MBAs: Most Bloody Awful, Aussie radio documentary on the problem with biz-school

In this superb Australian public radio documentary, "MBA: Mostly bloody awful," the idea of "scientific management" and "professional management" is subjected to an extremely critical look and comes up wanting. Focusing on the Harvard Business School and the circumstances that gave rise to it (America: "a corporation founded by a corporation"; "scientific" Taylorism and its focus on quantifying the unquantifiable, the fad to quantification in management, such as Meyers-Briggs). It looks at the difference between MBAs and real entrepreneurs, looking at all those successful founders who didn't get MBAs (Gates, Jobs, Bezos, etc), and at the pants-wetting insecurity on display in the number of times the word "leader" and its associated terms appear in the bumpf for management programs ("every leader needs to have a bunch of followers -- do we want a world of followers?"). This is extremely meaty stuff, funny and engrossing and refreshing at once. Definitely worth the listen.

MBA: Mostly bloody awful (via Justine Larbalestier)


  1. i’ve always wondered why people piss so much money away on business majors. you get most of what you need in a community college; why go to the state level or independent colleges?

  2. @#1: “Hi, I have an MBA from Harvard” “Excellent, please enjoy this high-paying position”.

    “Hi, I went to Podunk Community College.” “Excellent, we have a mop and bucket for you right here.”

  3. I’m sure there’s a value in being told how other people have figured out how to manage other businesses. The value of places like Haarvard is the networking that is possible there.

  4. Mostly Bloody A$$hole$…

    I have had a “gentleman” who has a HBS MBA come to me and tell me that he could help my company become successful and that without him, my company would probably fail.

    Interesting, his wife is an MD and he has been living off of her and her income for ten years, while he moved from one business management failure after another.

    My company has moved from a little multi-million dollar company to now operating in several countries and now in the multi of billions. And we follow a latticed corporate structure.

    I have yet to employ one MBA.
    And I do not have a degree, much less a MBA. Maybe, I will someday.

    Oh, by the way:

    “Mindless But Arrogant” is another definition of the initials.


  5. People are acting like this is somehow news. Everyone has always known that MBAs, in and of themselves, are worthless. But they became a necessity because they acted as a signaling device, not just in finance but in other sectors as well. It was hard to get promoted beyond a certain level without one.

    Do you learn anything from an MBA… Not really, especially if you did economics or business as an undergrad. But, in the past at least, you did get two years to party in return for a vastly higher paying job upon graduation. Of course there was always the matter of those pesky debts…

  6. My wife just came up with another contraction for Master of Business Administration:

    Master B/ation

  7. Honestly, I don’t get such a backlash.
    What is wrong with someone being interested in strategic management, or marketing, or finance or whatever, and wanting to get a good education in those areas?

    Today is different than it was in the past, no point in being nostalgic. There is a body of researched knowledge (financial, operational, strategic) and it is quite useful to get a degree that would cover all that. It’s not just for “the craft of management” (i don’t know what that is), a brand on your CV or access to Wall St. It’s also about learning financial models, marketing tools, supply-chain management, strategic analysis… Most young people rising through a blue-chip company these days take the time to do this, even if it is part-time. It can really add value. It’s not about “content-free professional managers”.

    This generalization is unfair imho. Of course many failed CEOs have MBAs. Many incompetent engineers have engineering degrees too. You get the point.

    Granted American corporate culture is excessively greedy, and business schools may have leaned too much to the soft-skills, networking side of things. But imho, the MBA is a valid degree. This seems a critique of remunerative and purely data-centric policies in corporate America permeating business education, not the MBA degree per se. Aren’t we mistaking consequence for cause here?

    And the argument that great entrepreneurs didn’t go to business school…well they mostly dropped out of college too. Are colleges bad for you? They were just brilliant people with a vision.

  8. I’ve seen serious damage done to companies by managers who have no formal business education. An MBA may be sneered at, but I’d employ a manager with experience and an MBA than one without. You sure as hell would want your dentist to be qualified before he started work on those fillings? So why not a qualified manager, as opposed to someone who has either stepped into dead mans shoes or got ahead through brown noseing.?

