Harvard Business School’s Thought Leadership on the Sales Profession Conference

25 May 2012

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Last year I wrote about the state of sales education in business school (“Who’s Focusing on Sales Education Since Top Business Schools Aren’t?”). In it, I assert that top B-schools focus too little on sales research and education, given the sales function’s importance. For good measure, I threw in some purple prose suggesting the situation amounted to “An Anthem For Doomed Sales Youth,” since so many college graduates end up in sales. It might be time to stop the music: Harvard Business School is getting serious about sales education and thought leadership.

In early June, Harvard is staging an innovative conference on Thought Leadership In the Sales Profession. It’s a development that bodes well for the state of sales and sales management education. Organized by University of Houston’s Michael Ahearne and Harvard’s Tom Steenburgh, the conference is noteworthy on several fronts. First, it reflects the burgeoning interest in sales effectiveness as a management discipline – at Harvard and other institutions; second, it combines the involvement of academicians and practitioners in an innovative way. Harvard isn’t just staging an academic conference with this effort – they’re also giving meaningful weight to practitioner interests, and actively connecting academics with management practitioners.

The invitation-only Harvard conference will feature panels of academics, thought leaders, and senior practitioners. Unlike typical economic conferences which showcase academics presenting research papers, the conference’s format will start with top-line summary presentations from academics on current research; a panel of practitioners will then be asked to comment on the work, discussing practical applications of the research and productive areas for further inquiry. (I’ll be speaking on a panel on Customer Relationship Management with Zurich Insurance Group’s Ron Davis, AP Moller – Maersk Group’s Michael Blach, and ESADE Marketing Professor Paolo Guenzi.) The goal of the conference is to foster more discussion, networking, and collaboration between industry and the Academy – something sorely needed in the sales domain.

Harvard’s growing interest in sales effectiveness is evident on a number of fronts (in addition to their sponsorship of June conference). HBS’ executive education offering includes “Aligning Sales With Strategy” in December of this year, the second consecutive year they’ve offered a sales leadership program. Last year’s executive education program generated record enrollment, according to Frank Cespedes, who helps organize and deliver Harvard’s sales management executive education. Also noteworthy – Harvard Business Review’s upcoming issue dedicated to sales (something they last did in 2006). And enrollment in the HBS MBA course (taught by Steenburgh) has tripled in three years to 150 students.

As goes Harvard, so goes the rest of academia? Hard to say, but here’s hoping.

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Bob Kelly

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