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Extreme Networking: MBAs Show the Way, Part 2

Incoming B-school students from Harvard to Stanford use Web-based communities to get to know each other, to make deals for cell phones, and to launch business plans — before they attend their first class! Can the schools themselves get into the act?

The incoming Class of 2003 may be the most plugged-in class in the history of business schools. Indeed, business-school administrators are racing to keep up with the online demands of their cyber-savvy students. While most understand the need to put admissions information online and while the more progressive are starting to post financial-aid forms, housing lottery numbers, and course-registration materials for incoming students, some have been caught flat-footed by the instant-messenger generation’s intense need to chat about every aspect of the business-school experience.

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Many B-school students began their virtual dialogue on Business Week‘s extensive “Business School Forums” — a veritable cyber cafeteria in which prospective enrollees debate each school’s merits, commiserate about evil essay questions, and drive each other to distraction trying to estimate their chances of getting into top programs given their GMAT scores and undergraduate GPAs. Some business schools have tried replicating Business Week‘s model but discovered that building community on the Web is trickier than it looks. Here are brief case studies of developments at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Harvard Business School, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Stanford: Do You Yahoo?

Stanford officials tried launching their own site on Yahoo. It never took off. The site was open to anyone interested in talking, says Maureen Phalen, assistant director of MBA admissions at Stanford, “and we were hoping that it would be as honest and free-flowing as Business Week‘s. But that was not the case. Because the MBA admissions office established it, it wasn’t nearly as lively. Students realized that we were reading what they were writing and were much more reserved.”

Once they’ve leaped the admissions hurdle, however, Stanford B-school students gain access to a password-protected site specifically for their class, also hosted on a Yahoo server. That conversation is considerably more animated, with students planning preadmit happy hours from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, debating laptops versus desktops, and sharing truck rentals for the trek from the Midwest to Palo Alto.

Harvard: How Can I Help You?

In January, Harvard Business School launched a slick, new interface on its site, designed to build community among incoming students, says Angela Gaffney, the site’s Web mistress. She says HBS has been very careful not to intrude on the bulletin-board discussions, even if erroneous information is being posted. “If there’s misinformation, students correct each other,” she says. “The site’s self-policing, and we like it like that. It’s not an administrative space. That would alter the whole tenor of what these boards are.”

One of the measures of the site’s success, Gaffney says, is students’ willingness to seek assistance. “We’re bringing in people who are already leaders,” she says. “You don’t expect them to ask for help. But in this community, they feel safe — as if it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’ “

Despite Harvard’s reputation for cut-throat competitiveness, users say that their classmates are proving remarkably generous and helpful. Vivian Tsai, who worked in corporate strategy at the Gap’s headquarters in San Francisco after earning her undergraduate degree from Stanford, says that fellow HBS students warned her to prepare for the frigid New England winter ahead. “They said, ‘You don’t have the right clothes!’ ” she says. “And they warned people about housing, telling them that if a place is a 20-minute walk to campus, they’ll be really cold.”

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Other Harvard students formed subgroups independent of the university’s site. In San Francisco, nearly 50 of the 70 Bay Area HBS students have signed on to a Yahoo e-group. “Some people wanted a group for more frank and easier discussions,” says Dazhi Chen, who works at an optical-networking startup in Silicon Valley and will head to Harvard this fall. Plus, he notes, the e-group makes it easier for his incoming classmates to organize barbecues, golf games, and bar nights. “A lot of people are not working, so they have lots of time to get together,” he says.

Wharton: Where Do You Want to Go Today?

At Wharton, Alex Brown, associate director of admissions, seeds the discussion on the school’s bulletin boards, and then steps back and lets students go at it. Kuwait-based Yann Pavie, for example, found two other Lebanese Wharton admits — one in Canada and one in France — by posting details about his background on the “Admitted Student Profiles” section of the school’s site. In mid-June, the three got together in Lebanon.

“By the end of our lunch,” he says, “we all discovered that we had many friends in common, even related family members. It was truly amazing. We began not knowing each other and finished realizing that we had a lot more in common than what we thought imaginable — all before even getting to Wharton.”

Despite the Wharton site’s comparatively clunky interface, Brown has had some success in generating heat over topics near and dear to incoming students’ hearts. He has even gone so far as to post a discussion, “Why Wharton?”, to allow students to weigh the merits of the school versus its competitors. “We know these students have also been admitted to Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and others,” he says. “In years past, we didn’t want to promote other schools. But this year, we thought, ‘Why not let students who made the decision to come here address the concerns of students still embroiled in the decision?’ “

Brown admits that it was a risky move. “It took me a lot of effort to convince people that this was the right way to go. Anybody could say whatever he or she wanted under the Wharton logo.” But the ploy worked better than the admissions office had dared hope. “You couldn’t write better marketing,” Brown says. “Essentially, the students ended up selling each other on joining this community. Students are really proud of this place. And they love to demonstrate that to outsiders — including admitted students.”

For Greg Fraser, the bulletin board proved the deciding factor. The former high-tech corporate-communications consultant was stuck between choosing Wharton or Kellogg. When he happened on the Wharton discussion, he was surprised to find such honest appraisals of competing schools. “There were comments from students who, nine months ago, had gone through the same thing, saying ‘Here’s the reason for going to Wharton’ or ‘Here’s the reason for going to Harvard.’ I’m going to put a couple of comments in my PalmPilot to keep. Deciding where to go is a big decision. You’re kind of branding yourself for your career.”

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Fraser decided Wharton was his kind of brand.

Linda Tischler (ltischler@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company managing editor of new media.

Read Part 1: Extreme Networking: MBAs Show the Way

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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