I was interviewed by Peter Day for his show Global Business on the BBC World Service earlier this month. Peter is extremely wry and dry and a lot of fun to talk with.
After the interview, Peter wrote this comment on his blog:
Matters of Degree : Inside Harvard Business School
Business schools have a pretty fearsome reputation. Graduates spend thousands of dollars on their two years studying for an MBA, but then rapidly get the money back in terms of better paid jobs afterwards, and the business schools boast about it to justify their fees.
No business school has a more daunting image than Harvard, 100 years old last year, so I was interested to hear what Philip Delves Broughton had to say about it.
He was a successful British journalist working abroad who gave it all up to go off to Harvard to see what business school was like. He has an American wife, which may have had something to do with it.
Now he’s written a book* called “What They Teach You at Harvard Business School”, echoing the 1980s bestseller by the influential sports agent the late Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.”
I was once granted an interview by Mr McC in the rain in his posh hospitality tent at Wimbledon, and got the impression that what Harvard did not teach was how to be quite as well connected as Mr McC turned out to be.
Phillip Delves Broughton very much enjoyed the Harvard experience, but his expensive two years at Business School did not turn him into business person. He’s now writing for a living, on his own rather than for a newspaper.
But he set me thinking about what business schools do, and how they go about it. Harvard is famous for its use of case studies, and I wonder whether they help newcomers master the problems of the past, not the future.
Business Schools fit out their keen young graduates with the tools of the trade : the analytical devices, the buzz words, the methodology. They give them a potentially magnificent network of coworkers to go out into the world alongside, always at hand in distant places.
They give them superb self confidence.
But maybe they also insulate their graduates from the outside world. Buffed up by a biz school degree, the new MBAs join big companies and apply what they’ve learnt. But have they really been taught to look outside the corporate shell at what is happening in the world their companies make goods and services for?
That degree “MBA” is a problem itself. Business Administration actually seems rather a lowly pursuit. Harvard is where it seems to have started in 1908; American business in the early 20th century was preoccupied with increasing efficiencies, and unlocking the scientific truths about management.
The very first American business institution, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, offered its graduates a Master of Science in Commerce degree in 1900. Maybe business administration was an advance on that, but it took more than 50 years for MBAs to spread abroad, and still no one has yet come up with a more inspiring degree title.
MBAs and their professors seem to have been anxious to get away from the practices of the first consultants, time and motion experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor who taught at Tuck after inspiring and influencing Henry Ford. (According to the journalist and novelist John Dos Passos, he died with a stopwatch in his hand.)
MBAs have exalted the practice of management over all the other things that happen in an organisation, especially over the messy business of what happens on the shop floor.
MBAs may have influenced the cult of the financial-driven takeover that has so deformed business life in the past 30 years. Remember that according to the studies, most takeovers fail.And some of the most successful businesses have been created by people who had no business degree at all. W Gates at Microsoft for one, L Ellison of Oracle for another.
I have no proof whatsoever, but I fear that the quest for business efficiency has led to a mentality where business is compartmentalised into functioning departments that do not talk to each other. One reason the sub prime credit crunch crisis grew so fast is because few people in the banks and businesses concerned had a proper overview of what they were doing.
Business people are still trying to “Keep it Simple, Stupid” when the world they operate in is anything but simple. “Keep it Complex Stupid” is surely a more realistic watchword, one that they ought to be teaching at business schools.
Now here’s a study for business school to undertake: Getting an MBA may increase a business person’s earning power, but exactly what has the recent growth of MBA courses done for the businesses who employ them?
Now all this is just me rabbitting on, of course. But from what I gather, I don’t think Phillip Delves Broughton MBA (Harvard) would completely disagree.
* In the USA the Delves Broughton book is called “Ahead of the Curve : Two Years at HBS”.