Harvard’s Masters of the Apocalypse

This article makes some good points, even if it is a bit sensationalist, and intentionally so: Harvard’s masters of the apocalypse by Philip Delves Broughton

Business schools have shown a remarkable ability to miss the economic catastrophes unfolding before their eyes.

In the late 1990s, their faculties rushed to write paeans to Enron, the firm of the future, the new economic paradigm. The admiration was mutual: Enron was stuffed with Harvard Business School alumni, from Jeff Skilling, the chief executive, down. When Enron, rotten to the core, collapsed, the old case studies were thrust in a closet and removed from the syllabus, and new ones were promptly written about the ethical and accounting issues posed by Enron’s misadventures.

Is there a pattern here? Go back to the 1980s, and you find that Harvard MBAs played a big enough role in the insider trading scandals that washed through Wall Street for a former chairman of the SEC to consider it a good move to donate millions of dollars for the teaching of ethics at the school.

Time after time, and scandal after scandal, it seems that a school that graduates just 900 students a year finds itself in the thick of it. Yet there is remarkably little contrition.

Last October, Harvard Business School celebrated its 100th birthday with a global summit in Boston. While Wall Street and Washington descended into an economic inferno, Jay Light, the dean of the school and a board member at the Black-stone private equity group, opened the festivities by shrugging off any responsibility.

“We all failed to understand how much [the financial system] had changed in the past 15 years or so, and how fragile it might be because of increased leverage, decreased transparency and decreased liquidity: three of the crucial things in the world of financial markets,” he said.

You can draw up a list of the greatest entrepreneurs of recent history, from Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google and Bill Gates of Microsoft, to Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Lak-shmi Mittal – and there’s not an MBA between them.

Yet the MBA industry continues to grow, and business schools provide vital income to academic institutions: 500,000 people around the world now graduate each year with an MBA, 150,000 of those in the United States, creating their own management class within global business.

Given the present chaos, shouldn’t we be asking if business education is not just a waste of time, but actually damaging to our economic health?

Business schools unfortunately continue to take a heavily simplistic number (without an understanding of variation) and fad driven approach to management. W. Edwards Deming was against the damage they were causing decades ago, and I see little evidence they have learned from their failures.

Schools are good for making connections and getting a piece of paper. Some companies won’t consider you for some jobs unless you have an document saying you have an MBA. I strongly question the wisdom of only hiring an MBA to do some job. But many companies like to use simple criteria like – without a piece of paper saying you have an MBA we won’t consider you for this job. So if you want a job from them getting that piece of paper is important.

Related: What is Wrong with MBA’sManagement Training ProgramManagement Advice FailuresThe Lean MBA

2 thoughts on “Harvard’s Masters of the Apocalypse

  1. Also as an MBA I concur!
    Happily, my degree was at a GSB that believed that you had to be an experienced manger before you got to enrol: you needed to have an endorsement from your employer, and write an essay on why you sought the qualification. Then the subjects themselves involved ‘action researcy’ type case studies, that is, what you were doing in your firm.
    I found that, mixed with the theoretical work to be very helpful. Other aspects weren’t so helpful, but that was when lecturers moved away from the school’s model.


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