Archive for April, 2008

Diverse opinions in Barcelona

April 21, 2008

George Bickerstaffe reports from the Future of Leadership and the Role of Business Schools conference in Barcelona.

The atmosphere at the Future of Leadership and the Role of Business Schools conference (part of IESE’s celebrations of its 50th anniversary) was surprisingly upbeat. Surprisingly, given the unseasonably rain-lashed Barcelona streets outside and the equally turbulent economic storms around the world.

Still, management academics can usually be relied on to find something to worry about. One of the most challenging speakers (among a line-up that included such luminaries as Joel M Podolny and J Frank Brown, respectively deans of Yale and INSEAD) was Arnoud de Meyer, dean of the University of Cambridge’s Judge business school.

Mr De Meyer’s first thought was that the “information overload” society, represented by the “Crackberry” generation, and its concomitant pressure on people’s time was likely to prove a serious threat to the traditional two-year and even one-year full-time MBA formats.

Second, he called into question the much-vaunted diversity of MBA classes. However many nationalities might be represented, he pointed out, MBA students demonstrate a remarkable similarity in their social and financial backgrounds and they particularly share an “international” outlook and attitude towards business and society.

Any differences are smoothed further by the ubiquitous GMAT, which requires a standardised approach to mathematical problems and especially the comprehension and manipulation of a certain kind of written English.

Finally, the strictly conceived and applied admissions criteria of leading MBA programmes complete the homogenisation process.

In other words, don’t expect to be challenged too much by those exotic foreign students — they are probably more like you than you think.

A slightly different take on diversity came from strategy guru Pankaj Ghemawat, a professor at Harvard Business School and IESE. He raised a few eyebrows by commenting that there is good evidence that the more you add diversity to a group the more likely you are to produce a negative group performance.

INSEAD dean Frank Brown came up with an idea for new-style business school programmes that tap an unexpected market. Since we are all going to live to be 100 in pretty good health (apparently), why not offer “conversion” and training programmes for those in their 50s and 60s approaching retirement and those in their 70s looking for somewhere to apply their skills? Indeed, why not?

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Harvard at 100: case closed?

April 9, 2008

So Harvard Business School is 100 years old this week. Many happy returns. Although the argument will continue as to whether it was Harvard or its near-neighbour, Dartmouth, which actually invented the MBA, few can argue that HBS has played the defining role in management education over the last century.

Perhaps most significantly, it was the first to have the bright idea of applying the case study—until then largely confined to law schools—to the world of the MBA. Harvard is still the world’s pre-eminent producer of business school case studies. Schools that teach almost exclusively through the case-study method—which also include West Ontario (Ivey) in Canada and IESE in Spain—point to the fact that it is the nearest a classroom will come to replicating real-life business situations. Furthermore, the cut-and-thrust atmosphere of the average case discussion inevitably breeds confident and persuasive speakers, able to think on their feet.

But the method is not without its detractors. One of the biggest criticisms is that it merely rewards those who shout loudest, not necessarily those with the most cogent arguments. With marks awarded for class participation, the clamour for “airtime” can lead to an overly competitive culture—something that most schools say they are trying to move away from.

Although the situation is improving, the other major criticism of the method is that cases also have a tendency to be US-centric. The question used to be asked about whether it was relevant for an Asian student, for example, to study case-after-case examining American business dilemmas. But in this world of globalisation, it is fair to wonder whether it is even relevant for US students any more.

So will the method continue into Harvard’s second century? A joke among management consultants tells of the freshly-graduated MBA who waltzes in to the office on his first day and demands: “bring me the first case!”. Business life has always been more complicated than that. But with the modern emphasis on learning through action—particularly with students being parachuted into real-life companies to solve real-life problems—surely there are better preparations for post-MBA employment?

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