BUSINESS BOOKS

Two New Books Offer an Alternative MBA

Who needs Wharton or Kellogg? Stanley Bing's The Curriculum and Roadside MBA offer refreshing substitutes to business school.
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In the Seinfeld episode "Bizarro Jerry," Kramer is mistakenly invited into a meeting after he uses a restroom in an office building. Being Kramer, he assumes the role of employee and insinuates himself into the life of the company. One day, he is called to the boss's office: 

Kramer: What did you want to see me about, Mr. Leland?

Leland: Kramer, I've been reviewing your work. Quite frankly, it stinks.

Kramer: Well, I uh…been having trouble at home and uh…I'll work harder. Nights, weekends, whatever it takes.

Leland: No, no, I don't think that's going to do it. These reports you handed in, it's almost as if you have no business training at all. I don't know what this is supposed to be.

Kramer: Well. I'm just trying to get ahead.

Leland: I'm sorry, there's no way that we can keep you on.

Kramer: I don't even work here.

Leland: That's what makes it so difficult.

That episode aired in 1996, 18 years before publication of Stanley Bing's The Curriculum: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master of Business Arts. Too bad: if Kramer had read Curriculum he would have had down cold the jargon, habits, and demeanor expected of someone in his non-existent position.

At 370 pages, this latest book from Bing (nom de plume of CBS exec Gil Schwartz) may be the most exhaustive humorous riff I have ever encountered. Bing has crammed into his kinda-joking-kinda-not textbook virtually every subject (strategy, management, marketing, group dynamics) treated at length and with gravitas by business schools. Additional topics (not looking stupid, eliciting fear, smelling good but not too good) have been inexplicably ignored by academia. If you have time for nothing else, check out all the Power Point-ready charts and graphs (pie, bar, bubble--the gang's all here) representing, for example, the relationship between level of power and size of permissible f*ckup, or between moral standing and income.

Bing had no choice but to be be comprehensive. He positions The Curriculum (again, kinda-joking-kinda-not) as an alternative to MBA programs. As he writes in the preface, his course "is comprehensive but will certainly not take anywhere near the two years and up to $250,000 involved in those offered by well-established, time-consuming and tedious ivy-covered institutions stocked with professors who would be eaten for lunch by most serious business executives." The Curriculum's underlying premise: being successful in business depends less on mastery of some weighty body of knowledge than on familiarity with the sorts of language and behavior used by people who are, in fact, successful in business. 

The Curriculum isn't the only recent title to question the portrayal of business as an abstruse discipline. The Roadside MBA: Backroad Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives and Small Business Owners approaches the subject in a very different way. In the prologue of this Keynes-meets-Kerouac mash-up, three management professors are attending an economics conference in Boston and decide, on a whim, to drive to Maine, where they wander into a shoe store. Upon learning that the store has a secret shopper program, they experience a group epiphany: "the strategic challenges that small businesses face are just as rich and compelling as anything being discussed in Six Sigma redoubts like General Electric." 

Inspired, our intrepid academics set off to discover the real America: interviewing the owners of small businesses and producing bite-size case studies on such strategies as setting prices and positioning brands. Their subjects are, without exception smart, no-nonsense men and women who understand--often intuitively--the immutable principles of business and discuss them in plain language. Lacking immersion in theory and facility with business speak, these admirable folks still manage to run and scale successful companies.

Grumbling about MBA programs is a venerable pastime--even among those individuals and organizations involved in MBA programs. (See this recent study from the Hult International Business School.) Still, I don't detect a serious backlash. Business school application rates, which had been in decline for several years, are up again. And schools are stretching to remain relevant, adding classes on entrepreneurship and sales and flexing their programs to prepare candidates for careers in Silicon Valley as well as Wall Street. At the same time, though, many MBA programs continue to emphasize data and analytics, narrow academic research, and deep functional dives. That approach seems out-of-step in an era when simplicity is revered; companies are encouraged to advance through small bets and iterative failures; and the public increasingly questions what value is added by the complexity-hugging finance sector. 

What's wonderful about Roadside MBA is the pride and pleasure both the authors and their subjects take in simple, elegant solutions to everyday business problems. These are the same kinds of problems that, in the comic universe of The Curriculum, are hopelessly complicated by bureaucracy, venality, and cluelessness. Reading these books together is a reminder of everything that makes business vital, fascinating--even fun--and of how easily those attributes disappear beneath jargon, theory, and the growing scientific apparatus around subjects like marketing.

When asked how he created his greatest sculpture, Michelangelo reportedly explained that he chipped away everything that was not David. Business educators, thinkers, and leaders: I urge you to start chipping.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: May 5, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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