Professor Bharat Anand teaches digital strategy at Harvard Business School, yet when he came to co-developing the HBS digital education business (HBX) he fell headlong into the very trap he tells leaders to avoid. That is to say, the content trap.
In The Content Trap (Random House, 2016) Anand shows how the primacy of connections in the digital era—across users, across product and services complements, and across the firm and its specific context—puts three previous holy cows of business strategy to the sword.
“ There are three seemingly rational behaviors that companies follow, that turn out to be flawed, ” he says in an interview with Forbes.com.
“First, managers see many competing products and think: ‘let’s make a better product to rise above clutter.’ This is the Quality Trap. It’s well known that the best products don’t always win.
“Second is the Focus Trap, where leaders see many things going on around them, and decide, or are advised, to simplify to win by focusing on their core competency.
“Third, decision-makers look at best in their industry, and copy them. This is the Benchmarking of Best Practices Trap. Each situation is unique, so copied decisions are unconnected to their real situation.”
In other words, these flaws are all of a kind: they miss or undervalue connections. Connecting people. Connecting products. Or connecting decisions.
But even writing and teaching this principle didn’t stop the professor and his team being lured by the siren call of better product and content when creating the HBX digital executive education CORe (Credential of Readiness) course in 2013-14.
CORe was aimed at pre-MBA under-30s, but has since seen far wider uptake.
The faculty development team included Youngme Moon, Janice Hammond, and V.G. Narayan. Says Anand, “It is so insidious! We realized we were automatically thinking about creating ‘great content, great product, great platform.’
“We were not thinking ‘community and connections.’”
Realizing what was wrong, and being more than ready to eat their own dog food in making digital strategy, in May 2013 Anand and the team pivoted 180 degrees to a user-connected, peer-learning base.
In The Content Trap, Anand says getting things right requires “seeing how what we do is increasingly linked to what others do; looking beyond where we play to bring related but invisible opportunities into focus.” [italics original]
With this somewhat in hand, the team had another business challenge to solve: how to scale.
Many executive education businesses, such as Coursera or Udacity or Udemy, or MIT and Harvard’s own edX, have scaled via the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) model. You record a lecture, you put it online, you advertise, you make it free, you have scale.
But, says Anand, “There’s a tension between reach and engagement.
“On the one hand you have MOOCs with massive participation, albeit oftentimes cursory. On the other there are highly interactive platforms, creating a rich, personalized experience for every learner.”
“The very thing that allows us to have highly engaging experiences (small group, close faculty involvement) is what prevents us from scaling.”
Resolving this apparent tradeoff was the key problem for the HBX team. “To crack it we forced ourselves to focus on one metric first: engagement. We had nothing if we didn’t crack the code of engagement.”
The rate-limiting factor in providing engagement is not technology, nor number of learners who want it. “It is number of content experts, that is, faculty,” says Anand.
Therefore the team realized, counterintuitively, the only way to have both scale and engagement was to limit faculty interaction. This reverses the prevailing wisdom that quality of student experience is achieved by providing greater interaction with faculty.
How could CORe provide engagement richness without faculty interaction? The answer came in facilitating and incentivizing peer engagement, in other words getting students to teach each other.
Peer learning has always been a big part of MBA and executive education, where the best teachers are not necessarily academic researchers but relative content experts, whose real skill is facilitating the multiple points of knowledge in the room into a cohesive learning experience.
Once again, the winning principle is who is good at making connections rather than who is good at making content.
Peer learning is also integral to the pedagogical “DNA” of Harvard Business School’s case method.
The three principles of the case method, according to Anand, are real-world problem solving (presenting real situations and dilemmas); active learning (hands-on student immersion and involvement); and peer learning (learning from each other.)
In the book, he observes how the case method can be frustrating for both student and teacher. “Students might yearn for ‘the answer’ but are encouraged to engage in reflection and conversation with their peers. Faculty might yearn to give the answer… but are committed to let students try to discover it on their own.”
In case method teaching, “when a student asks a question, the last thing you should do is jump in with an answer. You let students discuss, and you guide the conversation.”
Taking case method principles online means, when a student posts a question, faculty or teaching assistants must resist the urge to jump in and answer it, even if it is answered incorrectly or only partially by peers.
“You trust the students. After a day or so, the right answer converges,” says Anand.
The HBS MBA has a traditionally allocated 50 percent of a student’s grade in any course to quality of class participation. This engagement carrot-and-stick moved seamlessly online, giving students more than adequate incentive to get involved with their peers.
However, taking case-method pedagogy online also meant new and onerous pre-course design challenges for faculty.
It meant “designing a process, guiding learners through a series of mysteries and puzzles, each time unlocking a new question for them to tackle on their own,” says Anand in the book. [italics original]
“As we developed the courses, we were now not just producing the materials, but trying to think through every learning moment for students as they might proceed through them–then inserting the right teaching elements at the right moments.”
A live classroom instructor can course-correct on the fly, but this is “far harder to pull off online. Every learning moment has to be anticipated.”
Anand describes this instructional design as “creating a maze” for students to go though on their self- or peer-guided learning path.
In making the maze, faculty work extensively prior to course launch. But then their job is considerably reduced. By contrast, in MOOC “flipped-classroom,” upfront effort is relatively low: a camera records a faculty member and this is posted online, adding in some assessments.
However, enhancing the student engagement experience after the course has started requires extensive ongoing faculty or TA time, says Anand.
“By contrast, our approach demands high upfront commitment from our faculty—but virtually no ongoing effort. By hard-coding elements into the course flow we are able to make ourselves, as faculty, redundant once the learning process has begun,” he says.
“We can achieve both high student engagement and scale, because the bottleneck of faculty input is no longer a constraint.”