Harvard Business School: The Reality Show?

Harvard_shield-BusinessA fascinating front-page article in the New York Times reported on Harvard Business School’s attempt to achieve “gender equity”. HBS has had problems attracting and retaining female faculty. They comprise 22% of the faculty and the “pipeline” that leads to tenure for them is a slender one (this is slightly worse than most fields of science and engineering). In addition, female students seemed unable to keep up with the men in class participation, which comprises up to 50% of the grade for courses. There were reports of men, particularly those with finance backgrounds, taking control of the discussions and intimidating female faculty and students alike with weapons ranging from their knowledge of arcane mathematics to inappropriate comments about the women’s clothes. They “openly ruminated” on who they wanted to “kill, make love to or marry” (they used cruder language). The NYT journalist, Jodi Kantor, described the classes as developing the “overheated dynamics of reality shows”. And that set me thinking…

I don’t watch reality shows so I was interested to read what the critics had to say:

“Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity. Much of the criticism has centered around the use of the word “reality”, and such shows’ attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not present reality in ways both implicit (participants being placed in unusual situations) and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows), that they make celebrities out of untalented people who do not deserve fame, and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism.” (Wikipedia)

The last sentence in particular stuck with me: “humiliate and exploit”, “make celebrities out of untalented people who do not deserve fame”, “glamorize vulgarity and materialism”. Sounds like the corporate world to me. Perhaps it’s American Business that has become the reality show and Harvard Business School a simulacrum of it?

Power and Passion

The report from HBS showed the widespread pursuit of status and relationships behind the rational façade presented by the modern business school. At Harvard there has been a social sorting process taking place, with your rank depending on how much money you could spend to keep up socially. At the top of the heap was “Section X”, a secret society of ultra-wealthy individuals, who took lavish vacations and were rumoured to hold decadent parties. Women, single ones in particular, were depicted as torn between their academic studies and their search for a relationship with high status males, their “last chance among the cream-of-the-crop-type people”.

A few days later, in a follow up article, headed “Class Is Seen Dividing Harvard Business School”, Jodi Kantor showcased some of the responses to the original report. What comes across is that HBS was not always like this. Suzy Welch, wife of Jack Welch of GE fame, and a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, expressed surprise at the culture of spending depicted in the article.  Another commentator contrasted the present culture with that of the 1970s when, he claimed, HBS was “downright egalitarian”. Others blamed foreigners – it was ultra-wealthy students from South America, the Middle East and Asia who were corrupting the system, not middle-class Americans.

All of this seems to support the criticisms by HBS professor Rakesh Khurana in his 2007 book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, in which he contended that the business schools have lost their sense of purpose and the vision of management as a profession. He argued that firms, especially those in the consulting and finance industries, are now hiring MBAs, not because of what they learn at business school, but because they have been through a rigorous selection process and they are likely to have a valuable network of social contacts that will help them and their employers snag lucrative business opportunities. The more elite the school they have been to, the better. HBS may proclaim that its students come for the knowledge and it may publicize academic achievement, but its real competitive advantage over other schools may be its selection process and the alumni network. Why and how would you change that?

An Ecological Perspective

In The New Ecology of Leadership I have a chapter on the business schools and where they are in the ecocycle. Ecocycle of BSchools S B&W

In a diagram I show them as a mature industry that has become organized along industrial lines – “factories”. The MBA degree has been steadily commoditized, with the full-time MBA “hollowed-out” and the qualification made available in many other formats, including online. Most of the BSchools themselves are cycling in the success trap, held there by the positive rewards from what they have been doing. This is a context of power that renders the organization insensitive to what is going on around it and makes change very difficult:

Thus, from an ecological perspective HBS is showing all the characteristics of an ecosystem that is becoming brittle and vulnerable to disruption. Its business model – value proposition, resources, processes, and values – has become exquisitely well-moulded to the current realities and there is no compelling reason (aka crisis) for it to change. Without crisis, change in ecosystems takes place on the edges and in the open patches, never in the core, which is choked with hierarchy and power.

Logical and Eco-logical Rationality

At the root of Harvard Business School’s problem is the largely-tacit logical, rational model of human nature on which the school was founded and still operates. I have written elsewhere of Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of the human mind to a rider (reason) on the back of an elephant (intuition). There are, no doubt, a wide variety of views among the faculty, but the impression one gets is that the “dominant coalition” at HBS firmly believes that the rider is or ought to be in charge and that the elephant should be either ignored or suppressed by reason. This view is increasingly at odds with the evidence that the elephant of intuition rules and that the rider is a rationalizer of whatever it wants to do. If this is the case then knowledge, instead of being power, becomes the servant of power and rationality becomes a cloak for the projection of that power. People using their prowess at mathematics as a weapon of intimidation would seem to fall into this category.

HBS’ attempts to change the situation in the school come across as an engineering approach to a complex, wicked problem that ignores the role of contexts that evoke the very behaviours they profess to abhor. Their solution appears to be to teach women to behave more like men. Now I am all in favour of teaching MBA students explicitly how to gain and use power, but only within an intellectual framework that emphasizes power’s ubiquitous role in management and the ways in which it is both used and abused. Teaching the use of power under the cloak of rationality makes its use and abuse virtually undiscussable. That’s the current reality.

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