Book review: The Personal MBA, by Josh Kaufman

Business schools get few marks from the self-taught author of a thoughtful guide to getting an MBA-level education on the cheap.

by Philip Delves Broughton.
Last Updated: 28 Feb 2011

The MBA is the degree that refuses to die. Stab it with the charge that it's overpriced and overvalued, it feints and runs away. Pummel it with blame for the financial crisis, it rises bruised from the canvas to fight another day. Feed it garlic and expose it to sunlight, and still it writhes, gasps and holds on to life. If only Latin and Greek had such resilience, they might have held their place in the academic ranks.

Even among businesspeople, the MBA is a source of almost theological division. On one side are those who say it's essential, notably the large finance and consulting companies which plunder business schools each year to fill their lower ranks.

On the other side are those who say it's a worthless, academic qualification which proves nothing about someone's talent for business. The best you can hope for out of your tens of thousands of pounds in tuition is some new friends and some job interviews. It's a cripplingly expensive form of Linked In. As Matt Damon's character says to a Harvard undergraduate in Good Will Hunting: 'You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f***in' education you coulda got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.'

This second view is the starting point for Josh Kaufman's The Personal MBA. Kaufman left the University of Cincinnati and went to work for Procter and Gamble. He briefly pondered applying for an MBA, but, as his manager at P&G told him, 'if you put the same amount of time and energy you'd spend completing an MBA into doing good work and improving your skills, you'll do just as well'. So Kaufman set about educating himself. He didn't just stick to the classic functional areas of business but also studied psychology, physical science and systems theory. He found his self-education more than equipped him to compete with the MBAs at P&G.

Furthermore, he didn't take on the debt they had to obtain their graduate degree. He never found himself on the classic MBA hamster wheel of borrowing to pay for a degree to get a job to pay off what you borrowed. As he writes in the introduction, 'with heavy debt loads and questionable returns, MBA programs simply aren't a good investment - they're a trap for the unwary'. It's a good point and one business schools need to take more seriously. Many are downright dishonest about the worth of what they are selling.

Kaufman has written his own curriculum with the purpose of helping people to recognise patterns in business. This is certainly the best approach. It is rather like learning drills in sport. New things will always be happening in business. There will always be uncertainty, but much remains the same. The patterns of human behaviour are variations around constant themes. Kaufman talks about value creation, finance and marketing, but he also has valuable chapters on 'working with yourself', 'working with others' and 'the human mind'. Each chapter is broken down into page-long summaries of key ideas. Under marketing, for example, he not only talks about finding buyers and setting prices but also about controversy and reputation.

If there is a failing with the book, it is in its abundance. Kaufman has read so much that he wishes to share, there is a tendency to peck at rich ideas and then move on. He has so much to cover, his examples tend to be thin. But this is a book with an accompanying website, so perhaps the gaps will be filled in there. He is right when he says that successful executives do not need to know everything about every area of business. They need to know enough to be able to ask the right questions.

There is a constant struggle in business literature, between over-simplification and excessive complexity. It's either the vapid 10 Rules for Success, or the over- theoretical analysis of organisational behaviour. Kaufman makes a sterling effort at threading this needle, but, as he says, this is a book to be read with others and referred to at crucial moments, rather than read in a single sitting.

Which returns us to his larger point. Can Kaufman and others ever really usurp the MBA? The financial crisis has certainly led to more intense questioning of the value of the degree. The best schools will doubtless survive, attracting students interested in the networks as much as the education. Unimaginative companies will continue to use these schools as filters for hiring. But the idea of cutting the cost of a business education to 'a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library' plus practical experience is good, fair and has every right to succeed.

The Personal MBA: A world-class business education in a single volume
Josh Kaufman
Portfolio Penguin £12.99

- Philip Delves Broughton is a journalist and author of What They Teach You at Harvard Business School: My two years inside the cauldron of capitalism

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