Recession blame game: Philip Delves Broughton answers his critics

Delves Broughton caused a storm by suggesting that business schools were largely responsible for the financial crisis.

He is the man whom business schools love to hate, and last month they were able to get their own back by having a go at him in person. The occasion was a debate at the London campus of ESCP Europe, where Philip Delves Broughton, the journalist who wrote the exposé of Harvard Business School's MBA, was asked to explain himself before an audience of MBA students and professors.

He turned out to be a slippery target. For a start, his book, which is now a bestseller, is in no way a sober analysis of the MBA course, but more of a romp about how a relative outsider – he was Paris correspondent of The Daily Telegraph – got into, and graduated from, the most famous business school in the world. "It is about what I saw and heard – and about my own ambivalence," he explained.

In the USA, his book was called Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School on the grounds that Harvard MBAs are graded on a forced curve from best to worst. Your academic survival depends on where you are placed on the curve, he says. Throughout the book, he argues that this obsession with relative position is a recipe for misery. His book describes his own, not always successful, efforts to ignore these curves and to follow his own path.

Delves Broughton is now pursuing a successful career as a writer on business matters and is immersed in a second book – this time about sales. He also finds time for a lot of journalism and has recently been turning his attention to the global recession. He believes that the MBA is responsible for much of what has gone wrong.

"That swollen class of jargon-spewing, value-destroying financiers and consultants have done more than any other group of people to create the economic misery we find ourselves in," he wrote in a recent article in The Times.

This was the stuff that really annoyed the audience. It was too general to say that all business schools were to blame, said Davide Sola, director of ESCP Europe's London campus. And Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, while acknowledging that the MBA needed to change, said it was constantly in flux.

"The MBA has been responding to changes in business," she said. "It doesn't stay the same. That's why it has survived and why it's still the most popular business qualification in the world."

For Purcell, the value of the MBA is its practical nature. It gives students immensely diverse classmates, and the opportunity to get to know people from all over the world. It develops leadership qualities, teaches people to work in a team, and gives them high-quality knowledge in a high-class environment.

"MBA graduates say that the qualification has transformed their lives. It has changed their perspective on the world and enhanced their potential for progression. People enrol for an MBA because they want to develop, not because they want to get the highest salary in Mckinsey," said Purcell.

This did not silence Delves Broughton: "Anyone who knows anyone who works at Mckinsey knows the toll it takes. I do think business schools are terribly limited in what they're trying to convey to students about what it is like to run a company."

The most common complaint levelled at Delves Broughton is that his criticisms of the Harvard MBA do not apply more widely. "You come across as completely Harvard-centred," said Bill Williams, who has an MBA from Cranfield.

One of Delves Broughton's fiercest critics was Dr Sonia El Kahal MacLean, MBA director at Surrey University, who said her executive course at Harvard was a "life-changing experience". She has changed the MBA programme at Surrey to emulate the Harvard model.

The course she took was on negotiating skills for senior executives. It had taught her that the way to succeed in business is to play softball rather than hardball – to develop relationships with people you are doing business with so that both sides feel they have won something from a deal. "It was a revelation to me," she says.

"I think that Delves Broughton is using his Harvard experience to increase the sale of his book. This is the same thing he is claiming the MBA students are doing."

After the crunch, the MBAs bite back

Enterprising students at the University of Leicester's School of Management will fight the notion that the MBA was responsible for the global financial crisis in a conference on Monday.

The event – "Managing in turbulent times" – will bring together MBA students and employers to explore practical solutions to the recession. The message will be that far from causing the credit crunch, the MBAs of today will be instrumental in pulling the nation out of it.

"We decided to show the world that, though some of the people who got us into this meltdown are MBAs, it takes a group of unconventional MBAs to take us out of it," says Alim Abubakre, a Leicester MBA graduate and an organiser of the conference.

The main speaker at the conference is another Leicester MBA, Charles Mbire, who is chairman of MTN Uganda. MTN, the leading African telecoms corporation, is one of the official sponsors of the 2010 World Cup, in South Africa, at a time when many businesses are cutting their budgets, which is why he was asked to speak, says Abubakre.

Another speaker, Claire Young, embodies the students' entrepreneurial spirit and down-to-earth attitude. A finalist on The Apprentice last year, she won attention for her competitive spirit and now runs a thriving consultancy advising retailers and manufacturers, and has also launched a wedding company.

She is also working with the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, which encourages students to take the initiative in promoting themselves.

