I sometimes show my students the Daily Show’s John Oliver interviewing a Columbia University professor of business ethics. In it he asks the professor what he is doing about the ethical character of business students in the light of the financial crisis. The professor outlines courses that teach cases about corruption and the choices people have to make. Oliver says “that’s great, when are you going to start teaching this?” The professor replies “Um, we’ve been teaching it for thirty years”. After a confused pause, Oliver asks “Would you say you are very good at your job?”
By treating business ethics as something one learns how to debate in the abstract, and the various different explanations people give for their actions, has done very little to build the moral character of graduates from business schools, at least according to the studies that show student values pre and post graduation. It also does little to equip them with the insights, evidence and approaches to lead ethical business, rather than simply respond to ethical dilemmas. So can sustainability, social responsibility and the like be taught? As there’s a debate on a Linked In group, and I’m in the midst of designing an MBA module for IE Business School on sustainability, I took the opportunity to clarify my insights on the matter. So, here goes…
Teaching social and environmental responsibility in business needs to focus on:
– both standalone courses and integration into existing subjects
– both critical as well as practical perspectives
– both firm-centred and issue-centred perspectives
– both “content” and “consciousness” i.e. where the latter is about how we perceive ourselves, our careers, our organisations, our societies, etc.
– both class-based and work/action-integrated approaches
– both lecture and facilitated group learning with reflective exercises, role play, etc.
– both insight from publications and the tutor’s personal professional experience (and/or those of guest lecturers)
– both case studies and cross-cutting analyses
I make these distinctions as much present teaching in this field is only standalone, practical, firm-centred, content focused, class-based, lectured, text-based and with case studies for light relief. Such teaching, on its own, without the other stuff I mention above, is largely useless at educating people. Worse, it can encourage people to think that this field is something one is proficient in by simply recounting various arguments and a few models – a superficial confidence that impairs real insight and change.
Therefore I recommend the “whole person learning” track of GRLI which has a free book to download, written by the late Bryce Taylor.