  9. Coincidental timing on this article. I was at a Goodwill last weekend and found a book entitled Think like an MBA. I picked it up for a laugh as it was published in the early 80s and would most likely be grossly out of touch with modern business. The cover is accented with bullet-points like “Earn MBA Megabucks” and “How to look”

    I was pleasantly surprised that the book – while wrapped in the suspected trash – is a push for human interaction, confidence, experience, and intuition. Things you can’t really learn inside the four walls of a lecture hall.

  10. Xtraxtra @6: there’s nothing wrong with being interested in management technique and business administration … but first you’ve got to have something to manage.

    Over the past 30 years we’ve seen the emergence of a professional caste of “managers” who work on the principle that all businesses essentially work the same way and the actual details of what they do are irrelevant: a manager from an aerospace corporation is equally qualified to run a fast food franchise, by virtue of understanding management.

    That this is patently wrong and pathetically bogus should be obvious to anyone with half a clue: if the folks in the boardroom don’t understand what their company is in business to do — the nature of the market demand it services — they’re going to drive it off the road and into the long grass, if not the swamp, in short order. And sometimes the reasons for the success of a business bears little resemblance to either the official success story or the apparent nature of the product it sells.

    Harvard in particular seem guilty of selling this particular brand of managerialist snake oil. Back in the Soviet Union they had a name for these folk, professional managers parachuted in by the party: it’s no different out here.

  11. In other news, just because you have a BSEE doesn’t mean you’re a good electrical engineer. You take away from ANY program whatever you put into it, and the MBA is no exception.

    I’m really sick of the ad hominem attacks on MBAs. Most of these anti-MBA screeds have little to do with what MBA school is all about. Sure, there’s a fair amount of “management” fluffery, but there’s a much larger amount of legitimate work on the mechanics of running a business: accounting, marketing, and finance. These are the things that are critical to turn good ideas into a good business.

    As a BSEE who worked as a development engineer for 7 years before returning to get an MBA, I can tell you that I am a MUCH better manager than I would have been if you plucked me away from my lab bench and stuck me in my current role.

  12. @9: Agreed. It should be evident that in order to correctly manage a business you need extensive knowledge of how that business operates and the markets it serves. If managers do not take the time to do this, well, then they are clearly arrogant and irresponsible.

    That being said, there are people with managerial talent and knowledge. Those people can manage a company properly (almost) regardless of what field it is in, IF they take the time to study and understand the business. That’s why, p.e.

    :people are recruited from one company to the other (across fields) and do well
    :there are people who serve on boards of different companies and do well
    :there are extremely succesful conglomerates that span vastly different businesses and are managed centrally

    the key is having managerial experience, knowing the tools (an MBA is a great way to do that), taking the time to know the business and surrounding yourself with experts on the technical side. There are specifics everywhere but let’s face it – a balance sheet is a balance sheet. A marketing plan is a marketing plan. A budget is a budget. The content, the purpose, the goals may differ – the basic tools do not. And it IS important to know they exist and how to use them. That was my point.

  13. Has anyone measured the effectiveness of people who got an MBA after working in their field for a time, and those who got an MBA immediately after college?

    Whether the degree is valid or not is a different question than asking if it has become a membership card for a culture of charlatans who have created an incompetent leadership caste.

    I think the hate is coming from the fact that in bad economic times , people are angry that (1) such a degree exist and (2) there are job positions requiring such a degree. The anger is natural for a people that believe there is a better world that could do w/o MBA positions.

    The reasoning is simple. MBA types do not provide products and services that can be consumed by the general public. It’s easy to appreciate the farmer that grew the food on your table or the doctor that look after your wound. The service that MBA provides are only consumable by business. The difference is between wants and needs. MBAs may be useful/wanted by business, but they are not necessary (at least not directly needed by people). Please note that when I mention MBA positions, I’m discounting those w/ technical purpose (i.e. an engineer w/ an MBA, managing engineers).

