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.
8 thoughts on “How not to be a crap professor of business ethics, CSR or sustainability”
When working with groups who are learing about sustainable development and business (e.g. CPSL’s Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk/masters_courses/pcsb/about_pcsb.aspx), the sessions which are most powerful ‘in the room’ are those where a ‘real’ person from a business talks openly about the challenges of putting theory into practice: how their company brought in an anti-bribery scheme,for example, with whistle-blowing and teeth. This can be a guest presenter but of course also the participants themselves may have stories from their own experience to share. This requires a very high degree of trust in the room – at least Chatham House rules, the group having been together for a while and the guest speakers knowing the faculty and having built up trust with them over time.
Discussion which follows is all centred around “Do you REALLY mean it? Really?” and “how can I be brave enough to stand up to prevailing culture and perceived ‘real’ norms (not espoused values)”
I find that ongoing support for ‘brave’ practice is really welcomed: anything from informal get-togethers over coffee or a drink, action learning sets, coaching and so on: enabling people to continue to actively experiment with being brave and taking the sometimes negative consequences.
Thanks Penny. I agree. I always invite guest lecturers, and encourage them to be open and critical, and I aim for the themes they explore connect to the learning goals. Otherwise, although it can be interesting and intense at the time, it would not create insight that links to a narrative or a framework or a perspective that we trying to get across. We are also practitioners, “real” people(!), and can talk about out own experience. Unfortunately the academic system means that most profs dont have much direct experience to draw from.
In recent times Ive found it helpful to talk about my failures as much as successes. For instance Good Cause Trouble. In that talk I talk about bravery. As you mention, change requires not only awareness, smartness and ethics, etc, but also courage. Perhaps also the courage to plan ones life so one can take risks at work, and cope with the set backs, or even the recriminations. That means not becoming completely dependent an employer, or certain types of client. Issues there for mortgages, fees, and choices about costs of living. i.e. if we REALLY mean it, not just hope to, then it means planning one’s life as much as planning one’s career.
Given this theme, have you come across my book, The Corporate Responsibility Movement? It works through some ideas about our field of practice being a social movement, and what it means for strategic planning etc.
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[…] How not to be a crap professor of business ethics, CSR or sustainability (via Jem Bendell’s Journal) Posted on February 9, 2011 by rictandag 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 … Read More […]
Read your comments with great interest, and some wry chuckles while watching the Jon Stewart/John Oliver video.
Oddly enough, I watched a movie called “The Informant” last night, a recent release with Matt Damon as the ethically-troubled Veep who makes a hash of trying to do the right thing and, instead, becomes embroiled in the endemic business corruption of the 1990s. Based on a true story, I understand, the producers (George Clooney and others) turned it into a crass comedy that serves as a metaphor for much of what’s wrong with modern capitalism and consumerism. Not as funny, though, as the personnel and operations management training videos by John Cleese I saw in the 1970s.
I ceased activity in the corporate world in the mid-1980s; since that time, I’ve operated as an ‘independent’ in business – now, mostly online by selling my ebooks. Increasingly, this is what many are doing, as you know. Not everybody wants to be an independent, though; and just as well.
However, when I was working in large banks and computer organizations between 1966 and 1986, I felt very little for the need for the themes of “social and environmental responsibility in business”. Times have changed, along with business practice, fortunately. Looking back, though, on the business culture of that time, I’ve come to realize that, had I had a real stake in any of those banks etc, I think I would have had a different perspective – as an ‘owner’, however small. That knowledge, condition and commitment may have helped me to make better career decisions, and become more aware of those social and environmental issues.
And, while worker-owner is not for everybody – again, just as well – I’d think that it would be a positive factor to assist with the improved business responsibility that is needed.
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