Why the prestigious HSB isn't all it's cracked up to beby Howard Davies / July 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite, by Duff McDonald (HarperBusiness, £25)
On the Harvard Business School (HBS) website, for the modest outlay of $8.95, you can download a case study entitled The Royal Bank of Scotland: Masters of Integration. Co-authored in 2003 by Nitin Nohria, the current Dean of the School, it is larded with extravagant praise for the management team of the time. If you are prepared to double your money you can read a similarly enthusiastic companion piece about RBS’s human resources management system.
Somehow I doubt whether they are to be found on the current curriculum at Harvard, in spite of their eminent authorship. And I hope that they are not much downloaded by strategy professors at those many schools that adopt and adapt HBS material—except for use as cautionary tales of overreach. On that score, though, they are trumped by a breathlessly enthusiastic London Business School case from 2004 entitled RBS: The Strategy of Not Having a Strategy, which, it turns out, was the secret of the bank’s “success” at the time.
The journalist Duff McDonald, whose focus in his new book The Golden Passport is almost exclusively American, does not cite these examples. But he does attack “the case method” of teaching the art of management, pioneered and maintained for decades on the banks of the Charles River. As a moment spent reflecting on RBS shows, the lessons to be drawn from such cases can often look very different with the passage of time. He also points to the common practice of professors doing paid consulting work for the companies they study, and to other murky commercial links. At the time, RBS and Harvard were partners in a management education project in Edinburgh. These practices make objectivity hard to demonstrate.
That is just one of the many charges laid against the HBS in The Golden Passport. To call it a hatchet job does not do justice to the destructive glee with which McDonald sets about his task. The case study problem is a flesh wound compared to the dismemberment that follows. Hands, arms and legs are lopped off, and the necks of several Deans, especially the incumbent, are put on the block. Harvard is blamed for the…