Monday, August 18, 2008

The Harvard MBA's guide to complexity and uncertainty

Former journalist Philip Delves Broughton chronicles what a $170,000 got him in his new book "What They Teach you at Harvard Business School." The book investigates a two year experience which starts with a request to keep your guitar, your cynicism, and your history books at home, and instead bring "the diverse rest of you," while the school accrues a pool of like-minded, unimaginative students and fills their heads with mantras, power point presentations, and test cases.

In the end, as Christopher Hart of the Sunday Times writes, Harvard Business School "is pervaded with an oppressive atmosphere of unquestioning obedience and creepy religiosity." And for all its importance and reputation "you feel that HBS neither understands the complexity nor acknowledges the chaotic unpredictability of the world economy any better than anyone else."

It should not be surprising that graduates of the school--people now run the World Bank, the American Treasury, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, and have an alum as President of the United States--preside over a country, and an economy that often seems has haphazard and slapdash as a disorganized trip to the bathroom.

What did surprise me was that the HBS seems to attract conforming, religious types. But the reason now seems so simple: faced with the overwhelming task of assimilating disparate pieces of financial information in an overwhelmingly interconnected and chaotic financial world, the best defense mechanism is good old fashioned stubbornness and lack-of-imagination. Normal people would completely balk or be baffled at attempting to reconcile the world economy into power point presentations--students at HBS come wired to do exactly that.

In the same way, when faced with a vast, complex, uncontrolable universe, many people find religion's Cliff Note style answers wildly appealing. It takes a certain person to overlook the inconsistencies, the wild variances, the depth of injustice in the real world--things that break normal people down. I find it telling that the same virtue of unquestioning is rewarded at business school. After all, graduates have to stand in front of people and shepherd them through the maze of unknowns. But to do so they must be true believers.

I was once baffled that an institution as highly regarded as the Harvard Business School could churn out someone like George W. Bush. But it turns out he's just the type of person they're looking for. I'd rather just have them throw up their hands and admit they really have no idea and it would be a lot easier if we'd just go along for the ride without much complaint.

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