I spent Labor Day weekend in Pennsylvania with my family, where one question rose above the rest: now that you’ve sat through orientation, what are your thoughts on MIT Sloan? My response: I’m excited. And not for the reasons that I expected.
Sloan, like many business schools, gives students a lot to be excited about: dynamic professors, great facilities, and so forth. But what really turned me on to Sloan this week is less commonly emphasized in the business school pitch: it has to do with power.
Sloan demonstrated this most poignantly through two keynotes.
First came Simon Johnson (baselinescenario.com — you’re welcome Simon), former chief economist at the IMF, current professor of entrepreneurship, and celebrity pundit on today’s financial crisis. Simon laid out, in no uncertain terms, that the reason America’s economy is increasingly vulnerable to collapse is that it is regulated, by proxy, by those who stand to profit most from its vulnerability, aka the financial services sector. Today, in the wake of the worst economic crisis in a century, the major players in the financial services industry have more power than ever, thanks to a wholesale transfer of capital from the bottom up.
Second came John Sterman, Sloan operations professor. Professor Sterman walked us through a simulator, where teams of eight were asked to run a vertically integrated beer manufacturer (and let the breweries brew!), and make iterative decisions on managing the beer’s supply chain. By the end of the exercise, many teams who only hours earlier glowed with mutual admiration, found themselves mired in accusations of incompetence, while their supply chains failed in front of them. The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate that the reason organizations fail has less to do with the competence of their employees, and more to do with the design of the systems in which they operate. His poignant illustration thereof? Photos of soldiers in the Abu Gharib prison giving the camera a thumbs-up while Iraqi prisoners lie bound, gagged, and naked on the floor beside them. Professor Sterman: “It wasn’t just a few bad apples. It was the failure of a system.”
Unlike medicine or law, one doesn’t need a masters in business to practice in the field. More than any other degree, conventional thinking is that the value of an MBA is that it is an insertion point into the prevalent power structure. And yet during my orientation Sloan demonstrated a willingness to not only examine this power structure dispassionately, but in some cases call for its wholesale destruction. And that’s why I’m excited.