not great enough for me to give up bending my elbow for a month and a half.

When you hear about a "significant" finding, you should take it with a grain of salt, especially if it's only seen in one study. A report about, say, chocolate significantly reducing the chance of hair loss (something I'm completely making up – I've never seen that particular claim), could be the result of either lots of analyses producing one statistically significant result by chance. Or it could be the result of a study that found a very small connection (for example, eating 5 pounds of chocolate a day would delay the onset of hair loss by 45 minutes), that happened to be unlikely due to chance.

Interested in learning Financial Accounting, Business Analytics, and Economics for Managers?

Learn more about HBX CORe


About the Author

Jenny is a member of the HBX Course Delivery Team and currently works on the Business Analytics course for the Credential of Readiness (CORe) program, as well as working on the design a course in Management for the HBX platform. Jenny holds a BFA in theater from New York University and PhD in Social Psychology from University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She is active in the greater Boston arts and theater community, and she enjoys solving and creating diabolically difficult word puzzles.

Topics: HBX CORe, HBX Insights