Harvard Business School 30 Years Later: Bring Back Joe

I attended my 30th reunion at Harvard Business School 2 weeks ago.

I learned some trivia; e.g. the only student from the prior year (class of 1975) who took his graduation picture without wearing a tie was one George W. Bush.

More importantly—the changes in HBS are a reflection of the changes business in general took in the last 3 decades. They don’t bode well for trust, at the individual, corporate or socio-economic level.

30 years ago, HBS viewed itself and was viewed as graduating leaders of industry. Management consulting and investment banking together were the “hot” new segments in which graduates took jobs, rather than traditional industry.

30 years ago, there were a limited number of courses, with emphasis put on cross-referencing concepts among the courses. Many of the faculty had significant business experience.

And 30 years ago, most cases (remember, HBS uses the case method) personalized the manager’s role. They’d begin with something like, “As Joe gulped down his first coffee, he pondered the situation of…” and ended with, “What should Joe do? What would you do?”
3 cases a day, 5 days a week, for two years, this was the intensely pragmatic lesson HBS taught: what’s the problem, and what should you do about it?

30 years later, the percentage of graduates going to consulting, investment banking and private equity is up quite a bit—a third or more. More interestingly, the sources of incoming students are parallel—about a third now come from those same investment banks and consulting firms.

Today, HBS offers many more courses, but they are more stand-alone, with less cross-referencing—the experience is less integrated. Faculty are more likely to be professional academics—and not with degrees in business, but in other disciplines. They are less likely to have business experience.

But most interesting, Joe is reportedly gone from the cases. In his place? Structural analyses—of competitive power, economics, strategies.

HBS is a microcosm. Its view of business is less about commerce, more about competition. Less about managers, more about management. Less about relationships, more about systems and processes.

Business itself remains much the same—except for the MBAs and exec ed graduates who are being trained to believe it can be conducted through mental constructs, rather than through human interactions.

The academicization of business has been critiqued before by Warren Bennis and James O’Toole in Harvard Business Review (How Business Schools Lost Their Way, May 2005). What has gone unnoticed is that the world is starting to go in precisely the opposite way.

The biggest single characteristic of business in future is that everything is getting connected. In a connected world, a focus on competitive relationships isn’t useful. What we need is an emphasis on connectivity, trust and collaboration.

HBS needs to teach less competitive differentiation and more collaborative value-adding; less how to win supply chain negotiations and more how everyone gains by operating them as a system; less about transactions, more about relationships.
Trust is the new glue; and HBS has lost some ground in the last 30 years in teaching it.

Where’s a good place to start? You could do worse than to bring back Joe.

Update: Thanks to Martin Calle at Advertising Age  for choosing this article for the Carnival of Consumer Marketing.