No, we shouldn't shut down the business school

REVIEW: Nick Perrett unpicks B-school professor Martin Parker's critique of the MBA.

by Nick Perrett
Last Updated: 14 Sep 2018

Of one thing there is no doubt: business school professor Martin Parker doesn’t just want to ‘shut down the business school’ as the central institution of executive education, he wants to run one himself. Or, perhaps more precisely, ‘to find a circus, mafia, or sect inspired way of organising a new business school’ in which he has a role of some sort. Confused? As was I.

There’s nothing structurally wrong with the book, which approaches the subject like any good business school case study would: defining the problem; setting out the solution and concluding with how to get there. So, which part did I take issue with? The unfortunate answer is: all of it.

The central thrust of Parker’s argument is that business schools teach one form of organisation – market managerial capitalism – and as such are fundamentally flawed. He looks at this more broadly in the context of how people organise themselves, but I lost sight of that potentially interesting question in a barrage of sensationalist, tabloid writing. Statements such as ‘for us to assume that global capitalism can continue as it is, means a path to destruction’ point to what appears to be Parker's actual objective: the end of capitalism.

The author spares no one in his assault, from his own customers – ‘(it’s) not enough to moan about moderately intelligent monkeys in suits, entertaining though such a characterisation is’ – to the faculty and business school itself – being a place that ‘teaches people to become cold hearted bastards... get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves’.

We are lured deeper, to believe there is a ‘hidden curriculum’, some master plan behind why these schools do what they do. The problem is that the book offers little quantitative or qualitative data to substantiate this argument.

This lack of rigour extends to the book’s central premise – the logical fallacy that MBAs are the root cause of the 2008 financial crisis.

Confusion between causation and correlation has undone many a convincing argument over the centuries. Just because MBAs run companies, it does not follow that MBAs caused the global financial crisis. The idea that ‘young people who are considering studying business in the global north know that the business school is a tarnished institution and that business people are considered by many to be crooks or dullards’ is not proven, and is certainly not a strong enough premise to shut the business school.

There are, of course, ways to pin blame on business schools for the financial crisis, I could say ‘CDOs caused the crisis, CDOs were invented in 1987 by Drexel Burnham Lambert, Drexel was run by Mike Milkin, Mike had a Wharton MBA, therefore MBAs caused the financial crisis.’ As it happens Mike was also a criminal – perhaps criminals caused the crisis? Or maybe all MBAs are criminals? No one would take such arguments seriously. I hope.

In fact, the data could be interpreted quite differently: 71% of global CEOs do not have an MBA and that is what caused the global financial crisis. 

So much for the problem. What about Parker’s solution, which is essentially to create a ‘school for organising’, which explores alternatives to market managerial capitalism such as co-operatives, charities, sports clubs and so on?

Suffice it to say I wouldn’t queue for a place at this school. The reader will sense Parker hasn’t actually experienced the other aspects of the MBA curriculum he so wants to destroy.  Speaking as a customer I can certainly swear that the purpose of my learning accounting was not to ‘find and hide profits’. Marketing study did indeed ‘work for people who buys things, not just the people who sell them’ – in fact marketing, taught well at HBS, would absolutely allow you to address ‘the marketing of non-profits’ which Parker holds up as an example of his new world order. Strategy certainly never ‘assumed hierarchy’ and could be collective – there was no hidden curriculum to reinforce the ‘inequalities of power’.

My fear for the customers of this anti-capitalist utopia is that they’d get a very interesting introduction to all the different ways humans can organise themselves (that is a course I would personally enjoy even!), but the rest of their education into how businesses actually work would be sub-par.

I know this to be true of one discipline at least – marketing – which becomes apparent as Parker moves into his final section, ‘how do we make this happen?’. Rule 101 of any marketing course is to start with the target customer, yet Parker seems oddly dismissive of his potential customers, questioning ‘whether students really know what they want’.  Nowhere in the book is there any evidence, quantitative or otherwise, that Parker has really engaged with potential customers. Had he done so, he might have addressed how his school would achieve some of the other things students look for in an MBA: a network for their future, the ability to spot patterns across industries, the agility to change industries and finding a new meaning in their careers.

If there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Parker, it is that no one has yet backed building his school, for had they done so my fear would be that much money would have been lost – my gut being that the institution would quickly close, having failed to understand, or find, its customer. Perhaps it would even make a good MBA case study.

Nick Perrett is director at BookomiIf you’d like to run a business event series in your company and/or meet some brilliant authors, contact hello@bookomi.com. Shut Down the Business School: What’s Wrong With Executive Education, by Martin Parker, is published by Pluto Books.

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