Within the principles-plus-implementation model, education provides opportunities for repeated practice. Students, instead of learning to manage up to the edge of the law and to assume that their ability to “make the numbers” will override the need to fix whatever messes they create in the world at large, have the opportunity to consider a broader vision of their purpose and role as business leaders and to practice taking responsibility for it. The new approach places emphasis on asking, What if we could manage in a responsible and skillful way? What would that look like? It helps people recognize the value of profit and wealth as not only something to accumulate, but something to use in building new enterprises or solving new problems.
Educators are taking advantage of the comparative safety of the classroom to encourage this kind of experimentation. The stakes are lower in school than they are on the job, so this is the appropriate time for students to take risks, to experiment with alternative framings of problems, to go down blind alleys, to ask the “unaskable” questions, and even to “change their minds in public” without fear of seeming weak and diminishing their stature, as Harvard Business School Professor David Garvin has argued.
Although time pressures still exist for the MBA student, the classroom offers the chance to slow time — to deconstruct a situation, to learn the value of reflection and the creative power of shifting one’s attention away from a narrowly defined focus for a moment, and to build up the capacity for rapid response by first practicing the components of decision making and implementation in slow motion. Just as a swimmer practices the components of his or her stroke before putting them together and building speed, so managers-in-training can use the practice field of a classroom to develop the muscle memory necessary for better judgment.
For example, the opportunity to use time constructively and to practice management skills with opportunities for “do-overs” is the bedrock of an innovative curricular approach to values-based decision making called Giving Voice to Values. Sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Yale School of Management, it is being piloted in more than two dozen institutions globally. The curriculum links implementation to personal commitment and self-awareness. Drawing both on the actual experiences of business practitioners and on social science and management research, Giving Voice to Values fills a long-standing and critical gap in business education by expanding the definition of what it means to teach values and business ethics. Rather than focusing on ethical analysis, this new curriculum poses the questions, What if you, as a business leader, were going to act on your values? What would you say and do? How could you be most effective? And it provides opportunities to build the capacity for values-based leadership, by giving students opportunities to practice articulating their ideas and action plans in front of their peers.
Stakeholders and Sustainability
For as long as I have been involved in management education, critics have decried the “silo-ing” of management knowledge; that is, the artificial and counterproductive separation of accounting, operations, marketing, and finance. Similarly, for decades, there has been a call for greater attention to diverse stakeholder perspectives, both internal and external, in business decision making. And the growing interest in business sustainability recognizes the short life span of many companies, as well as their damaging impact on social and ecological systems. But these concerns have had little influence, until now, on the overall structure of the typical MBA curriculum.
Every few decades, however, a wave of curriculum review and reform sweeps through business schools, and that seems to be happening now. Under way are some striking efforts to address concerns about silo-ing, lack of broader perspectives, and, in particular, unsustainability. A number of schools are developing systematic ways to incorporate the views and interests of multiple stakeholders, including investors, employees, and the community at large, into the decision-making processes and frameworks that they teach their students. The sustainability idea, which was originally associated with the natural environment, is now linked with broader social impacts and covers topics such as microlending in developing regions, maintaining respectful relationships with the communities in which a company locates its facilities, and taking care in handling the personal information of a company’s customers. Sustainability has become a popular way to frame a commitment to managing for the long term, allowing for more discussion of the risks associated with the now-prevalent short-term, quarter-by-quarter managerial emphasis. Discussions of sustainability also offer an explicit opportunity to talk about a corporate purpose that goes beyond maximizing shareholder profit.