MBAs and ethics: Let’s hope they are not like consumers

I say this because as many of us know, consumers love saying they care about responsible business, but then fail to turn this idea into action when they buy.

Partly this is due to the fact that making ethical buying choices is not made easy enough, and partly it’s due to apathy and not usually keeping issues related to CSR top of mind when shopping (which is understandable).

Let’s hope MBA’s are not echoing consumers on the apathy/outright lying front.

Some new research from Durham Business School and the Association of MBA’s offers some cheering stats. The next generation of business leaders and managers are getting much keener on ethics, apparently.

The Post-Downturn MBA report, says (according to the press release, although I can’t find the report on the web or the press release so I can’t link to it, only an article about it, which take a different line from mine) that:

“just 10% of those graduating in the 1980s said that the curriculum examined corporate ethics to a large or very large extent. For those graduating in the 1990s, this figure rose to 16%. In contrast, almost half (49%) of those graduating in 2008-2009 said that ethics played a large or very large part in the curriculum, while 45% said the same about sustainability.”

This is interesting. Unless the people surveyed are telling porkies, it’s encouraging.

The report then says that:

“In terms of its importance in the current market conditions, alumni agreed that ethics have become important or very important (82%), whilst 75% said that corporate governance is now important or very important. Some 40% of business schools believe that to a “very large” extent, corporate social responsibility should underpin the actions of organisations.”

Good to hear. CSR has gone mainstream in MBA’s then? Maybe not, but penetration appears to be improving.

Business schools clearly need to raise their game though:

“When asked how the MBA could better prepare students post-downturn, almost one half (46%) of the respondents raised issues relating to sustainability or ethics.”

This is not a new finding. What is surprising is how long business schools have taken to react to this sea change in demand. And some are saying they have integrated it, when they actually have not:

“The question was also raised as to the degree to which business schools are perceived to cover key issues such as ethics as part of the core curriculum. For example, whilst 46% of schools say they cover business ethics as part of the core programme, only 23% of alumni said this was the case. The same was true for recent graduates where only 30% thought that business ethics was part of the core programme.”

This next finding may have Milton Friedman rolling in his grave:

“responses in the research indicate a shift away from the shareholder value- dominated perspective of business. The MBAs surveyed agreed to a large, or very large extent with statements such as “corporate social responsibility should underpin the actions of organisations,” (54%) and “the MBA should adopt a stakeholder focus concerning all those affected by the actions of an organisation, rather than just a shareholder focus” (59%).”

However, one starts to smell a small rat when one reads this final quote I selected:

“Business schools, however, seem even more convinced that a new approach is necessary. Some 79% agreed to a large or very large extent that the MBA should adopt a stakeholder focus rather than a shareholder focus, while 80% agreed to a large or very large extent that corporate social responsibility should underpin the actions of organisations.”

If that’s the case, why haven’t they done it sooner? Let’s just hope this report gets widely read among deans.

I’ve heard it can take many years for academic curriculae to catch up with society. The rate of change has no doubt acceleratd in recent years. For MBA’s, clearly, it can’t evolve fast enough.

I’ve argued for years that a big part of the evolution of responsible busines is down to generational change in management. That much will not happen until folks with more modern ideas get into business at a senior level. We are seeing this begin to happen now.

What we now need is business schools to help it happen even faster.

It seems ethics in MBA teaching may become a competitive issue for them as well as a moral one, if demand is really this high. I hope so.

(It’s a real shame the report is not freely available. I can’t even find the press release on the web, since it was emailed to me and I can’t post the PDF on here. But if you want the full report, contact Mark Stoddard at m.stoddard@mbaworld.com, +44 (0)20 7246 2697)


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  2. I agree that more business schools are incorporating attention to values, ethics and social and environmental impacts into the MBA curriculum. However, in order for that attention to actually have an impact, students need the opportunity to actually develop and practise delivering scripts and action plans for voicing their values in the workplace.

    More and more schools are adapting this approach (www.GivingVoiceToValues.org) Rather than a focus on ethical analysis, the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum focuses on ethical implementation and asks the question: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?”

    GVV has been supported by The Aspen Institute Business & Society Program, the Yale School of Management and Babson College. Drawing on both the actual experience of business practitioners as well as cutting edge social science and management research, GVV fills a long-standing and critical gap in business education. It helps students identify the many ways that individuals can and do voice their values in the workplace, and it provides the opportunity to script and practice this voice in front of their peers.
    GVV is now being piloted in over 100 educational and executive settings.
    Mary C Gentile PhD
    Director, GIivng Voice to Values
    Senior Research Scholar, Babson College

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