Friday, October 23, 2009

How to integrate responsible business into the MBA

This week saw the release of the Aspen Institute's biennial 'alternative ranking' of business schools. Rather than the usual focus of b-school rankings on criteria like how much MBA students manage to increase their salaries by, what proportion of students get employed after graduating, or how well networked the student body is internationally, the Aspen institute looks at how well the school does in integrating social, ethical and environmental issues across its MBA curriculum and faculty research. "Our mission" they say, "is to spotlight innovative full-time MBA programs that are integrating issues of social and environmental stewardship into curricula and research."

The list of top schools includes a lot of the world's leading business schools - names such as Yale, Stanford, Michigan, and Berkeley consistently feature in the top 10. But there, right at the top, in number one spot, is our own school, the Schulich School of Business at York University. For two professors who spend day-in, day-out working on responsible business issues, this is a source of some pride for us. So we hope you'll forgive us if for a moment we bask in the reflected glory of our school's achievement, and take the afternoon off to sink a glass of celebratory champagne.

But we're not writing this blog just to boast. Well maybe we are. But what we've noticed since we've been here, and especailly in the last few days, is that along with the congratulatory messages, we've also received a lot of requests from faculty at other schools to provide insight into Schulich's secrets of success. After all the school has not been out of the top 5 since the Aspen ranking was launched in 2001. This may be our first time at no.1, but Schulich has been ranked no.3 for the last two cycles, taking us back to 2005 (before that, the ranking only grouped top schools but did not give specific placings).

So as far as we're concerned, being at the top also means we have a certain responsibility to help disseminate good practice. The Aspen Institute has traced a strong trend towards increasing integration of responsible business in business schools over the years, and part of the reason for celebrating good performance is is that it prompts others to respond and emulate these successes. B-School deans in general respond pretty well to the incentives offered by rankings, so they can be quite a force for change in the sector.

So what then accounts for Schulich's success? As relative newcomers to teh school (we joined Schulich in Jan 2007), we can't say we have all of the answers. Nor, certainly, can we claim all the credit. As it goes, we can't even claim much of the credit, which is a point we'll explain a little more in a minute. But we do have a pretty good view of what's going on here and what seems to be working (and what isn't). We've also benefited from working at other top schools in the area, especially the University of Nottingham, which is no.1 in the UK. So, here goes for a very unscientific analysis of the top 5 critical success factors for bringing responsible business into the MBA curriculum and research:

1. Start early and take the long view
Schulich started on this path way back, long before most other business schools even thought about social, ethical and environenmental issues as relevant for mainstream business education. By the time we arrived, the school was already well advanced; responsible business was widely embraced across the school, not just by a few dedicated faculty. This takes time to achieve. Success won't come overnight, however much money and other resources you throw at it.

2. Create a virtuous cycle
Related to the above is the very real fact that success in this arena breeds success. Schools that are high in the ranking attract students committed to responsible business who then demand even more courses and events - and even better ones - which keeps us constantly on our toes. Success in the Aspen rankings also attracts faculty who work on responsible business issues, who then go on to produce yet more research papers, and introduce even more specialized courses related to their own particular area. We now have almost 40 faculty members that spent at least some of their time on responsible business issues. Features like this introduce a 'built to last' competence in the area

3. Don't build a CSR ghetto
Most schools now have a centre or unit for CSR or something like that. This is great. But it can also pose a danger to real integration across the school. Sometimes it can be just a little too much fun to play in your own sand pit, and not get out there and build up competence across the entire faculty. Success in this field requires a huge team effort, not just one or two stars. At Schulich, the current ranking reflects some 162 separate MBA courses and 54 research papers during a two year period. Crane and Matten have been busy, but not that busy. So centres are good, but they have to work in a way that inspires and galvanises the school, and doesn't simply take over the CSR agenda.

4. Encourage innovation
OK, so it sounds obvious, but lots of schools are not too innovative when it comes down to it, and various systems and turf wars over the MBA curriculum can stymie real change. Faculty and students involved in responsible business are often very ambitious and entrepreneurial ... and typically have something of a mission behind them too. So they need to feel that they can start new courses and projects rathe than having to fight with administrators all the time just to get started. Give em enough room and they'll start swinging some cats for sure.

5. Gain commitment from the top
Anyone who's been involved in this field knows how important it is for senior management to be leading the agenda - this is as true for business schools as it is for businesses. At Schulich we've been lucky enough to have a Dean that is as committed to this stuff as we are. Never a speech goes by that he doesn't mention the importance of the triple bottom line and a multiple stakeholder orientation. It's an important part of the school's positioning. If you don't have that kind of support, it's going to be a whole lot tougher to get any real traction across the faculty.

We can think of a whole lot of other factors that can play a role in achieving success, but these 5 at least capture some of what we regard as the main reasons, at least here at Schulich. Of course, it helps to have resources, to be a relatively large school, and to have some decent management systems in place, too. But those can be good things to have whatever it is you want to achieve as a school. Integrating responsible business in the b-school represents a unique set of challenges. We're not saying we've got there yet; there's still a long way to go before even the schools at the top of list really get responsibility at the very heart of the MBA. But we'll worry about that next week. For now, it's time for that champagne....

