Embedding “responsibility” in management education: a dream?

“Innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability”: those buzzwords of our time are given as the recipe to drive the dynamics of emerging economies or to revitalize the ailing European economies. Would that really be the angular stone upon which to build a livable “living together” for the world of today (that we borrow from our grand-children)? My answer is negative.

Our planet is in danger. Threatened by environmental changes (desertification, water wars, depletion of natural resources, species extinction,…), by the cancer of corruption, by the growing inequality, by exclusion, by violence (in cities, in families, in schools) we come to realize that something must be wrong in the way we run our planet, our societies. We cannot continue to abuse of our planet, to idealize “growth”, to let corporations to focus more on “money” rather than on the “person”, to let the benefits of globalization lost in its uncontrolled externalities, while the financiarisation and the commoditization of everything make their dramatic consequences increasingly visible. The train of globalization has no driver, a chaotic track and a foggy future: our hope that scientific progress and innovation will solve problems (if not produce a land of milk and honey) is wishful thinking, particularly at a time when we see a global apartheid in the offing. In short, the dominant neo-liberal model – that has led to so much progress and benefits – is showing its limits and the most enlightened thought leaders see that to rely on it does drive us to the wall.

Where can change come from? A change of tools, old wine in new bottles won’t do: we need a change of our dominant paradigm, we need a change in our priorities, we need to review our values, to invent a new future. Where to start in a world that has no global governance, where governments are often prisoners of short term, individuals are searching for meaning, where the civil society still hesitates to occupy the streets? To bring about the necessary change we will be more effective starting in a place where there is power: the enterprise. The enterprise is the institution, by excellence, where value is created (jobs, products and services, innovation, taxes contribution, community development, etc…) and value creation is associated with power – that brings “responsibility” (“power oblige”). Hence the necessity to initiate the needed transformation through a mindset change of the men and women at the top of the corporation: they have power and can make a difference. Business schools then have a key role to play: they produce future business leaders, they train current managers and try to enlighten corporate top executives. They influence, they “program” all those who trust them as a place to acquire or develop leadership and managerial competence. However, in most business schools, they are taught to have full confidence in the hand of the market, to focus on maximizing shareholder value, to use man as a “resource” (as a machine or a greenback), to minimize tax contribution, that “the end may justify the means”, that “if others do it I have to do it”… One should not then be surprised that with such managerial gospel we do produce more moral morons than responsible leaders. It is not an elective course in ethics, occasional references to CSR or to codes of conduct in the core curriculum, that will strengthen the student’s moral fiber or the moral compass of the manager. The business school curriculum has to be reviewed, changed to include a challenge of the dominant paradigm, a discussion of the purpose of the firm, and include new courses (e.g. history, sociology, imagination, spirituality, common sense).

The scope of the necessary transformation is significant, hard to implement with a faculty often rooted in the past and “programmed” in the dominant paradigm, with Deans often avoiding risks associated with drastic changes or radical innovations. We need to find enlightened deans, willing to take the less travelled road, to take risk, to innovate (beyond emerging teaching technologies such as MOOCs). Alternatively we need to create original learning institutions that rely upon a concept of management education based on a new definition of the purpose of the firm to create value for the benefit of the society (“Business to serve the economy, Economy to serve the Common Good, Common Good to serve the person). The world has changed, a new “civilization” is in the offing where sustainability should be fueled by “responsibility”. Not a dream. Let’s not wait that nature and society use violence to tell us it is too late.

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Henri Claude de Bettignies

Professor Emeritus, INSEAD ; Distinguished Professor (Emeritus) of Globally Responsible Leadership, CEIBS (Shanghai) ; Visiting Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Business.
  • Fabien

    A change of paradigm… so true… away from neo-cartesiano-positivist and F Taylor view and a different approach of what is value…