We spoke with four participants of our live online programs to learn more about their experience:

Augusto Bassanini, President & CEO, United Grain Corporation
Trey Ford, Vice President, Platform Strategy and Trust, Salesforce.com, Inc.
Nina Olle, General Manager, South Cross Community Healthcare
Kristine Schmidt, Board Director, PG&E Corporation

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE TO A COLLEAGUE WHO IS INTERESTED IN A VIRTUAL PROGRAM?

Augusto Bassanini (AB): The quality of the material is the best and the expertise on the subject matter is very evident. Regardless of how the material is presented, it is about the content and how it is delivered. The virtual experience is probably not suited for everyone but it certainly broadens the opportunity to cast a wider net of audience particularly in those countries which required multiple days of travel with multiple times zones to acclimate to.

Trey Ford (TF): Just apply. Harvard knows a thing or two about education; skeptics are welcome. Fair warning: coordinate with those in your professional and personal circles and be ready-the program will require your full measure of focus and energy. Follow the case-study preparation protocol, and dig into the footnotes. DO NOT search online for what happened. Honor the discussion framed in the case.

Nina Olle (NO): As long as the technology is reliable and the virtual classroom properly facilitated, a virtual classroom experience can be very effective and as valuable as an in-person classroom experience. The program was very well organized and managed.

Kristine Schmidt (KS): While I have done both the in-person class and now the virtual class, both have their tremendous benefits including developing international and national connections. I found the virtual program to be as informative, inspirational, and educational as the in-person program and would recommend it to anyone having challenges with travel or timing. The experience is amazing and very much worthwhile.

DESCRIBE THE INTERACTIONS YOU HAD IN THE CLASSROOM, IN THE DISCUSSION GROUPS, AND IN THE SOCIAL SETTINGS?

AB: My classroom interactions were extremely relevant to the topic at hand. In the group discussions, we discussed the designated topics first and then opened up the discussion to allow open dialogue on other related topics. Typically, we engaged in discussions over real life examples of situations occurring at our jobs to bring the discussion full circle.

TF: Harvard is obviously known for the case method, creating Socratic magic in the classroom, and the world has adopted their case method concept. Moving this to the virtual experience was a major shift, and the pace of discussion accelerates daily. This wouldn't have been possible five or ten years ago-Harvard has clearly done their homework cultivating this experience.

On the case method: This really is a life changing experience in terms of cultivating disagreement. Arguments, for many of us, are a battle to be won. Coming out of Harvard programs, you can’t but hope for disagreement and new perspective, and pray you'll have the presence of mind to really explore new perspectives when facing a disagreement. These programs give you tools and frameworks to find and pursue the best solutions to problems that would otherwise have been left undiscovered.

On discussion groups: You are purposefully placed with a diverse group of people, and you're going to disagree. With some folks, you’ll disagree on everything. The group Harvard assigned you to is not an accident, they’re giving you opportunities to find your rough edges, and in the safety of these circles, to explore, to learn, to appreciate, and to grow. The folks you have the hardest time with (at first) will often be the closest friends you leave the program with.

NO: The virtual sessions were very well-facilitated, with virtual etiquette well-managed so that active listening and participation could take place. The discussion groups were dynamic, respectful, and insightful, with participants sharing valuable lessons from their experiences.

KS: The virtual classroom and discussion groups were fantastic experiences to get to know fellow students but also to engage in a constructive debate about the topics and issues being discussed. The interaction allowed for each person to raise their perspectives and question others’ opinions efficiently and actively.

WHAT DID YOU LIKE THE MOST ABOUT THE VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE?

AB: Not having to travel and being able to receive the same quality education in the comfort of your home/office carries value with a virtual program.

TF: I was most surprised with the population of folks who could not have otherwise found time to get on campus. Programs full of challenging topics are the draw, perspectives from peers, war stories and painful lessons learned are worth their weight in gold. A great many of these would have been missing on campus.

NO: The virtual classroom was amazing! It felt like you were engaging in a genuine classroom experience with the faculty and participants.

KS: The ability to see each other as a class and the professors on the screen versus seeing the back of someone’s head or the side of their face if they were in the actual classroom. One of the greatest values of HBS Executive Education is the international diversity of the class and, with certain accents, the ability to see the person’s face as they were talking improved understanding.

WHAT SURPRISED YOU ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE?

TF: The humility of the group. Harvard does something different than anything I've ever seen. Folks disagree and argue in a very specific way. They seek to unpack and understand. Everyone in the program is worth hearing from and studying; is a legitimately expert professional with deep experience; and is unequivocally polite and focused on exploration of how and why someone believes what they're arguing.

NO: There was a very high level of engagement from participants, despite the virtual setting. It was not just a few people contributing.

KS: The program experience flew by-it seems we could have easily kept the discussions going longer as the virtual sessions allowed for more people to participate through the efficient use of the "raise hand" feature. The speed in which the online host was able to toggle the full class into random small discussion groups and back to the classroom was amazing. This allowed for me to meet and have a discussion with almost every person in the class.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER EXECUTIVES CONSIDERING A VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE ABOUT HOW TO MAXIMIZE THE EXPERIENCE?

AB: Come prepared and personally engage as much as possible in the dialogue. How much you put into it, is how much you get out of it.

TF: Just do it. Executive Education is a highly cultivated experience at Harvard, and you will almost certainly be doing more than one program which means you will (and should) get time on campus as well. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue my studies remotely, and like everyone, I do look forward to getting back on campus. Time on campus really is special-make no mistake. But the real magic isn't the facilities, it’s the curated discussion, the flow of the cases, the carefully selected people in your cohort, the diverse population of backgrounds, professions, and regions shaping the discussion.

Be open to connecting: "networking" in virtual programs takes a level of willingness and intent, it is somehow alien compared to live gatherings. Set up (or update) your LinkedIn profile, make sure you have a recent headshot to make it easy for folks to find and identify you. Different than most educational experiences, these are folks you’ll want to stay in touch with and reach out to explore external perspectives. We are all invested in growing.

NO: Do the readings to allow you to actively participant and do not be shy to bring your own experiences-everyone is there with a spirit to listen and learn.

KS: Go into each day very prepared and actively participate in ALL the small groups and full classroom discussions!

Anita Mushlin

About the Author

Anita Mushlin is the Assistant Director for Content at Harvard Business School, Executive Education