It started three years ago as an audacious experiment to invert the venerable Harvard Business School case-study model: Push fledgling M.B.A. students out of the classroom nest and fly them around the globe to take up real-world business challenges on their own turf.

Now, the Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development program, or FIELD, is a transformative core piece of the first-year M.B.A. curriculum, matching scores of companies and organizations in far-flung, emerging markets in need of intellectual capital with hundreds of students who want an opportunity to develop and test their skills and ideas in consequential ways.

Felix Oberholzer-Gee, the Andreas Andresen Professor of Business Administration, said the impetus for the program stems from research showing that when companies go global, they often find it difficult to replicate their local success because of the many ways that businesses must adjust as they enter an unfamiliar environment.

“FIELD 2 is all about making students familiar exactly with this process,” said Oberholzer-Gee, who oversees this second module of the three-part course in his role as senior associate dean for international development. He led the first FIELD group to work with businesses in Cambodia earlier this month.

“Even people who have long global careers, they tend to be overly optimistic about how much they already know and how much of that will be valuable or work in this foreign market,” said Oberholzer-Gee.

He said the students “do great research before they go there, and they are quite confident that they can do something in a short period of time that’s quite valuable. And then in Day 1 or 2, you see mild panic: ‘Oh my God, it’s not quite what we thought it would be.’

“It teaches HBS students something for which they’re not exactly well-known, and that is humility,” he said. “You have to go into these markets, and you have to be quite humble about what works and what doesn’t work and how much of your previous experience is applicable to a particular market.”

Immersion in three phases

In the first phase of FIELD, all 932 first-year M.B.A. students spend the fall in small teams developing and testing an innovative conceptual product or service for the U.S. market, and researching market conditions in the city of their partner company.

Then in early January, the students jet off to locations around the world to work with one of the businesses participating in the program, refining, testing and presenting their concepts to company executives during a frenetic, eight-day visit. This year’s FIELD teams wrapped up that visit last week, and will share their team projects and experiences with their home sections when they return to campus on Jan. 27.

For FIELD 3 in the spring, student teams use their enhanced entrepreneurial and marketing skills to design and launch a microbusiness, first pitching those ideas to other student sections and participating in a stock market simulation. Teams that are ready to launch their product or service present in late April on “Launch Day.” The course culminates in May on “IPO Day” when teams present to their sections and to a panel of alumni judges who select the top three teams in each section. Those finalists present to the entire class and a winner is named by the panel. Students with projects that don’t make the cut must analyze why the business didn’t live up to expectations, what they might have done differently, and why other projects succeeded.

Navigating challenges

In all, about 149 companies were selected for this year’s FIELD 2 in 16 cities in South America, Asia, Europe, and Africa, ranging from the almost fully developed Shanghai and Mumbai, India, to the delicate and struggling economies of Accra, Ghana, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“There’s a variety of factors that we consider, but the key one is what kind of experience can we deliver to students,” said Alan D. MacCormack, M.B.A. Class of 1949 Adjunct Professor of Business Administration, who led 54 students to Lima, Peru. “And we thought that where Peru’s economy is in terms of being rapidly growing, they’ve got pretty good economic fundamentals. And the kinds of firms that we were likely to encounter there would be good places to host teams.

“So it’s a mixture of what’s the student experience going to be like, what’s the environment like for business, and how easy do we think it will be to recruit companies with the kind of projects that we want to undertake,” said MacCormack.

“And, as you might imagine, in January, going to the Southern Hemisphere is rather popular with the students.”

The nine teams worked on projects for local businesses that included a chain of movie theaters, a banking conglomerate, and a restaurant group owned by a renowned local chef. Each team took on specific product- or service-oriented challenges set forth by the businesses. The challenges involved customers: attracting new ones, maintaining and extending existing ones, testing their brand loyalty.

Failure and frustration are woven into the FIELD experience, said MacCormack.

“It really relies upon iterative trial-and-error experimentation. So understanding what’s the problem or what’s the need, brainstorming solutions to the problem or need, and then prototyping solutions and getting feedback,” and then starting all over, is essential to learning.

“I would say nine times out of 10, they realize the thing they came up with in Boston is just never going to work, and that’s part of the pedagogy,” he said.

Letting go of preconceived suppositions and stepping outside one’s comfort zone are integral to the program’s success.

“Part of going to an emerging market is experiencing an emerging market,” said Anthony J. Mayo, Thomas S. Murphy Senior Lecturer of Business Administration. “The other part is the fact that they worked on a team with six people whom they didn’t know on a project that they didn’t choose. So how did they navigate the challenges?”

Mayo, along with Henry W. McGee, a senior lecturer of business administration, joined 90 students in the capital city of Accra, Ghana. “It’s hard to really know what to expect in Ghana. Of all the markets we go to, it’s probably the most emerging or least developed. The infrastructure is very fragile. The road systems, the traffic is horrible, there’s massive poverty, the income disparity.

“You get a completely different appreciation of emerging markets when you go to a country like Ghana, which is really on the cusp … but there’s a long way to go,” said Mayo.

On the first day, students working with wireless phone businesses, banking firms, and a company that makes shea-butter products were asked to go across the city to identify potential customers and do a photo project describing what they encountered. Mayo said many were “taken aback” by what they saw, using words like “disparity, chaos, confusion,” but also terms such as “entrepreneurial and bustling and energy.”

“I think you can’t really experience the sort of chaos and energy and frenetic sense without being there. You see overwhelming poverty in a way that in many emerging markets is very compartmentalized,” he said. “In Ghana, you can’t get away from it.”

For the teams that went to Buenos Aires, Argentina, expecting that they weren’t going to face the same fundamental business obstacles as those working in Ghana, the trip was a bit surprising, said Heidi K. Gardner, an assistant professor of business administration. “It’s a country of enormous potential, and yet it consistently underperforms expectations,” said Gardner.

“I think they really had their eyes open once they got on the ground to what the local challenges were, and those ranged from seemingly capricious regulations in the telephony market: very rapid, sudden changes that the partner organization had to react to … rather than being able to step back and think strategically and operationally,” as well as great inflation, she said.

“And I think they saw a stratification of Argentinian society at a level that’s perhaps a little hard to understand until you get there,” said Gardner.

Ultimately, some of the most meaningful insights and learning come where students least expect it.

“In some ways, FIELD 2 is designed, of course, to learn certain objectives we have that are pedagogical. But it’s designed to create options for all sorts of lessons that will come out of interactions with local people,” said MacCormack. “We can’t predict up front what they are, but we observe them when they happen, and it’s just fantastic.”

Broad’s landmark study discovers new cancer genes