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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: Management

PD works as change does in nature. It affects a part of a system, but preserves the whole; it is incremental in the short term, but capable of producing dramatic evolution in the long run. This is the same way in which nature balances stability and turbulence with a complex set of interlocking and ever-changing dynamics. It’s insights like these that make The Power of Positive Deviance this year’s best business book on management.

Back to School

Business schools were subjected to repeated criticism before the economic meltdown, but the volume and frequency of the complaints have increased as the deleterious side effects of the profit-maximizing framework have become clearer. In 2007, Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana wrote the instant classic From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton University Press). (See “Uncategorical Insight,” by James O’Toole, s+b, Winter 2008.) This year, a team of Khurana’s colleagues at Harvard Business School, Srikant M. Datar, David A. Garvin, and Patrick G. Cullen, deliver Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads. This tome reports the findings of a cross-sectional academic study of the leading business schools in the U.S. and Europe.

The target audience for the book is deans of business schools and administrators of business programs, but the book is relevant for anyone interested in the evolution of management ideas and the way they are deployed. The authors address four broad themes: the need for change in management education, the need for a new balance between the “rigor” of research and the relevance demanded by practitioners, the redesign of the MBA curriculum, and the challenge of implementation.

Reinforcing Khurana’s charge that academic pretenses have dwindled in business schools, the central metaphor used here is the business school as commercial enterprise, with value propositions (MBA programs) designed for different customer segments. Viewed as an industry, business schools have done well, with their production of MBAs rising sixfold over the past 30 years, and their revenues becoming an increasingly large portion of the overall financial base of their universities.

So what is the problem? Today, the demand for the core product of business schools — the two-year, full-time MBA — is sputtering, especially at the second-tier schools, and the gap is being filled by a host of competing products, such as part-time and executive MBA offerings and substitute qualifications. This has led to what the authors characterize as a “hollowing out” of the degree. In addition, considering that up to 75 percent of the graduating classes of some schools go on to careers in finance and consulting, the postcrash shrinkage of these sectors further threatens the future demand for MBAs. But the authors appear to have few concerns about business schools recovering their institutional purpose or mission: Instead, they think that business schools need to reassess and rebalance their commercial offerings in response to changes in the marketplace.

Rethinking the MBA makes the cut as a best business book this year because its conclusions, grounded in data and assembled coherently, present a clear, persuasive case for change in business school curricula — and because they are likely to be taken seriously in management academia. This book evokes an ambitious future for business schools themselves. The authors use the Be-Know-Do leadership triad, made famous by the U.S. Army at West Point, as a handy framework on which to base their primary contention: that ever since the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Foundation reports of the 1950s, business schools have overemphasized the facts, frameworks, and theories of the “know” component at the expense of the skills, capabilities, and techniques of “do” and the values, attitudes, and beliefs of “be.” And they identify eight unmet needs of students, many of which are related to “being” and “doing.” These include gaining a global perspective; developing leadership and integration skills; acting creatively and innovatively; and understanding the limits of models, markets, and other frameworks.

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