Forget predicting the future. Instead, prepare to make decisions that allow your organization to thrive under nearly any scenario.
There is no SOP for how to operate during a lockdown in a global pandemic environment with what appears to be a recession looming ahead.
That requires creativity and adaptability.
Ryan Frazier is the Managing Director Technology at Harvard Business School Online. He joined us on this episode of The Possibilities Podcast to talk about how the team at Harvard developed online education pre-COVID and how they are creatively and flexibly managing the opportunities and challenges the pandemic presents.
How Online Ed Works at Harvard Biz
HBS Online serves as the digital education initiative of Harvard Business School. Students can explore about a dozen different business topics such as economics, accounting, business analytics, entrepreneurship management, and leadership.
HBS Online operates on an interactive platform focused on delivering high-quality materials from some of the best instructors in the world. These instructors have taken what they've done in the class, transitioned and transformed it, and created a series of offerings online that can only be described as "fantastic."
Ryan himself leads a team of development, operations, and data professionals in Boston to manage HBS Online technology. From the beginning, the concept faced challenges. As Ryan described it, the questions were...
If we're going to do this, how do we take the values of the business school? How do we take this pedagogical approach of discussion and interactivity and transition that into an online environment and make that a tier-one, class-one product? When they started, I think it was, it was considered very much an experiment.
Projection: Online Ed Post-COVID
Initially, people believed, "It's Harvard business school and if you build it, they will come."
Certainly there's never been a problem recruiting students for Harvard's on-campus programs. Consequently, no one wanted to invest a lot in marketing the program. But HBS Online was about to discover that the online education environment was different from the field they had been competing in.
"It took us a little while to learn that we actually do have to go out and market this," Ryan said.
So they did. Over time, those marketing efforts have built a network effect, which has increased in velocity. Then, COVID hit and gave HBS Online a great chance to highlight some of its best content.
"We put together, sort of curated out of our existing courses," Ryan said, "about 10 hours of total content that we thought was interesting and people might find relevant. We weren't sure what the uptake would be."
Within a couple of days, tens of thousands of people had registered. It was a volume HBS had never seen before, and it overwhelmed the systems. Thankfully, Ryan's team uses SaaS platforms such as Salesforce and Amazon for their infrastructure, so they were able to scale and react quickly.
Online education doesn't seem to be going anywhere but up...fast.
The Value of Taking Robust Action During a Crisis
During a lockdown, a recession, and a pandemic, we need to be prepared to make a wide range of moves. Forget predicting the future. Instead, prepare to make decisions that allow your organization to thrive under nearly any scenario.
We may be able to take the easy path later. If not, we need to prepare to play any move and pivot as needed.
So in an uncertain world, we take robust action.
At every business and in government, a real shift in thinking is taking place. We're moving from a predictive, efficiency-driven scale to this notion of responsive action or robust action.
So how do we become robust?
Three key elements to becoming robust:
- Capability Development. What are the specific skills your staff members already possess that will benefit you in a given scenario? How can you put those people together in a system of shared governance?
- Creativity. There's no shortage of creativity, but often, there is a shortage of technology to carry out creative ideas.
- Adaptability. That's where adaptability comes in. You don't need to buy an entire data center, for example. Instead, you can build a tiny sliver of a server to serve one particular need you have.
Basically, you just need to create the culture, the operating environment and the models that support and encourage creative activity.
How to Execute Against Your Vision
In times of uncertainty, people are coming up with lots of ideas, but they're also focusing like a laser on asking, "How do we actually make this go? How do we implement it? How do we execute against those goals?"
In the case of online education, there are these purely asynchronous programs — the majority of HBS Online programs — and then there is some asynchronous learning content where you go online at the same time as the faculty member teaching. At Harvard, that's the business analytics program, and the technology is based on Zoom.
"This turned into a huge asset in our transition," Ryan said, "in that suddenly we had both staff who knew how to run Zoom sessions and faculty who knew how to teach in Zoom sessions. We combined both of them to go through this intense educational process for faculty as they ready to transition the MBA program online."
Ryan's team built off their capabilities. That's important.
How do you have a robust set of capabilities you can draw upon? And what are the technical capabilities that you need?
Cloud is a perfect one that is fantastic for scaling for rapid pivots. It's built for this type of uncertain environment. Then, you have SaaS-based services. Zoom, Slack, GoToMeeting...so many of these have been a lifesaver.
From a technical perspective, you have to make use of these types of tools, to have people who know how to identify them and to understand them.
The key question, really, is: How do you take your capabilities and make use of them in order to thrive under this, or any, potential scenario?
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