Dreaming on a deserted campus

Blast.As the wind howls and the tumbleweeds drift around the hollowed-out shell of Warwick University, I thought I’d gathered enough material to write the definitive book on doing a top MBA course from the viewpoint of a slightly non-mainstream student, but it turns out Broughton at Harvard got there first.

HBS’s Dean calls his book a ‘betrayal’; actually it’s anything but. It’s a fond recollection of Harvard’s two-year MBA, one of the best courses in the world. (Warwick languishes much further down the top 30, but both are in the absolute bleeding-edge chosen few, and the differences in course content and skills imparted at this level are minor.) What Broughton is guilty of is decrying the consensual groupthink common on MBA courses: that we’re some kind of elite class born to rule. And that’s what his complainants at HBS are really suffering from: the cardinal sin of taking themselves too seriously.

Of course, if you look at the people who really seem to run the world, you’d have to admit all the evidence is on Harvard’s side. Countless global institutions, many democracies, and some of the richest businesses have HBS people heading them. The Illuminati indeed hold Harvard MBAs. Their mistakes lie in equating prestige with usefulness.

None of the institutions thick with Harvard MBAs (or indeed MBAs in general) is doing noticeably more good in the world than anywhere else. The World Bank is a valueless anachronism, and may be actively harmful to non-US nations; one Harvard MBA (George W Bush) has been responsible for the greatest downslide in US soft power in history; the G8 looks ever more like a private club desperate to retain outdated privileges; and a trillion-dollar hiccup in world finance was engineered by people who never looked up from their spreadsheets long enough to ask themselves, “Whoa! Just how, exactly, are two million unemployed people smoking dope in the Southern states going to sustain our pension fund’s double-digit returns?”

It’s a disease mercifully rare at practically-focussed, lore-less schools like Warwick, but I definitely saw it at Oxford, and I bet Yale suffers from it too. A top MBA is a brilliant thing to add to your CV: it gives you easy facility with numbers, a deep understanding of strategy, and creates understanding of how organisations work. But ultimately, the most valuable thing you get from doing all this stuff in such a little bubble – which won’t be taught on any module – is to keep your sense of humour.

Let’s face it, a lot of problems in the world don’t need vast spreadsheets or complex strategies: they’re simple if you just do the right thing. Ask the stupid questions, realise the answer to a lot of them is simple.

The entire African aid budget is insignificant compared to the good that could be done if …. European and American farmers just competed with Africans on the open market. (That’s why I don’t give to charity: it just perpetuates a wrong-headed view of the world. Africans don’t need any help; they just need a level playing field.) The solution to Africa lies in basic economics, not a bunch of MBAs poring over financial models.

Similarly, the problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have always been obvious: an implicit (and now explicit) government guarantee reduced their costs of borrowing, so why exactly were they offering mortgage finance at market rates and trousering the difference? The reason involves an effective lobbying machine – and the results were reportedly $122bn of taxpayers’ cash going into shareholders’ pockets. Public subsidy of private profit, where the shareholders take the profits while the taxpayer soaks up risk. Ridiculous situation. And the solution was simple too, just hamstrung by organisationally behavioural phenomena centred on K Street.

Iraq’s no different. Here we are, with Harvard MBAs fighting a soft problem (the Middle East’s frustration over the West not taking it seriously enough) with hard firepower, souring relations with the region for centuries to come. (9/11, 3/11, and 7/7 were symptoms, not the disease.) Imagine what could have happened if the USA had invested the £300bn war costs in a network of technical schools and universities across the Islamic world: redirecting radicalism’s energy into useful skills, building friendship and creating new consumer markets, neutering the Islamist (political) urge without detracting from the Islamic (way of life) one. A simple choice in tune with America’s basic beliefs about itself, yet a far-reaching, non-military solution was never even given a thought.

MBAs are intelligent people. The 7000 or so people who graduate from the top 1% of business schools each year have natural talent, ingrained drive, and inculcated skills far beyond those of 99.9% of humanity. But what none of us should ever forget is that, often, the world – and what’s needed to solve its problems – just isn’t all that complex.

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