The Harvard Business School seems to be out of the business of selling $6,000 videotapes with Rosabeth Moss Kanter droning out platitudes like "Great companies are focused in their approach to doing business." (They will, however sell you a $495, 30-minute video on "Managing Future Performance.") Now the B-School has a brand-new bag: flacking for the "personal development" seminar known as The Forum.
The San Francisco-based Forum came into being when Werner Erhard (John Paul Rosenberg to his parents) sold the "technology" for Erhard Seminars Training -- est -- to his brother Harry. The Forum, formally known as the Landmark Education Corp., has enjoyed considerable success with the self-actualization crowd, and with the Cambridge intelligentsia. That success is now chronicled in an HBS case study so sycophantic that Landmark has been using it -- improperly, Harvard says -- as a promotional tool.
The document, originally written for classroom discussion, is also sold to the public. Last revised in April, it reads like a 22-page advertisement for Landmark's "breakthrough in paradigm thinking." Authored by professor Karen Hopper Wruck, the case breathlessly quotes Forum executives who compare their work to that of Galileo and Socrates (!). The study also quotes from a Forum-sponsored Daniel Yankelovich survey of graduates. Surprise! All six veterans of the Forum's weekend training quoted by Wruck loved it!
Wruck quickly dismisses critics who call the Forum a cult. The Forum is listed on the Internet FACTnet database of "cults, groups and individuals that are alleged to be using coercive persuasion mind control techniques," but they have sued people who call them a cult. In an appendix, she quotes at length from four experts who insist the Forum is not a cult, but cites no contrary opinions.
Had Wruck been seeking to find anyone critical of the touchy-feely Forum she needed only to cross the campus and chat with Radcliffe public policy fellow Wendy Kaminer. The Forum is the subject of acidulous commentary in Kaminer's best-selling book, "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional." "If you want to experience or 'process' New Age's heady combination of pseudoscience, religion, and money," writes Kaminer, "visit a session or two of The Forum, the new incarnation of est."
In her defense, Wruck told me: "I understood that it was a controversial company, but I wanted to study a company that directly addressed issues around human behavior. A case study is a pedagogical vehicle, not a position paper or an endorsement." Harvard has affixed an unprecedented disclaimer ("Please be aware that . . . the school does not endorse this company or any other company") to the document.
Mark Kamin, a Landmark spokesman, said his company ordered several thousand copies of the document after it was published. He adds that Landmark signed an agreement with Harvard not to use the case for promotional purposes, "and we've endeavored to keep that agreement." When I told him that a recent seminar attendee said the case was being used to puff Landmark, Kamin said, "I can't guarantee that people who led seminars didn't say, 'Hey, there's this case study.' "