Learning from a case study of Harvard Business School

I see much value in opinionated books, they are great at starting conversations. Bearing that in mind I will say that I enjoyed Duff McDonald’s The Golden Passport. He describes the history of Harvard Business School (HBS) and he isn’t afraid to give his thoughts.

Some of what he says will resonate widely. It was charming that HBS leaders thought building up a case collection would be a temporary endeavour and then they would be done and use the same cases forever more. All of us have problems seeing the future, and the HBS founders might have been shocked by the continuing large, but necessary, investments in producing new case material. (I’d love to use a 100 year old case in an MBA class and see how they react.)

Some of what he says is more controversial. He isn’t 100% positive about all (Harvard) business school professors. To him some shape knowledge but most “are simply fellow travellers” (McDonald, 2017). He also has problems with leadership and describes character as “essentially code for “similar to us”” (McDonald, 2017). He seems hostile to quantification, and especially those who attempt to maximize shareholder  value.

McDonald isn’t a fan of the case method as he thinks students draw conclusions from too little evidence. I worry that he does the same at times. Even when I agree with him I’m not sure someone who didn’t agree would be convinced. Indeed, some of the people he writes about surely won’t feel their portrayals are fair. (Michael Jensen is probably his villain, but Michael Porter doesn’t come across as well as Porter might hope).

Despite some reservations I will say that it was a fun book overall. A couple of great lines I would emphasize. Firstly, satirizing MBAs who tend to specialize in big picture strategy he says “actually doing things is for suckers; the real heroes in business are the ones with the big ideas, not the ones who actually carry them out.” (McDonald, 2017). It certainly is a worry that if everyone is a leader I’m not sure who is following.

My favorite line seemed like an excellent summary of what I find frustrating in academia. He found a remark in the Harvard papers: “The school has been considering the study of ethics for more than 50 years and is actively addressing it now”. (McDonald, 2017) Academics are like Ents; they really don’t like to be hasty.

Read: Duff McDonald (2017) The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the limits of capitalism, and the moral failure of the MBA elite, Harper Business.

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