Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Teaching the Ethics of Sustainability

Yesterday, one of my twitter feeds brought me an interesting article posted at the Harvard Business blog, with the controversial title of "MBAs Cheat. But why?" I read the blog post with great interest, agreeing with most of what was being said there. Scrolling down a bit, I was intrigued by a comment made by Jim Champy, which essentially held the opposite view: that MBAs are less likely to cheat in business as compared to non-MBAs, and further suggesting that the global financial crisis was triggered by the indiscriminate unethical actions of sales professionals with different backgrounds, mostly non-MBAs. I commented on that comment, wondering where Mr Champy got that from, if indeed it was based on hard data, and speculating that his theory probably arose more out of personal prejudice than fact-based intelligent opinion. This morning I went back to see if my comment was posted and how it looked on the blog page (vanity!) and found several additional comments on various aspects of the original posts and its key submissions, as also comments on other comments. There seemed to be a fairly interesting debate on whether MBAs cheated more than other professionals, set in the context of what B-schools could or should do about this. While the original blog post made some hard-hitting observations, I thought that most of the commentators were dragging the debate down into anecdotes and statistics about which class of professionals cheated more, and this inspired me to post my second comment, which I reproduce here with some minor changes.

For a moment, let's park the debate on whether MBAs cheat more than non-MBAs do, together with all the anecdotal and statistical evidence within our collective body of knowledge that points one way or another. (I know this is a key element of Donald McCabe's blog post to begin with, but let's keep that aside for now, take a look at the bigger picture and then come right back to the role of B-schools in this context.) The trigger to this discussion, and various related discussions (here and elsewhere on the web and other forums) on ethical practices / behavior, has undoubtedly been the global economic crisis. So let's look at the big picture for a moment. I know that several root cause analyses have been carried out and various observations and recommendations propounded by various analysts, economists, industry experts, political pundits, academics and scholars, practitioners, financial / business journalists and bloggers. However, to my mind, one thing stands out clearly as the key driver to this situation, which I hereby name as the 'causal smoking gun' as one reader has dubbed it.

Over the years, we have created a culture of over-achievement in business and that has extended to everything else (including sports which is now big business). And we're proud of it: we worship over-achievers in every sphere and every walk of life. Over-achievement by definition means going beyond current benchmarks of achievement, beyond even 'stretch targets', to attain the impossible. Every era has a myth that drives leaders and star performers of that era, and in this era it is the myth of over-achievement. A close corollary (though not an intrinsic pre-condition) which is subtly understated (if at all) but well understood is that you can over-achieve at any cost if you're smart enough to get away with it. You then become a hero, who everyone will idolize. (Even athletes cheat, these days - if not for financial gain then to break records.)

If we think over-achievement is a good thing then so be it - there's no need for reform, in B-schools or elsewhere, and let's agree to live in a world where crises like these will happen repeatedly over time like all other cyclical phenomena. If on the other hand we think this is not a good thing, then let management thinkers and B-schools take the lead in determining how to change it. Clearly, I would throw my mite with the latter. I propose two key words to focus on: ethics (obviously) and sustainability (which is not necessarily derived from an ethical perspective). Ethics and morality tend to be deontological in nature i.e. they preach the doctrine of 'be good, do good' as an end in itself. This works best side-by-side with an accompanying culture of self-regulation, and if that is a successful dynamic then there is no need for hard external regulation. Sustainability is a bit different in the sense that it does not directly deal with 'goodness' in itself or by itself. Sustainability as a value or principle is teleological in nature i.e. it focuses on outcomes and advocates aiming at the larger and longer term desirable scenario. In extreme situations, sustainability may even require a temporary suspension of the ethical, when one is challenged to transcend the smaller / short-term definition of 'good' in deference to a larger / long-term 'good'. It is precisely because these ideas and concepts are soft and nebulous, if not vague, that such subjects need to be taught to students, and not just in B-schools.

The pursuit of sustainability as a guiding principle (the "North Star" in Mr McCabe's post) would deal with creating a normative framework where guidelines / norms / rules etc., are defined in the context of one simple question that must govern every strategic, tactical, operational plan and/or activity in business, and that question is - "Would this lead to a better, longer and more prosperous life for all of us on planet earth?" It is not necessarily about ethics alone - it is about survival and longevity. Teaching ethics is a good way to catalyze the process and inculcate the culture of responsibility and self-regulation. Clearly if we don't behave ourselves, someone (an authority) or something (a disaster) will make sure that we do, eventually. But a focus on sustainability as a broader idea (i.e., a concept much wider in scope than just the word might suggest - there's an ecological, a social and a financial aspect to it) in B-school curricula would certainly go a long way in avoiding disasters in the future.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Where The Mind is Without Fear - Rabindranath Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls 
Where words come out from the depth of truth 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake