Stefano Harney: 'For most people, the crisis has only just begun'

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The Independent Online

What should an MBA look like after the crisis? The very question resonates with everything that is wrong with the qualification – indeed everything that is wrong with business education in general. Because only from the very particular position of "business leadership" could someone even remotely begin to talk about life after the economic crisis. And it's this very particular position of leadership that business students are being invited to inhabit, especially in the MBA.

Of course, the business press is full of talk of recovery, of green shoots and an end to the crisis. But the sources of this viewpoint are those leaders of business and government who so badly misunderstand their own estrangement from society. MBA programmes often promise to produce leaders who are a breed apart, who are in a class by themselves, who stand out in a crowd. This confident talk of the end in sight to the crisis and the beginning of recovery proves that they have succeeded only too well.

For most people, the crisis has only just begun, and when I say most people I am talking about 95 per cent of the world's population. You have to stand out pretty far from a crowd not to see that the real crisis in job loss, foreclosed homes, lost pensions, closed health clinics, understaffed schools, and poorly maintained train tracks has only just begun.

You have really to be a breed apart not to recognise that for many people this was the last crisis, and they will never recover like shares on the stock market. And you do, indeed, have to think that you are in a different class to imagine that the destruction to society that has been wrought by this crisis will not touch you.

All of this would be bad enough, especially given the way business schools have rebranded themselves as places that prepare people, as the Harvard MBA slogan goes, "to make a difference in the world." But the impoverishment of society is not an ethical issue alone, it is an analytical issue, and one business leaders are already proving they do not understand. Because society is not just the beneficiary but the generator of business wealth, and to beggar it is, sooner or later, to beggar business.

But of course this is not what the MBA teaches. It may teach beneficence, but it does not teach mutual dependence. Business is very well understood as the producer of wealth, but very badly understood as dependent on an educated, healthy, creative, and happy society. Business may help to create these conditions, but such conditions equally make business possible. They are more than resources. They are sources. It is not a question of businesses giving back to society. It is a question of giving back what was borrowed. And at the moment, it is business that is in default.

So under these conditions of default, we should not be asking what an MBA should look like after the crisis, but in the midst of the crisis. A crisis MBA would try to lead students back to this mutual relationship, not away to the business-class lounge. This would mean redefining a competitive business environment not as one of low regulation and low tax, but high education and high-speed trains. And it would mean not standing apart from the crowd when the deal goes bad, but embracing, like a real leader, the full social and environmental consequences of one's actions.

The writer is chair in strategy, culture, and society at Queen Mary, University of London

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