Harvard B-School’s New Online Finance Course


Since the debut of Harvard Business School’s online courses two years ago, nearly 11,000 students have enrolled in one of two available offerings. More than 9,000 students signed up for HBX CORe, an eight- to 18-week course in business basics, while over 1,900 have enrolled in Disruptive Strategy with Harvard superstar prof Clayton Christensen.

Now HBS is adding a third offering, a six-week, $1,200 course on the principles of finance called HBX Finance: Leading with Finance. Aimed at the lower-to-middle management market, the new digital course is meant for managers who wish to gain the skills and confidence needed to make and convey better financial decisions, and for finance pros who want to update their knowledge of finance to enhance their careers. HBS is advising potential students that the course should take about five hours per week over the course of the half-dozen weeks.

The new course appears to part of a significant build-out of more online learning options by Harvard Business School. In the works are courses on how to become a better manager and another course on negotiations, both of which are expected to launch in the first part of next year. But the newest offering in finance is among the top five topics most mentioned by HBS customers, according to Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX, the school’s digital initiative.


HBS & Harvard Law School prof Mihir A. Desai

HBS & Harvard Law School prof Mihir A. Desai

“The target demo is people who are ten years out of undergrad and have worked their way into lower-to- management roles,” Mullane says. “It’s much more about how the numbers in finance tell a story than about sitting down and doing deep calculations over and over again. It’s for those who feel like they have a need for a finance overview or are in a role in an organization where having a financial lens would give them a leg up.”

Developed by Mihir A. Desai, an award-winning HBS and Harvard Law teacher and a leading corporate finance scholar, the course will teach students how to analyze a company’s profitability and cash flow and to explore how value is created and measured, as well as how to decipher key levers that drive financial performance. The program also examines how capital markets operate and how they help shape business decisions. Desai has been teaching for nearly 20 years to senior executives, MBA students, undergraduates, and lawyers. He has published more than 25 case studies and a casebook, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on policy issues.

Like CORe, Leading With Finance adopts the case method style of learning, with videos of protagonists who are grappling with the challenges outlined in the case studies. Among the protagonists is Laurence Debroux, the chief financial officer of Heineken, the Dutch megabrewer. “The course is structured so that there will be ten companies with financial metrics and ratios, and the numbers will pretty much tell the story of the case,” Mullane says. “There is a process of discovery in the course where students will be led to the concluson that this must be about a certain company, say Amazon, and you might have an interview along the way that includes a protagonist from Amazon. It’s not about doing 10,000 ways of evaluating companies or EBITA analysis. It’s much more an overview of how to think about finance than a quantitative deep-dive.”


Participants learn first by exploring key financial concepts through interactive teaching tools such as a spreadsheet emulator along with short, highly produced videos. Then, in keeping with the HBS tradition of case-method teaching, they practice what they have learned through the multimedia case studies, focusing on a wide variety of companies that feature prominent CFOs, hedge fund managers, experts providing va home loans for veterans, private equity professionals and equity research analysts who provide an understanding of the full capital markets landscape.

In the first cohort that begins this November, Mullane says HBS expects to enroll “several hundred people” for the introductory price of $1,200, a 20% discount off the eventual price. The school is also marketing the new course to graduates of its CORe program, even though some of them may have less than the required five years of work experience.

Like CORe, HBS schedules no formal class times for this course. All learning occurs asynchronously online, so participants are able to complete the course on their own time at their own pace. There are, however, certain deadlines that must be met on a weekly basis, with the goal of keeping the majority of the cohort focused on the same topics to maximize social interactions.


Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX

Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX

To earn the finance certificate, participants must complete all the assigned coursework, including modules and quizzes, by stated deadlines. Every module concludes with a quiz to test a student’s understanding of course concepts. If a passing score is not earned, there is an option to re-take the quiz. Participants must earn a passing score by the quiz’s deadline. A final paper also must be submitted by a set deadline. HBS says there will be no final grades assigned for the course.

Despite the target demo of low- to mid-level managers for the finance course, Mullane says he would not be surprised to find others enrolling in the new offering. Though CORe was initially meant for undergraduate students and newly minted grads, Harvard found that the three-course primer of business basics also appealed to a broader audience. “We have a pretty significant chunk of students who are more in the life-long category of late 20s to mid-30s,” Mullane says. “When we do a historgram of the ages, you tend to see a hump in the late 20s range with a long tail to the right as the ages go up.”

In fiscal year 2015 that ended June 30, Harvard reported that it had booked $5 million in revenue on HBX, but that its online digital initiative racked up expenses more than three times the revenue, totaling $16 million. The result: an operating deficit of $11 million. The school conceded that it anticipated still higher expenses in fiscal 2016, saying flatly that HBX is “not expected to contribute positive operating margin in the near term.”

HBX is currently accepting applications for the first cohort of Leading with Finance, whose students will begin their studies in November. Applications for the November program are open until October 19. Successful applicants must have approximately 10 years or more of professional work experience and an undergraduate degree, or have successfully completed HBX CORe. Visit the HBX website to learn more.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.