Business Education

I’m slowly making my way through Clay Christensen’s latest piece in HBR, "The Capitalist Dilemma," which seeks to understand why “despite historically low interest rates, corporations are sitting on massive amounts of cash and failing to invest in innovations that might foster growth.”

Christensen, along with co-author Derek van Bevers, lays out a nuanced argument, detailing three different types of innovations—performance-improving, efficiency, and market-creating—and argues that various incentives have combined to drive “companies [to] invest primarily in efficiency innovations, which eliminate jobs, rather than market-creating innovations, which generate them.”

Christensen and van Bevers explore the reasons driving this shift and also lay out four proposed solutions. One called “Rebalancing Business Schools” caught my eye because it echoes something I’ve been thinking about and am starting to believe is a significant shortcoming in how we think about businesses.

From that section:

Much as it pains us to say it, a lot of the blame for the capitalist’s dilemma rests with our great schools of business, including our own. In mapping the terrain of business and management, we have routinely separated disciplines that can only properly be understood in terms of their interactions with one another, and we’ve advanced success metrics that are at best superficial and at worst harmful.

Finance is taught independently in most business schools. Strategy is taught independently, too—as if strategy could be conceived and implemented without finance. The reality is that finance will eat strategy for breakfast any day—financial logic will overwhelm strategic imperatives—unless we can develop approaches and models that allow each discipline to bring its best attributes to cooperative investment decision making. As long as we continue this siloed approach to the MBA curriculum and experience, our leading business schools run the risk of falling farther and farther behind the needs of sectors our graduates aspire to lead.

The intricate workings of the resource allocation process often are not studied at all in business schools. As a result, MBAs graduate with little sense of how decisions in one part of the enterprise relate to or reflect priorities in other parts. One of our alumni noted, “The only way we learned what projects to invest in was in FIN I [the introductory finance course at HBS].” A whole host of questions goes unasked—and unanswered: How do I identify conditions that signal opportunity for long-term, growth-creating investment? What proxies for estimated future cash flows can I use in evaluating an investment that is pointed toward a new market? How do we identify and build innovations that will help noncustomers perform jobs they need to get done? When are the traditional metrics of IRR and NPV most appropriate, and when are they likely to lead us astray? Since the functions of the enterprise are interdependent, we should mirror this in our teaching.

And lest one think that this is an academic question, removed from reality, Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, articulated a similar idea at the 2011 annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway:

Costco of course is a business that became the best in the world in its category. And it did it with an extreme meritocracy, and an extreme ethical duty—self-imposed to take all its cost advantages as fast as it could accumulate them and pass them on to the customers. And of course they’ve created ferocious customer loyalty. It’s been a wonderful business to watch—and of course strange things happen when you do that and when you do that long enough. Costco has one store in Korea that will do over $400 million in sales this year. These are figures that can’t exist in retail, but of course they do. So that’s an example of somebody having the right managerial system, the right personnel solution, the right ethics, the right diligence, etcetera, etcetera. And that is quite rare. If once or twice in your lifetime you’re associated with such a business you’re a very lucky person.

The more normal business is a business like, say, General Motors, which became the most successful business of its kind in the world and wiped out its common shareholders… what, last year? That is a very interesting story—and if I were teaching business school I would have Value-Line-type figures that took me through the entire history of General Motors and I would try to relate the changes in the graph and data to what happened in the business. To some extent, they faced a really difficult problem—heavily unionized business, combined with great success, and very tough competitors that came up from Asia and elsewhere in Europe. That is a real problem which of course… to prevent wealth from killing people—your success turning into a disadvantage—is a big problem in business.

And so there are all these wonderful lessons in those graphs. I don’t know why people don’t do it. The graphs don’t even exist that I would use to teach. I can’t imagine anybody being dumb enough not to have the kind of graphs I yearn for. [Laughter] But so far as I know there’s no business school in the country that’s yearning for these graphs. Partly the reason they don’t want it is if you taught a history of business this way, you’d be trampling on the territories of all the professors and sub-disciplines—you’d be stealing some of their best cases. And in bureaucracies, even academic bureaucracies, people protect their own turf. And of course a lot of that happened at General Motors. [Applause]

I really think the world … that’s the way it should be taught. Harvard Business School once taught it much that way—and they stopped. And I’d like to make a case study as to why they stopped. [Laughter] I think I can successfully guess. It’s that the course of history of business trampled on the territory of barons of other disciplines like the baron of marketing, the baron of finance, the baron of whatever.

IBM is an interesting case. There’s just one after another that are just utterly fascinating. I don’t think they’re properly taught at all because nobody wants to do the full sweep.

— h/t Farnam Street Blog

And that's just part of it: combining business lenses into a holistic view of what it means to build a profitable, sustainable business. An idea I've been toying with is that the act of creating truly unique and valuable businesses draws from the arts and humanities as well, that all great businesses, which are essentially collections of people creating things to sell to other groups of people, "make our hearts sing."