Harvard Business School’s Bold Agenda

Dean Datar on the future of business and society in a digital era

Srikant M. Datar portrait
Srikant M. Datar, HBS’s eleventh deanPhotograph courtesy of Harvard Business School

Srikant M. Datar became eleventh dean of Harvard Business School (HBS) on January 1, 2021, under two unusual circumstances. First, he assumed his new responsibilities in the middle of the academic year, rather than at its outset, the traditional starting point for new deans’ decanal service—giving them the quiet summer months to assemble their teams and set priorities. Second, of course, he assumed them in the middle of the pandemic; as University leaders focused on the health crisis in 2020, his predecessor, Nitin Nohria, agreed to stay on six months longer than he initially planned to ease the search and transition.

That period of overlap, combined with Datar’s service on the faculty since 1996, his prior experience in five HBS senior associate deanships, and his close working relationship with Nohria, have now translated into an ambitious agenda for HBS. In a conversation last week, Datar outlined two overarching initiatives for the school’s work:

•on businesses’ engagement with their wider societies, at a challenging time for each sector; and

•on the accelerating application of digital technologies, data science, and design thinking to every aspect of business operations.

Cutting across both are HBS’s broad measures to make the school community more diverse and inclusive in terms of the students enrolled, the faculty, and the education on offer.

Designing a Future

Acknowledging the obvious, Dean Datar said his first 12 months were “definitely a challenging year.” But he has in other contexts sounded an unexpected message, too—that “COVID is the passage to the school’s future.” In that light, he said, “Without any doubt, it has been an extremely exciting and rewarding year.” Before he was appointed dean, he played a large role in developing the remote and hybrid learning technologies that HBS deployed to sustain near- and on-campus learning during the 2020-2021 academic year (as the rest of Harvard taught remotely). It is apparent that he sees those and other adaptations to teaching, research, and outreach accelerating HBS’s transition to future operations. At the same time, the social schisms and strains revealed by the pandemic, racial inequities in the United States, and other severe problems that impair economic success, are squarely on the school’s broadening agenda.

This constructive perspective on disruption and the possibility of making fundamental changes in organizations and their impact—beginning with HBS itself—is of a piece with Datar’s scholarly and teaching interests. In recent years, he has devoted much attention to machine learning and artificial intelligence, and to design thinking and innovative problem-solving.

Community perspectives. In the spirit of the former, from the time his appointment was announced 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 participants) 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, Datar continued, while removing any “listening bias” from what he thought he heard.

Consistent with HBS’s enduring mission (“to educate leaders who make a difference in the world”), Datar has talked about sorting the themes emerging from his outreach into three large “aspirations,” plus three “engines” that can propel the place toward its goals.

The aspirations begin with stretching HBS and its learners beyond notions of merely personal success toward becoming, collectively and individually, driving forces in redefining the role of business in society around the world—addressing inequality, exclusion, climate change, and other intractable problems. The second is directing HBS’s research to action, ensuring that the leaders it trains or influences change practices and engage human differences to enhance the constructive role of capitalism. Finally, the school must transform learning, extend its reach, and work with its students throughout their careers.

The engines for doing so are attracting diverse talent and enabling all members of the community to succeed; effecting digital transformation—both in delivery of educational services and in HBS’s “research infrastructure”; and expanding and deepening HBS’s ties to the wider University—notably, beyond its close collaborations with the sciences and engineering to the humanities, where the successful leaders of the future must learn how to attract, engage, and serve global populations of colleagues and customers. 

Design thinking for HBS. The second pillar of Datar’s recent academic work, design thinking, implies going beyond modest, incremental change to identify fundamental needs that people may not have fully articulated—and devising truly innovative solutions with the potential to transform practices, products, and services. 

As the dean put it last week, “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 economic role of private enterprise.

Equally important, he continued, “We need to develop leaders who are facile in leading organizations where digital technologies and data science,” artificial intelligence and machine learning, are disrupting businesses, their 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.

How can HBS “actualize” these imperatives in an institutional structure, as Datar put it, so faculty members can engage one another productively, students can benefit from state-of-the-art thinking, and businesses and alumni can access and apply new research promptly? He outlined two overarching new institutes through which the school aims to focus on these newly defined priorities.

Business and Global Society

Business is “an enormous force for good in the world,” Datar said: the engine that has lifted billions from poverty, created jobs, and delivered valued goods and services. That said, huge socioeconomic challenges remain. To provide a scaffold for HBS work on these issues, it is creating an Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society, under the faculty leadership of Tiampo professor of business administration Debora L. Spar, a senior associate dean. Datar cited the follow activities under its nascent umbrella:

•HBS’s role as the first academic partner of OneTen, a 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. (Harvard Corporation member Kenneth I. Chenault, J.D. ’76, former American Express chairman and CEO, is a member of OneTen’s five-person executive committee.) The goal, Datar said, is “an economic imperative.” The talent pool available to employers, he continued, is far broader than hiring managers often imagine—but job descriptions often exclude capable people simply because they don’t have paper credentials. HBS’s researchers will focus on ways employers can identify and develop “the multitude of individuals” who can do the work and are motivated to do so, broadening the effective pool of hires to reach “an ocean of talent that no one is even looking at now.”

