Back in my early twenties, during the go-go days of the first Internet bubble, I used to get invited to speak at business schools. Each time, I’d tell the class of students: you’re older than me, smarter, wiser, more experienced. You don’t need to listen to what I have to say. And each time, I’d watch them dutifully write in their notebooks: ‘don’t listen to what he says.’
Ever since, I’ve been deeply dubious of b-schools. Start with the case method of teaching, for example. By definition, the companies students study became cases by doing new, interesting, innovative things. In other words, they became cases precisely by doing things you couldn’t learn from prior case studies.
Or consider the problem of the professors, academics removed from the front lines of real business. If you’re an eminent historian, there’s no better way than academe to pursue recognition or greatness in your field. Whereas, in business, the really interesting folks are out starting Apple or running GM, while the professors are just writing about it. There’s no more prime example of ‘those who can’t do, teach.’
That’s why I was so taken by this Boston Globe story about Harvard Business School professor Brian Edelman and his interactions with local Woburn restaurant Sichuan Garden.
The issue began when Edelman looked at the menu on the Sichuan Garden’s website, and placed a takeout order. He ate the food, and found it delicious. And then he noticed that he’d been charged $4 more ($57.35 vs $53.35) than he expected. So he emailed the restaurant to let them know, and to ask about the discrepancy.
Ran Duan, son of the mom-and-pop founders (and apparently “America’s Most Imaginative Bartender” according to last month’s GQ, for the Baldwin Bar inside the restaurant) wrote back a gracious email, explaining that the menu on the site was outdated, apologizing for the confusion, and promising to update the site.
The professors response? Calling the old menu a ‘serious violation’ under Massachusetts state law, and, citing consumer protection statute MGL 93a, demanding triple damages: $12.
Things go downhill from there, with Duan’s sane, friendly and remarkably patient emails intertwined with Edelman’s ever more douchey / crazy-town ones, leading to Edelman’s eventually “referring the matter to applicable authorities.”
Nice work, Professor Edelman! Keeping the world safe from small businesses trying hard to politely serve their local communities, and wasting the time of already overstretched enforcement agencies! It’s a double win!
Still, it’s also an excellent reminder of why I never went to business school. As an early colleague said to me some 15 years back, it’s much better to own an MBA than to be one.