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.