At Leicester, postgraduates do not always require a first degree – experience, leadership and fortitude count as well. Thomas Lynch, a course representative for the MBA students, embodies this openness. He left a children's home in Birmingham with no qualifications at the age of 15. After joining the Navy as a radio operator, he settled into a career in naval intelligence, studying English, maths, business studies, accounting, marketing and ICT along the way.

Lynch feels great things come out of adversity and hopes that the conference will illustrate this. "McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Burger King started in a depression or a recession," he says. "Now would be the right time to start a business, coming out with an MBA. The MBA alone isn't going to allow us to progress in this current climate. The conference [can] create networking opportunities for us."

The conference was the students' idea, and academics at Leicester have for some time been looking at the "degree of complicity" of the orthodox management programmes and the MBA curriculum in the current crisis. The school hopes this focus will help give its 53 MBA students resilience, flexibility and a positive attitude to cope with unexpected challenges.

Pamela Ann Smith

New curricula for a changing climate

If business schools and their profit culture are really to blame for the recession, they aren't admitting it – but they are reviewing their programmes to reflect the changed climate.

"There's no use pretending otherwise – business schools did not see it coming," says Stefan Szymanski, associate dean for MBA programmes at Cass Business School, in the City of London.

"While some individuals warned of unsustainable growth, most academics were caught out by the speed and severity of the collapse," he says. "We are not alone in this, but, given our claim to understand how business works, we have fewer excuses than most."

At Cass an internal audit is in progress, led by an ethics task force, into the school's teaching and learning practices. "To prove our worth, we have to show how systematic knowledge can be translated into practical results," says Szymanski.

Managers, he believes, need to see themselves as stewards of society's resources, in the same way that doctors dedicate themselves to saving lives or academics to the pursuit of knowledge.

Elsewhere, some academics are defensive. They believe the economy collapsed precisely because the basic risk management principles they teach were forgotten in the rush for profit. "Good MBA programmes point out that you can't use averages as a rule of thumb," says Andrew Burke, director of graduate programmes at Cranfield School of Management.

Harvard Business School's emphasis on case studies, he says, is a lop-sided way of learning. "It's a gamble. Students fall back on the idea that, if there are six cases, and in five of them one strategy has been pursued, it's the one that will work best. Well, not necessarily.

"Analysis is what's important. In the current downturn, for example, the received wisdom is that paths to growth need to be curtailed, and you need to concentrate on current cash flow. But if you're in a fast-growing market that's exactly not the thing to do."

Critics say that business schools put profit above all else – but profit is still the end game for many students. Last month an American school, Tuck, announced a new MBA elective called climate change and business. "Economic growth and managerial careers will unfold in a world in which there is a price on carbon," says Professor Anant Sundaram.

"The implications are enormous – massive wealth will be created by companies that get in front of this issue."

Answering charges that no prevailing ethos runs through an MBA course, rich American schools such as Yale and Stanford have spent fortunes on new programmes designed to integrate modules previously taught separately. Smaller schools such as Hull University Business School have followed suit. In fact, the entire full-time MBA programme at Hull has been remodelled to connect different disciplines more closely.

"The changes that we've made involve the things that Hull is well known for, such as systems thinking, an understanding that business is multi-faceted," says Susan Miller, academic director for the MBA programme. "We've reorganised the teaching so that we can link courses with each other as we go through.

"We've always had an element of corporate social responsibility in the curriculum, but in the new course it's more prominent and coherent. For example, we invite companies in to explain how they've come to terms with contradictions in order to be a good player in society, rather than just a good business. Students are assessed on their analysis of what has gone on in that company."

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs, sees a danger in reacting too strongly to the recession: "We don't want to ditch some very good stuff that's going on in business schools at the moment. Developing skills is important, but there's a lot of theory and knowledge to get across, and that remains the strength of the MBA."

However, she does want to see a more holistic, integrated approach in which issues like risk management, people management, sustainability and ethics are part of the teaching in every discipline. "So, for instance, in an accounting lecture, you would consider questions of ethics, risk, moral judgement."

This change, she believes, is already happening. She points to a recently accredited school, SP Jain in Mumbai, which has integrated responsible management into its MBA programme. "For example, they insist that one of the projects all students have to do must be in a not-for-profit organisation."

Business schools, she accepts, have to stay in touch with what businesses want, so perhaps businesses themselves have to change what they look for in students.

Peter Brown

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