April 2, 2012, by ICCSR

Business Education for Responsible Capitalism

As is often the case following a business debacle, debate ensues about making business and capitalism more responsible. 

In the UK, Messrs Cameron and Miliband are scoring points off each other by offering ‘more responsible capitalisms than thou’, and more widely some business leaders are pointing to ethical, governance and regulatory business shortcomings.  All very welcome… if a little late?  Responsible capitalism is not simply about regulations and business culture but also about the knowledge, capabilities and awareness of people working in business.  The question therefore arises ‘what on earth do they get taught at business school?’

It should be recognised that not all business leaders went to Business School – and many of the financial whizz-kids actually studied Physics or Engineering; and many of those that did attend business school studied before the recent enthusiasm for responsibility.

But these points do not detract from the significance of the question: what are business school contributions to responsible capitalism?  

Our research demonstrates a growth in programmes and modules addressing responsible business themes and that there is a student demand for such education.  Leading schools appear engaged in the responsible business agendas, business school associations and accrediting bodies increasingly attend to the theme.  The United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education and the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes Index foster the idea. 

So what’s the problem?

Whilst many Schools can tick the box that a responsible business module has been added, I am less confident about how responsibility infuses the whole curriculum.  The dominant Business School performance indicator, the FT index, has as its key performance indicator graduate salaries.  As a result responsibility may co-exist with profits at any price, but that is hardly integration. 

A stakeholder analysis explains this neatly.  Students are the Schools’ core stakeholders: they pay the bills.  Universities encourage ‘a business model’ for Business Schools – they are a good source of income.  Employers look to Schools for staff – and reward graduates with high salaries and reward schools with various endorsements and other resources.  Society does not figure in most Schools’ real or imaginary stakeholder analysis so its expectations do not feature in School governance and strategy. 

If this could be addressed, perhaps Schools could become like the best of professions which are expected to serve their clients, themselves and the wider systems and societies in which they operate.

However, another question still nags: even if responsibility was run through the core of Business School education how can it impact on managers’ behaviour a decade or more later?  We use theoretical and conceptual frameworks to help students appreciate and differentiate models, approaches and relationships in responsible business.  We use data to present evidence about its effects (more usually on the company than on the society, it must be admitted).  We teach techniques and methods used by responsible business analysts and by those managing organisational change. 

What these approaches lack is some arresting way of encouraging critical reflection on one’s own responsibilities and their impacts on others… and can be effective ten years later when the Business School alumni need this most. 

At Nottingham we have tried various ways of putting students in more life-like situations than the class room to effect lasting learning opportunities.  Our annual film series, Doing the Business, is designed to engage students with key questions of ethics, responsibility and sustainability in business outside the class room and with the aid of a practitioner in the respective field.  Some of our blogs capture these alternative pedagogies.  Future blogs will highlight our other efforts to enable our students to make better informed decisions in later life.

Uncertainties about impact remain and it would be great to hear from our alumni about what had a lasting positive impact on their approach to responsibility in business … do I feel another research project coming on?

By Professor Jeremy Moon, Director of the ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School

Image copyright University of Nottingham

Posted in THEMES in Better Business