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Published: November 25, 2008

 
 

Best Business Books 2008: Miscellany

That belief, or, more accurately, hope, remained alive until the end of World War II. Then the world changed, and with it the raison d’etre of the business school. Khurana explains how this “very ill defined institution” came to reflect both the changing social order of its times and the changing role of business in society.

As the U.S. sought to meet the scientific challenge presented by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, the country’s business schools were called upon to play a major role. The primary agent of change was the Ford Foundation, which used its significant financial leverage to encourage radical curriculum reforms. Drawing on the work of former Ford president and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his so-called Whiz Kids, the foundation provided incentives too rich to refuse to business schools willing to put management science at the heart of their programs. In the blink of an eye, almost all top-tier schools were teaching quantitative analysis, decision theory, model building, and operations management. The old professoriate — schooled in the operating trenches of big business — were ex­truded and replaced by a young generation of “quantoids” with degrees in engineering and economics.

To the degree this shift in focus and staff introduced intellectual rigor to the educational enterprise, it was positive; but the negative consequence was that the nonquantifiable stuff of leadership — judgment, ethics, people, Handy’s “why” — was lost. And out with the old went the original high purpose of the institution. From there it was a hop, skip, and jump to where we are today: topflight business schools that are recruiting grounds for investment banks and private equity firms whose myopic focus on short-term profit has led, more than anything else, to the behavior we now lump under the category “Enron.”

I have telescoped Khurana’s argument, perhaps making the book seem like a polemic. In fact, it is an evenhanded, comprehensive, and exhaustively documented work demonstrating how the history of the American business school is the history of American business, reflecting the evolution from 19th-century entrepreneurial capitalism to mid-20th-century managerial capitalism to today’s investor capitalism. Criticisms of today’s business schools abound, but Khurana provides the historical perspective needed to understand how those institutions became what they are.

Fiction (Mostly)
An enduring mystery of literature is the near-total absence of great fiction set in the world of business. There are countless examples of brilliantly crafted tales of men and women who work in hospitals, governments, universities, police departments, and military settings — and more than a few excellent novels concern machinations in legal chambers. But there is no War and Peace of the corporation. This is especially puzzling because more people are engaged in business than in any other form of employment, and there is obvious high drama involved in takeovers, turnarounds, and the Darwinian competition found in the C-suite. Logically, one would expect to find more than a few great works of business fiction; yet, in practice, that’s nearly a null set.

For the last three decades, I’ve kept an eye out for a great novel that deals seriously with men and women of the corporation, and the closest I’ve come is Cameron Hawley’s Executive Suite (published in 1952 and made into a film starring William Holden, Fredric March, and Barbara Stanwyck by MGM two years later). Hawley had a real grasp of what goes on at the top of large companies, and he largely avoided stereotyping executives. But he, his book, and the film are now dated and all but forgotten. This leaves us today with an empty field.

So I eagerly picked up Minding the Store: Great Writing about Business from Tolstoy to Now hoping that the editors, Robert Coles, the former James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, and Albert LaFarge, a literary agent and former deputy editor of DoubleTake magazine, had succeeded where I had failed and identified literary masterpieces that truly illuminate the lives of managers and the business challenges they face. I can report that the readings in this collection are, as billed, marvelously crafted examples of “great writing.” Sadly, though, none of the fiction, including works by such masters as John O’Hara, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Anne Beattie, Flannery O’Conner, O. Henry, Joseph Conrad, John Updike, and Leo Tolstoy, is truly about business.

 
 
 
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