Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Tagged: business schools

Business students need a new perspective not a new framework

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📥  Business and society, Education

business-men

 

Two current students on the University of Bath’s MSc in Sustainability and Management, Sanum Jain and Elliot Johnston, discuss the impact that business ethics and sustainability modules have had on their business education. They pose the question: can we talk about business ethics being as important as business economics as part of a management degree?

Management students have the opportunity to sit an array of compulsory and elective courses during their time at business school. As sustainability students, the business ethics module was a mandatory requirement for us, whilst few traditional management students saw this course as an attractive elective. However, it soon became apparent that this course would shape the way we navigate business in a way we think is important for every management student, regardless of specialism.

We became well-versed in the theories of business ethics and came to understand how sustainability needs to be considered as integral to strategy rather than a side-lined marketing tool. Furthermore, we were exposed to the factors that could affect our ethical decision making as agents within a company. Now we field questions about profit making in the face of sustainability limitations, as if we are living in a world where ethical decision making and profit making are mutually exclusive. Our peers in other classes may often label us ‘idealists’ for voicing a perspective we have gained through business ethics. We can't help but wonder if this would be the case if business ethics was compulsory across the School.

Within the first week of studying at Bath, we were introduced to a variety of frameworks upon which we were to base our understanding of business. Most notably, in business economics, we were introduced to Michael Porter’s Five Forces Framework and his Theory of Competitive Advantage. The theory of competitive advantage teaches students about low cost strategies and product differentiation strategies to maintain a focus on profit maximisation, with the end goal of achieving a larger market share. This theory provided the backbone of business strategy from which many other concepts have branched. But not for us.

Our module in business ethics introduced us to a deeper perspective, challenged us to ask more existential questions about business and to understand the ‘why and the how’ behind profit. However, this was not a prescriptive course. We weren’t provided with a specific framework to follow. We engaged in case studies that explored the actions of individuals just like us who had behaved unethically for the benefit of their employer. We delved into the problems created by globalisation, analysed the responsibilities of corporations in the modern world, and looked at the theories we might use to understand how complex ethical problems can be approached in a business environment.

We didn’t just gain a perspective through which to view the business world. Business ethics added a dynamic to the content we were introduced to in our other courses. We were encouraged to question our own values and the way we might view decision making in other realms such as marketing and operations. Furthermore, it led us to understand who we are personally, in relation to the corporations who may hire us in the future.

As sustainability students, we are not alone in our way of thinking. Indeed, Michael Porter himself is now an advocate for sustainable development created through business. In his recent TED talk, he called for commercial organisations to address social issues with alternative business models in order to create “shared value”. At the same time, he called competitive advantage seeking differentiation factors “trivial” in the face of greater challenges.

“Shared value is capitalism, but it's a higher kind of capitalism”, Porter said. “It's capitalism as it was ultimately meant to be, meeting important needs, not incrementally competing for trivial differences in product attributes and market share. Shared value is when we can create social value and economic value simultaneously.”

This isn’t a debate as to which framework should be taught in lieu of another. Michael Porter’s business theories are undoubtedly imperative to a management student’s education. However, even Porter recognises the need to change the perspective from which we learn and operate. Knowing what we know, it is the responsibility of business schools to ensure that the next generation of the workforce are equipped to tackle the ethical challenges they might face. We know from research conducted in our own School that this is starting to happen, but more could be done. Conventional management frameworks should be taught through the perspective of business ethics in order to create managers of the future who can successfully contribute to a sustainable world.

Image: businessmen by David Drexler

We need a new voice in the debate about business and society

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📥  Business and society

veronica-hope-hailey1  andrew-crane

Veronica Hope Hailey, Dean of the School of Management, and Andrew Crane, Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society

In our increasingly polarised times, there is fervent debate over whether business is a force for good or bad in our societies. We believe it is high time that university researchers took a more active role in this debate, providing much needed evidence to inform popular opinion. To do so, we need to speak in a new voice.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So starts Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities, a book which describes in stark comparison the cities of Paris and London at the time of the French Revolution. Today, we too live in divided times. We are divided politically, geographically, culturally, into the skilled and unskilled, the 99% and the 1%. Is your daily working life about Sports Direct or Goldman Sachs? About desperate migration or upward economic mobility? About zero hours contracts or business class flights?

Capitalism is over - you want it

Capitalism is over - you want it, photo by Anne Roth

Your answer to these questions will also undoubtedly inform your opinion about whether globalisation is a good thing or not and about whether business is largely to blame for many of the ills of the world. It will also colour your views on whether “sustainable business” is simply a hopelessly optimistic oxymoron or a genuinely realistic prospect in the coming decades. But these are not just matters of opinion. Behind the answers to these questions lie important empirical facts that can meaningfully shape the path we take.

What is clear, however, is that in times of uncertainty, trust becomes more important. But in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and never-ending corporate and political scandals, public confidence has been profoundly destabilised. The result has been a breakdown in trust in government, business, and so-called experts more generally - and a seeming turn to a “post-truth” society where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Irrespective of whether you believe we are really heading down a post-truth path, the message for those of us who might claim some degree of expert knowledge in the debate about business and society is clear. We cannot simply expect to be a trusted source of knowledge. And, to inform opinion, we need to do things differently from how we have in the past.

Most of us in the academic world are in our comfort zone when doing our research and speaking about it to our fellow scholars. A lot of our research is impenetrable to even an informed layperson. Even when it is not, our publications are usually locked behind the paywalls of academic publishers.

Too rarely do we actively bring our knowledge out to the world in a way that truly engages with non-academic audiences. And when we do, the results are sometimes catastrophic. As one recent article put it, “business schools play a significant role in reproducing the values, skills and mindset of much of what is wrong with contemporary capitalism, such as opportunism, greed, a focus on shareholder maximisation, and economic short-termism.”

Things are beginning to change. Our research suggests that the movement to embed sustainability in business school teaching and research is making progress. The Conversation is leading the way in bringing journalistic style to academic research. But in terms of accessible research specifically on business and society, we still have a long way to go. There remains a clear need for a trustworthy source of credible research to inform decisions about how business can best contribute to a sustainable society.

With the launch of the Bath Business and Society blog, we want to bring a new voice to this debate. In fact, we believe that the Bath School of Management is uniquely positioned to bring not just one new voice but a whole range of new voices. Our aim is to inform the conversation in a variety of ways through a variety of lenses. A focus on business and society is a core value of our school and nearly one third of our faculty do remarkable, world-class research addressing this theme.  Our students too, inspired and informed by our research, are impassioned, future leaders, looking to make a difference in the world.

Over the coming months, then, our faculty and students will be drawing on their unique vantage points to bring fresh insight and new knowledge to the debate about business and society. Whether it is climate change, fair trade, inequality, modern slavery, boardroom diversity, food waste, or employee wellbeing, they will have something novel, interesting, and informed to say.  And if they say it in enough different ways, maybe at least something will stick with our post-truth audience out there. Time will tell.