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rethinking the division of labour between business and government

We liked this interview with Richard Haass in the McKinsey Quarterly where he talks about the implications of the new division of labour between and government. As he says, "the lines between what is government and what is the private sector of business will get blurred.... CEOs, when they get up in the morning and look out through their window or across their desk, they are dealing with a range of constituencies that looks an awful lot like what a cabinet member might look at." The basic ideas align pretty much with our own work on corporate citizenship and global governance, but seeing them getting such prominence from McKinsey shows just how much the whole agenda is starting to be taken seriously by the business community.

We were particularly interested in his thoughts on how companies should adapt to this 'new normal', as McKinsey likes to put it. Haass promotes a new way of thinking about business-government relations - an expanded perspective that not only thinks in terms of lobbying and political action committees, but about what the changing division of labour means for the company as a whole. As he says, we need to, "think about government and government-related issues not as something that you have a small side office [for], some vice president for government relations who maybe calls a congressional staffer when he’s got an issue. But it’s something now much more intrinsic, and every person in the company—certainly the upper echelon of leadership—needs to take this into account, needs to think very hard about what is the proper, desirable role of government for that company. ... the entire issue of government, and the division of labor between the company and government, needs to be something that is thought through from the outset."

Haass is short on specifics in the interview, but it certainly sends a clear message that we need to go further in working through what the expanded set of political responsibilities might look like. And it definitely crashes a rather large plank over the heads of most of our colleagues doing research on corporate political action who seem to simply be blind to the bigger picture of what's happening around business and politics. Dirk's article reviewing recent books by Robert Reich and Naomi Klein explains a little more where we think some of the problems are in this respect. If even the McKinsey Quarterly is getting it, surely our fellow management researchers won't be too far behind. We live in hope.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ringing the changes at France Telecom?

Crane and Matten have both been spending time in different parts of Europe this week, and the big business ethics story of the moment here is the fall-out around the France Telecom suicides. The company has experienced some 24 suicides among its employees in the last 20 months, leading to a very public denouncement of the company's increasingly aggressive human resources policies. Many of the suicides have been accompanied by complaints or even suicide notes by the victims about extreme pressure at work, and the anxiety brought on by forced relocation, demanding targets, and insensitive management practices.

This week saw the announcement that the company's no.2, Louis-Pierre Wenes, has stepped down in response to the worsening crisis, as reported here by the BBC. Wenes had been responsible for pushing through the harsh cost cutting measures at the firm and had been widely regarded as a key architect of the new management practices at the firm, as well as the 22000 lay-offs that have befallen France Telecom employees since 2006. The company had earlier announced a moratorium on its controversial job reassignment policy.

The starkness of the personal tradegies involved is pretty much unavoidable. What can a company say when its employees are terminating themselves in the most extreme way and laying the blame directly on the work culture? Probably the worst way to handle it of course is to deny the problem and just hope it goes away, which is pretty much the strategy that France Telecom appears to have adopted before this week. Suicide is hardly an early warning signal that something is amiss in the human resource area. The company clearly should have dealt with the issues long before they bubbled up into this kind of crisis. Whatever the numbers of suicides - even if it was only a handful - there must have been a whole host of other indicators - absenteeism, poor performance, harassment etc, - that should have been picked up months if not years ago. To say, as Paul Betts does in the Financial Times, that the company simply "mishandled" the crisis, and that the government was in effect to blame for forcing the changes on the company seems woefully inadequate as an analysis of a seriously flawed ethical culture prevailing in the firm and the very real executive accountability that the firm's leaders will have to acknowledge.

Muddying the waters somewhat is the debate that has arisen around the typical suicide rate among any large number of people. Earlier suggestions by the FT that the per capita rate of suicides at France Telecom was no more than the national average seem somewhat disingenious when what we are talking about here is not simply whether this is a statistically significant number of suicides but whether the suicides have arisen from a common cause. We're not seeing anyone saying that in fact France Telecom was really a happy and friendly place to be, or that it was a successful nurturing culture that made people feel rewarded and respected. Employee suicides are just one extreme manifestation of a toxic culture - they naturally become the media story but they're not the beginning and the end of the story by any means.

Of course, all this is easy to see in hindsight ... though clearly the unions involved have been warning of problems at the company for some time - warnings that in the main have gone unheeded. You'd have thought that such a company would have been on top of the basics such as having an ethics hotline. What could be more natural for a telecoms company? As for companies watching the crisis unfold at France Telecom, they may well be sighing in relief that its not them caught in the maelstorm. The smarter ones though will be thinking its probably about time to check on the employee satisfaction ratings. The even better-prepared ones won't even need to check because they'll have been tracking them all along. There is no excuse for waiting until even one employee cracks under the pressure and takes their own life. Twenty-four is beyond any boundaries of acceptability. Whatever the stats on 'normal' rates.

Photo by Leo Reynolds. Reproduced under creative commons license