MBA students go gaga over lessons from pop stars

LOOK along the business books section in a bookshop and you will find many tomes that promise to teach you how to invest like Warren Buffett or to learn from Bill Gates how a start-up can turn you into a billionaire. But alongside those you will also find another sub-genre of books that promise to re-purpose the wisdom of those who are strangers to the boardroom into business-friendly advice. In 2009, the writer Robert Greene co-wrote a book called The 50th Law with rapper 50 Cent, explaining how the musician’s experiences of dealing drugs on the streets could be translated into corporate America. The shelves groan under the weight of books that claim to use the wisdom of complicated (and therefore malleable) books like Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun-Tzu’s the Art of War and various bits of Nietzsche to turbo-charge your career. The trend reached a high (or low) point with the recent addition of Mother Teresa, CEO: Unexpected Principles for Practical Leadership.

Silly? Maybe. But now business schools are also getting in on the act. The ESMT school in Germany has recently added a case study about Lady Gaga to its MBA course. While stopping short of suggesting that students wear clothes made from meat to interviews (as Gaga famously did at an awards ceremony), it looks at what businesses can learn about “strategic innovation” from the pop star. “Lady Gaga is not just an incredible creative talent, she is also a very astute business woman,” says the school.

At first sight this might simply be written off as a gimmick designed to pique the interest of students (and journalists) but is there anything to it? Martin Kupp, who teaches the Lady Gaga course, says that the shock of the new does play a part – “after a while people get fed up with Apple, Google and Facebook” – but that it is Gaga’s successful harnessing of social media that makes her relevant. She has 10m followers on Twitter and 15m Facebook friends and her videos have been downloaded an average of 85m times a month in 2011, and in the past three years they have been viewed over a billion times. Traditional businesses which have failed to capitalise on social media would be arrogant to assume that there is nothing to learn here.

Of course, not everybody is convinced. Vince Mitchell, Professor of Consumer Marketing at Cass business school, says that the point of a case study is to provide “substantive learning which is generalisable.” “Gaga is an extremely talented artist, that’s the main reason for her success, not the business decisions she makes. So to examine her with a music course is legitimate, to examine her within a business school is not,” he adds. The best people to learn from are “businessmen who make business decisions and we want to know how and why they took them. There are lots of great business entrepreneurs to learn from. I’m not sure that artistic entrepreneurs have anything more to teach a general business audience, unless it was on the curriculum of the Simon Cowell School of Business.”

That all sounds very commonsensical. But there is perhaps something to Gaga studies. Jochen Runde, Director of the MBA programme at the Judge business school in Cambridge, says that musicians can teach entrepreneurs a lot about keeping control of the product. “I watched some of the film about the preparation of Michael Jackson's last tour, and was surprised to see that he was dealing directly with his drummer on some of the most subtle stuff.” There might well be lessons here for small manufacturers that want to keep their identity (and keep up quality) after they are bought by bigger corporations.

Runde also says that internet smarts are essential to benefit from the “long tail” opportunities that, together with online social networks and search algorithms, have transformed the marketplace for niche businesses. “I used to be a musician and have a thing for exotic jazz guitar players who live in Manhattan. These people have tiny audiences and in former times they would have struggled to make a living, having to do a lot of hack work to survive. But courtesy of the web, they can now reach a global audience, a tiny one to be sure, and sell all kinds of stuff that they wouldn’t have been able to before.” All sorts of small businesses could try – as indeed many already are – to harness the same technology to reach a highly dispersed global audience of devoted enthusiasts, and a success story like Gaga’s may help them develop a strategy that brings home the bacon.

There are two essential reasons why Lady Gaga is a worthwhile person – or phenomenon – to study, according to Kupp. For a start, one of the most important features of an MBA is learning from the experiences of your peers. If they are bored by yet another discussion about Ikea’s branding or the South American mobile phone market, then maybe a bisexual pop star riding a motorcycle might kick-start the conversation, especially as she is also very wealthy.

But more importantly, Lady Gaga’s brand of outisde-the-box behaviour can teach students about the role of creativity. This is something close to Kupp’s heart, and he works with an artist in Berlin in order to think up new ways to inject creativity into businesses – they recently worked on an art-project together, which involved business school students, and co-wrote a book called The Fine Art of Success which takes lessons for business from artists such as Madonna, Damien Hirst and Picasso.

“There is a big need for companies to look at innovation and creativity,” Kupp says. “This is a big topic. People realise that the standard stuff they have learned only takes them so far, then they realise that it is about creative leadership and how to produce an environment where creativity can flow. There is a growing number of smart people coming from Asia and India, they are very well educated, they are good mathematicians and engineers. The question is: what is our edge?”

Creativity is one of the major challenges facing business right now, thinks Kupp. As companies get bigger and more complex, they become good at standardisation – a manufacturer might make 10,000 car-parts an hour to exactly the same specification in factories all over the world – but they also need to be able to constantly re-think that product to stay competitive. Combining that consistency with creativity in the same corporate structure is one of the big challenges of the early 21st century. Move over Mother Teresa, there’s a new business guru in town. And she’s wearing leather hotpants.