Harvard puts Korean students to the testIs a masters of business administration degree from the Harvard Business School an express ticket to becoming an established financial investor, guaranteeing a future with a stable income and success?
“Yes,” says Oh Yeong-seok, a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, who graduated from the school’s MBA program in Boston, Massachusetts. “But that’s not everything.”
Mr. Oh says it’s not just Harvard’s name value that lures hundreds of Koreans to the school.
“I’ve met a countless exceptional students at the school, which is how I learned to accept my ability and limitations,” he says. “But after spending a year at Harvard, I also built the confidence that has since helped me survive turmoil.”
Many Korean alumni say that the learning process during their two years at Harvard are far more precious than the recognition that comes after graduation. Recalling the intensity of the curriculum alone, however, many graduates contend that their experience of studying was “training in hell.”
To survive at Harvard Business School, a student must constantly prove his abilities by participating in class discussions. This is difficult for the majority of Korean students who are accustomed to learning by sitting through lectures, memorizing and filling in the blanks.
Harvard teaches its classes by bringing real-life business problems into the classroom. This “case method” style of teaching is the heart of the Harvard Business School experience.
During their time at Harvard, students study, prepare and argue more than 500 cases, an exercise that helps them recognize unique aspects of different situations, define problems, suggest further avenues of analysis and devise solutions.
Class participation is so important to the “case method” learning model used at the Harvard Business School that 50% of a student’s grade is based on the quality of his class participation.
“Engaging in effective discussions with English-speaking students is extremely difficult for most Korean students,” says Ryu Jae-wook, secretary of Harvard Business School’s Korean alumni association. “Many Koreans embarrass themselves by trying all sorts of petty tricks during their first year. Older students rely on their professional experiences during the case studies and cite the unique structure of Asian markets as examples to supplement their insufficient knowledge about the North American economy.”
Harvard begins its MBA program every September. About 880 potential leaders with backgrounds in finance, manufacturing, service and information technology are split into 10 classes during their first week of orientation. They stick together for the entire year.
The grades at the Harvard Business School follow the system of 1, 2, 3 instead of A, B, C. Evaluations are made on a relative basis. If a student belongs to the top 10 percent of the class, he gets 1. The next 80 percent get the point 2, the rest 10 percent 3.
In a class of 80 people, at least eight inevitably get a 3 ― a bitter pill to swallow for students who are used to being leaders in their fields. If a student receives a 3 from more than three out of his five mandatory courses, it means he’s about to “hit the screen.”
When that happens, a student is normally asked to write a proposal about his academic plans and present them to a school jury, which consists of a group of professors. The jury reads the proposal and comments on how the student could make up for his failing courses during the following semesters.
The pressure and intimidation often force students to quit the program. By the end of the second semester, some students disappear without a trace.
Harvard’s case method of study requires students to solve business issues through discussion. The process requires students to examine the causes and consider the alternative courses of action to reach a set of recommendations. The goal is to put students in real-life business situations in the role of the decision maker.
This case study method has been practiced at the Harvard Business School for nearly 80 years. The university believes that its students don’t need to build their intellectual skills by concentrating on reading textbooks or sitting through lectures, but by solving problems.
To help students perform the requisite analysis, the school’s professors also go through special training and learn ways to make observations and detail underlying issues that need to be addressed during the students’ discussions.
What do the students learn by the end of this intensive program?
Confidence, for one thing.
“I felt like there wasn’t a thing I couldn’t do in this world after completing the two-year program,” says Han Su-jeong a research analyst at Sony Korea. “People are also sympathetic when I tell them that I’ve graduated Harvard Business School; they ask me how I did it.”
Jang Yong-seok, a Harvard graduate who now works for McKinsey and Co., says his experience was “precious in that I learned to foster a global perspective.”
Currently there are about 80 members of Harvard’s Korean alumni association. They range in age from 30 to 60. (Nearly half of Harvard’s alumni clubs and associations are outside the United States.)
Harvard is one of the first North American universities that Korean students choose when they want to study abroad.
Choi Jae-won, a vice-president of SK Telecom, and Yun Seok-min, a managing director of SBSi, are alumni of the Harvard Business School. They are also sons and nephews of Korea’s “royal families” that have led business through the country’s powerful jaebols, or conglomerates.
Since Harvard’s program is structured to nurture tomorrow’s general managers, the graduates of the Harvard Business School constitute the top sectors of Korea’s power elite.
Many graduates are dispatched to strategic planning departments of major corporations, business consulting groups and local branches of foreign investment banks.
Park Ji-hwan, the CEO of Asia Evolution, leads meetings consisting of younger graduates ― who are in 20s and 30s ― in areas of investment banking, consulting and venture businesses. They meet about four times a year and discuss business trends over dinners at hotel banquet rooms and golf tournaments.
“Harvard graduates have a very strong network,” says Mr. Ryu, the alumni association secretary. “We make sure that each graduate is upholding the school’s reputation. There’s an underlying assumption among the graduates about our potential.”
Harvard alum hires his own
Lee Seong-yong, the chief executive officer of Bain & Co. Korea, one of the top three consulting firms in the country, is a self-proclaimed evangelist for establishing global standards in Korea. He’s one of the pioneers to introduce the concept of business consulting in Korea and has developed it to the point that it’s now commonly used by Korean businesses.
Mr. Lee, 41, moved to the United States when he was in an elementary school and stayed there until he graduated from college.
Following his family’s tradition, he attended a military school, just as his father and grandfather did ahead of him. After serving his military service, he studied computer science at the University of South California and worked as an engineer before he entered Harvard Business School.
“I decided to get an MBA, because I saw all my senior colleagues who majored in engineering ending up studying management,” he says.
Why did he choose Harvard? “I trusted Harvard’s name and the power of its network,” he says.
Unlike most Harvard Business School graduates, Mr. Lee says Harvard’s program wasn’t as difficult as he had expected, especially compared with his military training.
Instead Mr. Lee says he found meeting with people who had different value systems much more challenging. As a graduate of a military school who had majored in engineering, this was a huge culture shock.
“The fact you need to observe certain phenomena from a different perspective that exists outside its technical grounds was difficult,” he says.
“Many Korean graduates of the Harvard Business School are exceptional in their individual skills,” Mr. Lee says. “But they’re weak at networking and forming solidarity.”
He’s one of the first Harvard alumni in Korea to maintain a Harvard network. Currently there are seven Harvard Business School graduates at Bain & Co. Korea out of 100 employees in total.
Korean alumni of the Harvard Business School
Kim Seong-joong, president of Delkor Corp.
Kim Seok-sik, managing director of Byucksan Group
Kim Young-ho, managing director of SK Global
Kim Jae-hak, president of Hyosung Group
Park Eun-tae, chairman of Korea Petroleum Association
Yun Yeo-eul, chief executive officer of Sony Computer Entertainment Korea
Jeong Taik-jin, president of Nemopartners
Yun Seok-min, chief executive officer of SBSi
Lee Jae-hyun, chief executive officer of Auction Corp.
Park Ji-hwan, chief executive officer of Asia Evolution
Choi Jae-won, vice-president of SK Telecom
Kim Byung-joo, chairman of Carlyle Asia
Park Seong-woo, managing director of Morgan Stanley
Sohn Seong-won, vice-president of Wells Fargo Bank
Gang Seok-jin, chairman of CEO Consulting Group
Kim Sang-gyu, vice-president of Bain & Co.
Shin Young-wook, Director of Bain & Co.
Lee Seong-yong, chief executive officer of Bain & Co.
Lim Hyung-seok, consultant at McKinsey & Co.
by Lim Young-ju, Park Soo-mee