Saturday, 6 September 2008

"What They Teach You At Harvard Business School", by Philip Delves Broughton (Penguin/Viking)

A witty, intelligent and very readable account of one man's experiences at Harvard Business School

In his first book, Broughton has written an amusing, insightful account of his time studying at Harvard Business School (HBS). Chronicling his battles with a whole new way of teaching (500 case studies in just two years), and the whole new language of business and “management-ese”, it is a heart-warming memoir of his struggle to balance his life, his family and his hopes of the future.

Broughton covers every aspect of his life at HBS, including a very interesting chapter on how he came to apply in the first place. - afterall, what could make a successful journalist dive into the shark-infested world of MBAs? (The continued decline of British newspapers and his disillusionment with journalism as a whole are two reasons.)

An intimate glimpse into the inner workings of the most prestigious business school in the United States (if not the planet), Broughton sprinkles his chapters with nostalgic descriptions of Harvard University, cynical explanations of some of the tasks he and his classmates were put through, and amusing anecdotes and case studies he came across. One example is the case of a medieval baron who gave two vassals the same resources and land and wanted to know which was the better farmer: "Why any medieval baron given the choice between rape and plunder and bookkeeping might choose the latter beat me."

The first half of the book illustrates how he came to suppress his cynicism towards the institution, and how he was initially put off by the arrogance of the place, the assurance that “Simply by being accepted by HBS, we had entered an ├╝berclass.” Over time, he comes to accept and appreciate what HBS has to offer, even if he retains a good amount of British cynicism and sarcastic wit.

He spends a good deal of the book discussing the diverse backgrounds from which HBS students are drawn from; from the ex-military veterans, accountants, doctors and even a microbiologist. Broughton’s writing is most engaging when he writes about his relationships (both positive and negative) with his classmates and interactions with them – being part of a class of almost 900 type-A personalities clearly wasn’t a picnic.

Understandably, there’s a fair amount of financial and business material discussed, but as the successful, talented journalist Broughton was trained to be, he explains it all in an accessible way (simply but not simplistically). Useful tidbits of finance and business are presented throughout the book, and were as interesting as the human-interest content that forms the bulk of the rest of the book. If, like me, the world of business and finance are completely impenetrable and mind-boggling, then you have nothing to fear from What They Teach You At Harvard Business School – in fact, you’re likely to come away with a much better grasp of the topics Broughton comments on.

As his time at HBS progresses, and he finds that his initial apprehension about being so far behind everyone else is unfounded, he clearly shows his appreciation for the methods used at HBS – such as the support networks provided by the different student “sections” (their version of tutor groups, I suppose, only on a much larger scale). As a thirty-year-old student he’s not as taken with the typical student lifestyle of partying and “booze luges”, but it’s very clear from his writing that he looks back at this time with fondness, if also with a healthy dose of British skepticism and cynicism.

His fluid style and subject matter reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons – while Wolfes is a work of fiction, Broughton has managed to make his account as readable and engaging as any work of fiction. (Indeed, I was up until 3am reading it, which doesn’t happen with much fiction these days.)

An engaging, amusing and illuminating look into American business culture and academics, anyone interested in learning more about why America is the way it is will certainly enjoy this book and learn a great deal. I would encourage anyone to try it, though, as Broughton’s light and deft touch make for one of the most enjoyable reads of the year.

A must read.

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