    Since these MBA type jobs do not provide a direct product/service, you often see them inventing jobs for themselves. For example, an HR guy would invent new tests for employees to rank each other for the benefit of the company. Or a marketing guy doing marketing ; the subtext being that marketing is mostly necessary for things that people don’t need. Again, in bad economic times, when employess are divided between workers and management. Workers getting laid off would of course have resentment towards management.

    I hope I’ve explained those w/ MBA positions to understand why people hate your job.

  15. I only have my own university’s MBA program as a sample, but its students definitely live up to the ‘arrogant/awful’ moniker, inhabit a world of their own, and treat the rest of us like jerks. With their friends in the admin they manage to secure all the window offices and perks of a CEO. But when the university promotes students who win entrepreneurial awards they always seem to be from the Electronics or Engineering programs; from people who actually make/innovate. Our MBAs seek grants from the federal government rather than secure venture capital. Also, their investment-fund-supported endowment just tanked… We should expect them to be even more cranky in the years that come.

  16. Also note that many great artists didn’t go to art school, so clearly art school is useless. And many of the best programmers I know don’t have CS degrees, so CS degrees are useless. Millions of fluent speakers of English, French, Chinese, and other languages don’t have degrees, so language degrees are useless.

    Nevermind that MBA programs actually teach stuff like accounting, finance, statistics, economics, and so on. That stuff is all utter crap, right?

    What an idiotic post; it’s a poorly reasoned attack on a straw man. Surely there are better ways to have a go at education?

  17. Finance people excluded, MBA students are dumb as bricks. They’re interested solely in getting a 6 figure salary, so they are incredibly bland and boring.
    There’s an endless stream of propositions from MBAs going across the engineering department listservs. I’ll build it, and you’ll do what exactly? Manage me and skim off the top?

  18. Master of Bullshit Artistry

    I have yet work with a single MBA that knew what s/he was doing. Most couldn’t be bothered with learning about the product/service and were more interested in making a quick buck than long-term growth.

  19. MBA’s set you up to be a leech who lives off the sweat and blood of the ones who do the real work. I have yet to see a MBA who did something that a normal person would call work. They create numbers and reports that only they understand and care about, to make it look like they are doing something. Sure you can have a engineering degree and still be bad engineer, that’s why it takes more then just a degree to be a licensed engineer. For every good thing a MBA manager does there are 5 dumb things. TPS reports anyone? The real question is if MBA’s are so good why aren’t they starting up companies that are kicking ass? Because they don’t. 142,000 MBA’s graduated in 2005. So by now they all should be running companies worth 10 million each and pumping 1.4 trillion into the economy a year. Oh, wait, they don’t. They have to lay people off so they can still get their 6 figure bonuses. ARRG, they are leeches. Hell most of them can’t run a Blackberry, so how f%^& smart can they be. Biggest companies in America, started by MBA’s? Nope. And when they are they are ones like Enron. Managers didn’t make America great, workers did.

  20. I’m surprised that so many of my fellow Happy Mutants would make sweeping generalizations about something as complex and varied as post-grad education.

  21. The most successful MBAs that I have known were successful before getting the degree. They just so happen to be more successful after getting the degree.

    It’s not a short-cut around experience, and it’s dangerous when people think it is. I bet the same thing goes for engineers: the most successful ones I know build on on-the-job experience, but need the schooling too.

  22. My friend is a financial analyst (whatever that is), going through the first few months of getting his MBA. So far his classes have all been about marketing and the financial side of starting/running a business. He has absolutely no desire to be in a management position. He’s doing it because his company is paying for it and he’ll make more money.

  23. I’m attending school in the fall for my MBA. It is interesting to view popular perception compared with the view of people within the industry.

    Entrepreneurship is a section of study within the MBA program. This means that the majority of MBA are not actively trying to start companies as a profession so a comparison of companies founded by MBA’s a whole group vs enterpreneurs does not make too much sense. All the few successful entrepreneurs and founders undoubtedly needed many MBA’s to finance, scale, and manage their organizations.

