MBAnalysis: Big Enough to be Small?

When you watch basketball, you will sometimes hear a commentator talk about a player, “playing big.”

What this means is that though the player may be physically small they take on roles that usually players of their size just don’t do. As aficionados of the NBA know, the classic example is Charles Barkley. Though only 6’4” (short by NBA standards) he was an incredible rebounder, vicious under the basket and intimidating to even far larger players. Charles sure played “big.”

There is, of course, the opposite: players who “play small.” This is not a compliment. And it indicates that a player is not reaching their potential. I would give you some examples, but I don’t want to be mean.

So, how does this relate to business school? Because, in fact, there are schools that are “big enough to be small,” and other schools that are “small enough to be big” – though in this case, it IS a compliment.

The classic example of an MBA program that is big enough to be small is Harvard Business School. With a class size of approximately 935, there are about 2,000 MBAs walking around campus. That’s a lot of MBAs, making for an ostensibly intimidating and, conversely, a lonely place. If you are looking for a small, intimate program, HBS is not the place for you. Or is it?

In fact, HBS “plays small” like no other MBA program. It starts with the fact that out of a class of 935, first year MBA students get to know the other 90 students in their section really, really well. I mean 24/7, intimate and personal.

Heck, you don’t even change classrooms during the day. You ninety sit pat as professors and guests come and visit YOU. It is hard to imagine any business school creating as deep a bond between classmates than HBS.

The result is that all 90 of you stay connected over a lifetime, helping each other professionally, while also supporting each other personally, including weddings, children and other events over the course of a lifetime. Well, maybe not all 90, maybe 89, as there is always that one guy…

The flip side is that while you may know your section intimately, the other ~840 in your class are closer to being strangers. Or maybe you get to know each other through a club or other extra-curricular that you both bond over. This is another example of being “big enough to be small” where you are almost certain to find some other folks who have exactly the same interest that you do.

The example that I love is that at HBS there are three clubs that take this concept of micro-interest to the extreme. At HBS, beer drinkers don’t have to rub shoulders with wine enthusiasts who can effectively avoid whiskey sippers because there is a club for each: the Whisky, Bourbon & Spirits Society, the Wine & Cuisine Society and the Brew club. With 2000 MBAs on campus there are plenty of members for each club. (Let us also hope there is a Hangover Support Group on campus, it seems like they need it.)

Another more professionally focused example, is that once a school gets big enough it will have something like an Africa Business Club. Smaller MBA programs may be limited to having an Emerging Markets Club, where Africa is explored but is less of a focus.

So, what’s the point? That class size can be a misleading indicator of what type of relationships you will have with your classmates and the level of attention you may receive.

With that in mind, in the next blog we will discuss how sometimes small is really big.

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