As I wrote earlier in the week, there is quite a debate going over at the Harvard Business Review website about whether business schools are to blame for the meltdown. There are 50 comments, nearly all thoughtful. After reading them and thinking about it more, I guess where I am at is that, yes, the question of whether business schools are to blame is kind of silly -- they are just one part of a bigger system that needs overall repair. But I tilted further toward believing they are part of the problem after first reading a long and rather pompous defense of business schools (which seems to accept no responsibility at all) from "Professor Sir Andrew Likierman," Dean of the London Business School and then a response from from Robin Humphreys, who described himself as a non-MBA with 40 years of experience. Sir Andrew rambles on, but here is the key part for understanding Humphreys' response:
As to where our graduates go – it is true that a high proportion of them in recent years have gone into investment banking. There is a very simple explanation for this: investment banks were paying the most to attract the best talent. That, too was part of the normal operation of the market cycle – and it is now correcting itself. Business schools will continue to attract talent and continue to train people to be better managers. They will continue to be places where a wide variety of ideas are generated. They should not be convenient scapegoats for today’s financial problems.
Here is Humphreys' reaction:
Andrew Likierman makes the point that the investment banks were paying the most to attract the best talent. The 'talent' churned out by business schools is rather like the 'talent' responsible for the British economy over the past 12 years. It has an extremely narrow focus on "the numbers" to the exclusion of all other metrics of organisational performance and a similar belief that the numbers are all that matters. Talk to the vast majority of MBA graduates of any business school about the relevance of managing and leading people to achieve outcomes and a blank look descends over their faces. They don't do people, as they cannot be measured in black & white terms; it's all grey.
As for the ethical perspective, why are we surprised about the levels of greed that have been seen in the pursuit of "the numbers"? People at work do what they believe they are measured on and what they believe they are rewarded for. It's like night following day - no surprise at all.
If you read Sir Andrew's comment, on the surface, it all seems completely reasonable in some ways, but the thing disturbs me is a complete refusal to accept any responsibility at all-- it is an argument for inaction (or perhaps impotence, another way to read it is that it is an argument that business schools are powerless pawns in the marketplace). Regardless, it is an absolute refusal to accept even a tiny bit of responsibility for the problem,-- and thus, by implication to accept even a tiny bit of responsibility for changing things. I am reminded of the F.M. Cornford's 1908 classic book (which I have blogged about before and you can get free online) Microcosmographia Academica. Cornford has a lovely line about academic politics: "There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing." In the great tradition of academic politics, Sir Andrew offers us an argument for doing nothing. In this vein, Cornford offers many arguments for doing nothing, but perhaps the one that applies best to Sir Andrew is "The Principle of the Wedge," which Cornford explains is "you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future -- expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy."
Also, Sir Andrew makes seems to present business schools as places where many ideas float around and none really rule roost. As I will be writing later in the HBR discussion,although business schools do have many different disciplines, the top dog is usually economics and the often not very implicit assumption that economics in its rawest form -- unbridled selfish self-interest -- is how human beings will and can behave. And even if we could stop them from their selfish pursuits, it would be a bad idea. There are other voices in all business schools, but this is usually the one that is the loudest and most powerful.
Check out the rest of the debate, it is fascinating.