‘A post crisis case study’, Schumpeter column, Economist, July 31st 2010

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Like most of Schumpeter’s weekly contributions this article is insightful and topical. The focus of the article is the appointment of a new Dean of Harvard Business School – Nitin Nohria – who will be the first non-American to take that role. Anyone who has worked in academia will find it worth reading just for the quote attributed to Henry Kissinger – that ‘academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small’.

However the stakes are not small at Harvard because it is such a well known brand and a powerhouse of business education; apparently four fifths of the world’s case study material comes from Harvard. This claimed proportion presumably refers to what has been published for general use and excludes all the tailored adaptations of the case study method that are a feature of many in-company programmes.

Harvard has taken a battering during the last few years for two reasons. First because so many of the villains of corporate collapses and the financial crisis were Harvard men (yes, men) and second because many case studies and Harvard Business Review articles praised those who caused the problems, with Enron as the most high profile example.

Nohria’s position as a non-American is regarded as a symbol of Harvard’s desire to change though the fact that he is an academic and Harvard insider may work the other way. He clearly accepts that there are problems of reputation as he talks about a period of ‘extraordinary innovation’ which he sees as necessary to bring things back on track. It seems that his strong belief that management should be more of profession – see review below – will be part of this push for innovation, a way of ensuring a more ethical approach. Schumpeter’s view – which I tend to share – is that this will be more likely to hold him back.

It is Nohria’s desire to make Harvard more international in its approach that is more likely to make his reputation. He also wishes to change the case study method to be more practical, focussing on current real life issues rather than being rationalisations of past successes and failures. The problem for Harvard however is that this is only copying what some other Schools – particularly those in Europe – have already been doing for some time; Schumpeter might also have mentioned that Learning & Development specialists in many top companies have also been operating this way on internal programmes for some time.

The article predicts that, despite the appointment of a non-American, Harvard will find it tough to stay on top of business education during the 21st century. It is hard to disagree.

Click here to read the article in full;

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