How MBAs learn to be Iron John

Business schools go in for touchy-feely stuff to disguise capitalist greed

It was a top-ranked business school and the brochure (graduates can expect to earn £100,000 a year) made our bonding session in the Alps sound rather pleasant. I looked forward to a week at an expensive Swiss resort conversing with interesting people from other cultures; rather like The Magic Mountain, in fact. Maybe, like Hans Castorp, seduced by the company and the rarefied atmosphere, I would never leave.

The reality was grim. For a start, we had to share a room - in my case, with four quite strange men, something I have had a problem with ever since a boy in the bed next to mine at boarding school masturbated himself to death in the middle of the night. During the day, we were expected to perform demeaning group activities in the snow, and a whole evening had been set aside for "self-criticism", or, as it was dubbed, "Group Dynamics Debriefing".

Our week-long Alpine hoedown (known as the "Dream Week Experience" - business schools are fond of dishonest persuasive definitions) culminated in the "Class Act". Varying from year to year, this is a performance designed to demonstrate the class's solidarity. This year, we held hands in the snow at 11pm and sang to the professors a version of "We are the World", with lyrics rewritten for the occasion to fit the school. It was at this point that I decided I could take no more, and left.

The whole thing was beyond parody. But perhaps one should not be surprised. Over the past few months, books have been published with titles such as The General Patton Guide to Management and Corporate Religion, adding to my favourite, The Genghis Khan Guide to Cash Flow. The connection of General Patton - the man famous for striking a soldier in shell-shock - with management may seem oxymoronic, but no idea is too stupid and no role model too brutal to be used to market a management book.

How else do you explain the inclusion of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, designed to reveal whether you are the cuddly, feeling or investment-banker type. It consists of questions such as: "Is it a higher compliment to be called (A) a person of real feeling or (B) a consistently reasonable person?" "Which word in pairs appeals to you more: benefits/ blessings; foundation/spire; soft/hard?"

Do you need to study philosophy to work out that words only mean something in a context? I protested that I was indifferent to both spires and foundations, and filled in the answers at random. Sadly, my hurried departure meant I never learnt my type; but I think I can live with that.

Business schools work with case studies which are then discussed in classes. The classes are a bear pit. Students sit in a semicircular amphitheatre facing the professor and compete for "airtime", jumping up and down in their seats like excitable fourth-formers saying "Sir! Sir!". Given the professor-student ratio (1:83), the contributions are just soundbites.

The cases themselves, however, are fascinating. Among other things, we learnt how Kodak increased its share of the mature Japanese photo market by introducing a film called Mamatoto. This is sold to women delivering their husbands' film to be developed. Mamatoto's brilliant and unique selling proposition is that it claims to represent the colour of Japanese children's skin more accurately than its competitors, which, it is alleged, impart a greenish hue to their faces.

The core of an MBA course studying "Organisational Behaviour" is based on analysing these case studies - sordid tales that usually tell the story of a sacking. My suggestion that literature be used instead was not taken seriously. But King Lear could tell you something about managing succession at the top, and our course "Decision Making Under Conditions of Uncertainty" could be the subtitle of Hamlet. Shakespeare, after all, knew more about management than General Patton.

Sociology readings were given to "illuminate" these cases. For instance, this sentence was italicised in a text, presumably as especially meaningful: "Conflict as an involved participant is emotionally very different from conflict as a relatively objective third party." I never knew that!

We were given a psycho-historical reading from the Harvard Business Review, which, from a psychoanalytic perspective, opined that more mutual understanding and less projection would reduce the chance of nuclear war. As an analysis of the cold war, this is risible. But what was more disturbing was that we were asked to apply this discredited psychology to a personnel problem in a computer company - a problem that common sense could have solved.

What are we to make of all the New Age mind-rot that has got past the filters? In the early 1990s, Harvard taught classes in "business ethics" and applicants had to write about ethical struggles at work; now it is Iron John. In part, this reflects a lack of confidence in the intellectual status of the subject matter; but it is also an attempt to clothe, in a garment of trendy tree-hugging respectability, the naked capitalist instincts that are, one presumes, what these graduates wish to develop. Like the Third Way, the business schools are now engaged in disguising the true nature of business; greed and cut-throat competition are still acceptable, but only if couched in touchy-feely terms.

Last year, two American academics tested prisoners and MBA students on "decision-making ethics in business situations". They found that prison inmates were less likely to steal customers from competitors and to scrimp on customer service. James Stearns of Miami University says: "Their values are not that much different. And, in some situations, the prisoner's values are more laudable." But then, prisoners don't go on Iron John bonding weekends. Not yet, anyway.