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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > August 2017 > Fleece academy

Fleece academy

It’s a shame this gleeful attack on Harvard Business School misses its target, says Howard Davies

The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite by Duff McDonald (HarperBusiness, £25)

On the Harvard Business School (HBS) website, for the modest outlay of $8.95, you can download a case study entitled The Royal Bank of Scotland: Masters of Integration. Coauthored in 2003 by Nitin Nohria, the current Dean of the School, it is larded with extravagant praise for the management team of the time. If you are prepared to double your money you can read a similarly enthusiastic companion piece about RBS’s human resources management system.

Somehow I doubt whether they are to be found on the current curriculum at Harvard, in spite of their eminent authorship. And I hope that they are not much downloaded by strategy professors at those many schools that adopt and adapt HBS material—except for use as cautionary tales of overreach. On that score, though, they are trumped by a breathlessly enthusiastic London Business School case from 2004 entitled RBS: The Strategy of Not Having a Strategy, which, it turns out, was the secret of the bank’s “success” at the time.

The journalist Duff McDonald, whose focus in his new book The Golden Passport is almost exclusively American, does not cite these examples. But he does attack “the case method” of teaching the art of management, pioneered and maintained for decades on the banks of the Charles River. As a moment spent reflecting on RBS shows, the lessons to be drawn from such cases can often look very different with the passage of time. He also points to the common practice of professors doing paid consulting work for the companies they study, and to other murky commercial links. At the time, RBS and Harvard were partners in a management education project in Edinburgh. These practices make objectivity hard to demonstrate.

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In Prospect’s August issue: Adam Tooze, Helen Thompson, Ben Chu, Julian Baggini, Tom Clark and Hepzibah Anderson reveal the secret history of the banking crisis and its impact over the last decade. Tooze examines the secret history itself, suggesting the work done to repair the world’s finances could mean another crisis is just around the corner. Chu asks why more people at the top of the banks that failed haven’t faced more serious repercussions, and Anderson shows how post-crash Britain has retreated into cosiness. Elsewhere in the issue Alison Wolf asks whether universities are doing any good, and David Goldblatt explores how the decision to take football off free-to-view television in Argentina could backfire for the government. Also in this issue: Kasia Boddy asks why writers are still addicted to watching boxing despite falling viewing figures, Andrew Dickson profiles Tom Stoppard, Stephen Bush explains how Jeremy Corbyn learned to compromise and David Omand outlines the cyber-security challenges facing the UK and the wider world.