•Climate change and carbon-neutral goals. Many enterprises, Datar noted, have set forth goals for reducing carbon emissions over the next five, 10, or more years—but few have any concrete idea about how to realize them. Achieving the reductions, he noted, “is in their own best interest.” HBS can make a specific contribution here, Datar suggested, by finding ways to measure and value indicators of business operations beyond the normal financial-accounting 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. Climate change is obviously a central concern, but the project explicitly embraces “a more inclusive and sustainable form of capitalism” that accounts “not only for financial and physical capital but also for human, social and natural capital.”

•Heartland America. HBS operates a network of global research centers—from Johannesburg and Lagos through Singapore and Shanghai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and more—including one U.S. site, in Silicon Valley. Now, Datar said, it wants to focus more directly on mid-America. That includes the cities and regions, away from the coasts, where de-industrialization has been most damaging, and where the presence of new engines of growth (in digital technologies and life sciences) has been less pronounced. Rather than opening a specific location, HBS plans to deploy researchers widely in search of promising entrepreneurial innovations and opportunities—businesses that could be models for other communities, and whose founders and leaders could benefit from being connected to coastal peers, HBS experts, and other resources to enhance their prospects for success.

•New models of social enterprise. Building on HBS’s extensive social-enterprise initiative, faculty leaders Dutch Leonard, Baker professor of public management and Eliot Snider and Family professor of business administration, and V. Kasturi Rangan, Baker Foundation professor, will explore systemic changes in the field that could enhance the impact of such organizations on society.

Digital Everything

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 and management need to proceed together to maximize their impact in 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 digital 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 faculty proposals for support. Advancing several of them together, Datar continued, should be synergistic for the work of each, and will facilitate connections to the world beyond Allston: organizations and innovations to study, expert networks, and channels for dissemination of findings and educational outreach.

Much as the work on climate change and carbon under the business and global society initiative should complement the University’s emerging agenda under the new vice provost for climate and sustainability, Datar emphasized, D3 activities fit well with, and will benefit from, the recently announced quantum science and engineering program and the huge commitment to research and training in natural and artificial intelligence made by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Through such efforts, he said, HBS will extend its ties to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Medical School, the Graduate School of Design, and other faculties.

In the Classroom—and Far Beyond

One clear application of the initiatives is to HBS’s M.B.A. classrooms. Given the expected pace of change in business practices, digital and otherwise, Datar stressed the importance of making the first-year required curriculum more flexible and dynamic, adapting what students learn quickly to what the faculty’s research uncovers. He said the initiatives ought to provide opportunities for the students to become engaged in that research, too.

But beyond those enhancements, he clearly envisions more sweeping change:

•The hybrid classrooms, for example, could readily accommodate returning alumni “sitting in” alongside current M.B.A. candidates for a refresher course or exposure to a new field.

•Technologically equipped teaching theaters and tools could accommodate classes numbering hundreds of learners—many times the size of a current M.B.A. section; trials are under way.

•Given asynchronous courses offered through an evolving Harvard Business School Online, which removes the limitation on teacher availability at a given time, Datar said, “We have the opportunity to reach many, many, many more individuals and learners than we currently reach”—raising the potential for executive and other kinds of education enrolling orders of magnitude more students than the several thousand the school serves annually now (about 1,900 M.B.A. candidates and 12,600 executive-education participants in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year).

•More ambitiously still, Datar 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 M.B.A. graduates, tailoring HBS’s expertise to the specific needs and interests of each of its constituents and pushing it out to them to support their changing careers. That vision is over the horizon now, but, he said, it is feasible within five to 10 years—an option to be offered to admitted M.B.A. students enrolling later in this decade, and a model to be shared across Harvard for University lifelong-learning services.

Making the Most of a Diverse Community

HBS’s racial equity action plan, promulgated at Dean Nohria’s request in the fall of 2020, realized the following milestones during the initial year of implementation—the end of Nohria’s tenure and much of the first year of Datar’s:

•appointing Terrill Drake as the initial chief diversity and inclusion officer;

•making 21 faculty offers, including 14 to women and 12 to individuals who self-identify as people of color, and having 13 offers accepted, including eight by women, seven by individuals who self-identify as people of color, and five who are underrepresented minorities (of whom four identify as black or African American);

•diversifying teaching materials. Across the required and second-year elective curriculum, case writers have significantly boosted their creation of teaching materials that cover the work and experiences of underrepresented minorities who are the protagonists in business situations. (A recent case on Rosalind Fox, the first black female manager to lead a John Deere plant, was among Harvard Business Publishing’s most widely discussed cases during 2020-2021.) “Any time a student comes to our classes,” Datar said, “they should see themselves in the cases,” drawn from real experiences, portrayed in real depth; and

•rethinking financial aid. Effective in 2021-2022, M.B.A. students’ need-based scholarship assessments take account of individual income and assets, as before, plus their socioeconomic background, including family income and assets. As an HBS report summarized the effect, “Though the new approach focuses on socioeconomic background and not race, it is likely to have an outsized effect on black students because past and current policies and practices in America have deterred black families from accumulating wealth over generations. 

Alongside such programmatic and demographic changes—and others, such as encouraging the development of more diverse cohorts of business doctoral candidates, and of early- and mid-career business executives who are underrepresented minorities—Datar has his eyes on cultural changes.

“When I think about the challenges we’re talking about,” he said, alluding to both the school and society writ 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 impact on people, and on what you are trying to achieve through an organization” of people. As HBS becomes a more diverse community of students and faculty members, 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 the conditions or behaviors that are inimical to human thriving and 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 more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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