Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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A shock to the system

Published By: The Independent - 01 Oct 2009

It’s slick, short, funny and focussed. And, at just £10.99, it’s more than 4,000 times cheaper than an MBA from the UK’s top business school. But does The 80 Minute MBA deliver?

This pop paperback, which has shot to the top of the business book lists and been snapped up by countries abroad, aims to give its readers an MBA overview in less time than it takes to travel by train from London to Manchester. But how well does it succeed?

Well, not that well, to be honest, and that’s because it’s not trying to. Despite the eye-catching title and the claim in the introduction to contain “the distillate of an MBA course”, The 80 Minute MBA is not a boiled-down essence of standard MBA wisdom and is unlike any MBA course to be found in today’s business schools. It’s highly selective, puts sustainability squarely at the front of the book (“green is the new black”), reports that graduates of business schools are more likely to cheat than their peers, and asserts that some MBA courses are “personally enervating.”

It also has a very different approach to leadership from the one taken by most business schools. One section in this chapter is headed “Stuff to Forget” and tells students not to bother about charisma, balance, authenticity, coaching and strategy, Instead, it says, leaders should simply know where they are going, know what’s going on, know who they are, and know how to build a strong team.

Nevertheless it breezes easily through the familiar terrains of accounting, marketing and human resources, and diligent readers will feel at the end of it that they have been left with plenty of management wisdom to chew on and a clutch of interesting references to follow if they want to find out more.

The book grew out of a knockabout, two-handed presentation put together by Richard Reeves, 40, an economic researcher and writer who was recently appointed head of the left-leaning think tank Demos, and John Knell, 43, a former economics lecturer turned consultant. The pair, who met when were both directors at The Work Foundation, give audiences a rapid run-down of management thinking while a giant clock steadily ticks off 80 minutes.

It started with a 10-minute presentation on leadership, says Knell, “and that made us realise what an appetite there was for a scan through a whole body of knowledge, presented very succinctly. The book is totally speaker-driven. We wrote it on the back of what we say in our presentations, it does have a highly editorial point of view about what should be covered in an MBA, and we aren’t unashamed of saying that.”

In fact the book is sternly critical of much existing business education. “There is no doubt that the ethos of some MBA programmes is part of the problem rather than the solution…,” the authors opine. “Education corrupts; business education corrupts absolutely.”

“But it’s not an anti-MBA book,” protests Knell. “We’re very pro MBAs. If you go to a first class institution you get a fantastic network. Ten years on people always talk about who they met, not what they learned.” However he relishes repeating a description of an MBA as “20 O levels for bright people” and feels that going to a second or third tier institution to do an MBA is a questionable investment. He also wonders to what extent the business school community falls back from questioning the status quo of business and finance because of the hefty private consultancy contracts enjoyed by so many of its members.

Of course much of what an MBA course offers is useful, he says. “Accounting has a lot going for it. In fact it’s shameful that so many people in business can’t understand a balance sheet, but you don’t need to spend £20,000 to get that knowledge. We’ve got a chapter in our book on it.” But he feels that much that is taught about leadership is unhelpful and can make students feel daunted by the super-human range of qualities expected from them. “In fact the best leaders tend to be witheringly honest about their strengths and weaknesses.”

The book, he says, was written to inform and entertain, “and we are very pro-business. It matters more than ever, and we want business leaders to take their responsibilities for creating wealth and doing good seriously. We want moral behaviour from out business leaders towards the societies they serve. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.”

Much of the 80 Minute MBA focuses on how the world is changing. Tomorrow’s business leaders, it says, will not only need to understand changing polar ice levels, but also the importance of the “social workplace”, where people are free to gossip, surf online and make friends, and of the new “weapons of mass collaboration” which are already turning passive consumers into active producers.

One aim in writing the book is to bring an array of management wisdom to broad audiences. “Our presentations are great opportunities for companies to invite in all their workforce, or all those middle managers who don’t get sent off on expensive three-day residential courses,” says Knell. “And we speak to public sector audiences, as well, where things are far more complex because they have multiple bottom lines. But we always have Q and A sessions afterwards, so people always have the opportunity yo talk about how things should be done where they are.”

Another aim is to make people more intellectually curious about matters of management. And yet another is to prick the pompous self-regard of business education institutions. “One of my main measures of success,” says Knell, “would be if we caused any MBA providers to reflect on whether they could bring a greater sense of humour to the way they teach business.”

The 80 Minute MBA, by Richard Reeves and John Knell, published by Headline Business Plus. £10.99