  24. @15 iamanumlaut, “I have yet work with a single MBA that knew what s/he was doing.”

    Have you checked with everyone you work with to see which ones have which degrees? Some places or people just don’t make that big a deal out of it. I don’t bother to put it on my business card. I’m quite certain that lots of people I work with don’t know I’ve had an MBA for over 20 years.

    Furthermore – I found that the people who felt they benefitted the most were valuing the process of getting the MBA, not the end result of a designation.

    You may find that people whose judgement and work you respect actually have an MBA, but prefer to let it show through their work, not through their business card.

  25. I enjoyed that the primary detractor of MBAs for their program was a Canadian MBA professor who appeared to have more a beef with HBS than he did with MBAs in general.

    Their theory is that MBAs are unsuccessful. Companies run by MBAs are unsuccessful. Therefore MBA demand is higher than ever. It just doesn’t track. MBAs might be arrogant blowhards who get things wrong. But, so is the guy who made a multi-billion dollar bet that oil would stay at 150$ a barrel (Warren ‘no-MBA’ Buffett). Whoops. They make note of the fact that these super successful corporate chiefs are great leaders, but also argue that if you focus on leaders what you really get is an exponential increase in followers.

    Agreed, leadership and management are in practice at least as much art as science. And it’s hard to teach that by reading a book. But, I get deeply suspicious when people suggest that, lock stock and barrel, education is the problem. You just don’t need it to be a rockstar success. Of course, they cherry picked four successful individuals out of what total population? A million? A hundred million? A billion?

    Also, I have a graduate degree, so I might be biased about the value of graduate and post-graduate education.

  26. Some generals run wars from the trenches and some from Washington. That doesn’t mean your army shouldn’t have generals.

  27. The worst bosses I ever saw were these “professional manager” types. They had no technical ability whatsoever, but believed that a manager could manage anything (presumably by following some magic formula).
    Conversely, the best people I’ve ever worked for came up through the ranks, and actually understood what they were managing.
    There are leaders and there are managers. The two don’t necessarily coincide.

  28. @28 Chris

    Most of the people I admire and respect for their work don’t have MBAs. They usually started at the ground floor and worked their way up in a company or they started their own company because they could make something or provide a service.

    I watched three MBAs take a promising dotcom and run it into the ground through the mismanagement of capital and human resources. Rather than focusing on making a great product, they chose to make the company look pretty and trendy in hopes of selling it off.

    Are all MBAs bad? No, but I think most are. They think that just having a MBA gives them a sense of entitlement that they are the only ones that know how to run a company.

  29. A minute and a half into the MP3 file: “…some of the leading critics of the MBA culture are actually business school professors who’ve been raising the alarm for some time..”

    So, I’m in the car, listening and I’m saying: “Henry Mintzberg! Henry Mintzberg. You’d better say: Henry Mintzberg!”

    And the man says “The most prominent among them is Henry Mintzberg Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal”. W00t!

    I recommend you’all to D/L some of his papers and articles. They’re quite readable and refreshing. It’s like reading Paul Krugman.

  30. My experience in studying an MBA after about 7 years working as an engineer is that the course is definitely equipping me with skills to progress my career. This degree is not something you do to be a ‘professional manager’ with no idea about what you are doing.. nothing good can come from that. Instead, if you have already had success in your career and want to progress it further, the fact is that you will need a lot of extra skills, and an MBA provides meets that need.

    In this forum I’m hearing a lot of negative sentiment towards people with or studying MBAs. Just consider that people who brag about having one are not likely to be that endearing to begin with.

  31. Unfortunately, I work for a company where the MBA is a virtual prerequisite. The paralysis which sets in when trying to arrive at decisions is fascinating. Unless it’s overly-collaborative, and a product of triple the meetngs and time, as no one is willing to make the call. Funny, many innovative risk oriented companies are saddled with MBAs who have zero practical experience and bounce from project to project with no impact or accountability, almost as if a job assignment is a “semester”.
    Funny to see many of them grappling with baby’s first recession, and shutting down accordingly.

    Masters of the Universe indeed. (Their own.)

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