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Competition, Cooperation, and the Case Method

The debate goes on today about Harvard and the gender issue.  Nanette Fondas, writing in the Atlantic, focuses on what, for me, is the most meaningful aspect of the situation: that Harvard Business School publicly admitted it has a gender bias built into its culture and that they have taken a few successful first steps toward balance.  The article very specifically details the way that HBS investigated and verified the fact that its own bias, specifically as manifest in the famous case method, was real.  It’s not just that they woke up one day to the frat boy culture underpinning the program and it’s not just that women raise their hands more tentatively than males.  It’s that their own biases were showing up in the pattern of selecting and evaluating student responses.

That’s big.  It’s saying HBS faculty have a gender bias that was manifest in the grades they gave their students.  Where else, do you suppose, might that bias show up?  Perhaps in recruiting faculty?  Awarding pay packages?  Making tenure decisions?  If the underlying discovery here is “Harvard Business School has a gender bias in the fabric of its culture,” then there are many important decisions that might be affected.

Once again, my hat is off to Harvard Business School for taking the risk to admit openly that they might have this problem.  It is incredibly brave and honest and forward-thinking. My sense is that, in most other business schools, you can’t even have a civilized conversation about the gender-biased culture that is easily observable in any of them. People simply won’t talk about it and they get angry if you bring it up.

However, a few other thoughts occurred to me about the focus on the case method as the fulcrum for the gender bias at Harvard, as I was reading through the Atlantic article. This author, like most writers covering HBS, repeats the claim that the HBS case method mimics the “real world” of business–and that this is its value.  There was a link to a little promotional video about the case method (it is here) and watching even a few minutes of it made me question that fundamental assumption: that is,  I want to challenge the premise which says the case method mimics the real world.

Now certainly the cases are built on real situations, usually with the kind of data you would have to make your decision with and there is usually a central character, often a real person, into whose shoes one is supposed to step.  And all that is pretty realistic. However, the way Harvard teaches the case is another matter entirely.  If you watch this video, you can see that there is an incredible build up of pressure prior to the performance of the case–and “performance” is the right word.  The students are shown manically preparing for the moment where they might be called on in class to argue their point of view.  And there is really a lot of posturing about how competitive it all is, how you have to be prepared to defend yourself at a moment’s notice, how the decision has to be made under all this intense pressure.  I have visited HBS and seen all this in action–it is a serious adrenalin rush.

But is it realistic?  I would say, actually, that the verisimilitude of the case method disappears the minute all this hyped-up theater begins.  I have worked with a lot of corporations in the past few decades.  While it is true that some decisions have to be made very quickly and also that people in corporations implicitly compete with each other for rewards and promotions, I don’t actually think this pressure-cooker thing they try to create at Harvard is all that representative. Also, I think it is important to point out that, though the video is as cheerfully positive as promos are wont to be, a major reason the students prepare so intensely is that there is a practice of shame-and-attack that goes with the case method.  The teacher cold calls on people and if they are not prepared, an uncomfortable moment follows.  If a student offers an opinion that others think is erroneous, the rest of the classmates are encouraged to turn on them like pooled piranhas sharing space with red meat.  It’s a really artificially pumped-up environment that gets created, one that I suspect many men and most women would be happy to avoid.

In my experience, real corporate decision-making is often painfully slow.  You can grow old waiting for the most simple choices to be made–whether to introduce a new product, whether to adopt a new logo, whether to approve an ad campaign.  And one of the reasons the process takes so damn long is that everybody has to weigh in.  Teams of people produce work and often make decisions collectively, after a great deal of cooperation and negotiation, and, hopefully, consensus.  Then they “sell it up the line” to other groups and individuals for approval.  While there are certainly moments for competition and embarrassment is always possible, the situation is not nearly so openly combative and personal as the case method makes it seem.  And I really would say that the ability to cooperate is more useful than the propensity to bite the person sitting next to you.

So, actually, I am wondering how much all this rah-rah testosterone-pumping around the case method is necessary and how much of it is just HBS’ ritual enactment of its own very gendered identity.


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