Book Review: ‘Ahead of the Curve’ by Philip Delves Broughton, published by Penguin Press

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In September I reviewed an article in Director magazine that produced an overview of this book and it motivated me to read the full version. It proved to be a highly informative and entertaining account of the author’s two years at Harvard Business School, well written and fascinating for anyone who is working in the learning field. Whether Harvard would appreciate it as much is doubtful because, though it has some positive things to say about the overall experience, there are many well argued and fundamental criticisms that challenge the whole concept of the international MBA offered by Harvard and other similar top schools. However, Harvard’s brand is so strong that they do not need to worry, at least in the short term.

The book is written as a clever combination of three elements. First, a vivid description of what it is like to be in a class of ninety – yes ninety – bright and ambitious MBA students and to be subject to the case method. This still remains the dominant teaching approach, even if now supported with some new technology and lots of visiting Harvard alumni. The second feature is a lot of well thought through discussion of what an MBA course is trying to do and the extent to which it succeeds. There are some excellent insights into what the author and the other MBA students are thinking, with a lot of critical feedback from the non-USA students, who produce some devastating criticism of the USA focus and Harvard’s complacent style. Many seem to be keeping quiet, gritting their teeth and going through the motions, just to get the certificate which will mark them out as special when they return to their own lands.

The third element of the content is a surprising bonus; some brilliant and easy to follow descriptions of a few of the concepts that the author found to be profound and useful. I knew enough about most of them – for instance Porter’s five forces – to be able to judge that the concepts were well understood and explained; for someone who has not been involved in business school level training before, the book would be an excellent way of picking up some fundamentals.

The book ends with the story of Broughton’s search for a job after his two years and the dilemma he faces. The course makes him question and challenge the motivation of many on the course who, despite questioning the role and status of USA investment bankers and management consultants, are lured there because of the money and the kudos. The author is tempted this way but, in the end, prefers to retain his self respect and be true to his values. This leaves him temporarily unemployed and, no doubt, with the time to write a book about the Harvard experience!

It would be fascinating to know how he feels about the investment now, two years on, and how many of the 40% of his fellow students who were lured into investment banking and consultancy will regret that decision now that a global recession is upon us. Though, as Broughton makes clear, the extent and power of the Harvard alumni network are quite staggering and they tend to look after their own first.
Certainly this is a book that is well worth reading, a painless way to learn more about business topics and the world of the business school.

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