Sustainability and the AACSB

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits business schools around the world. As of December 2013, 687 schools were AACSB accredited in 45 countries and territories (or less than 5% of the estimated number of schools offering business degrees worldwide).

Recently I was perusing the AACSB’s Business Standards, which are the basis for business school accreditation, and was surprised at the extent to which sustainability and related themes (e.g., corporate social responsibility) are an integral to the revisions adopted in 2013, from the opening paragraph of the document, through to the AACSB’s three core values and guiding principles, and into its expectations regarding undergraduate educational content. Below are some excerpts:

From the Preamble:

The business environment is undergoing profound changes, spurred by powerful demographic shifts, global economic forces, and emerging technologies. At the same time, society is increasingly demanding that companies become more accountable for their actions, exhibit a greater sense of social responsibility, and embrace more sustainable practices. These trends send a strong signal that what business needs today is much different from what it needed yesterday or will need tomorrow.

From Part 1: Core Values and Guiding Principles:

The following three criteria represent core values of AACSB. There is no uniform measure for deciding whether each criterion has been met. Rather, the school must demonstrate that it has an ongoing commitment to pursue the spirit and intent of each criterion consistent with its mission and context.

A. The school must encourage and support ethical behavior by students, faculty, administrators, and professional staff. [ETHICAL BEHAVIOR]

B. The school maintains a collegiate environment in which students, faculty, administrators, professional staff, and practitioners interact and collaborate in support of learning, scholarship, and community engagement. [COLLEGIATE ENVIRONMENT]

C. The school must demonstrate a commitment to address, engage, and respond to current and emerging corporate social responsibility issues (e.g., diversity,  sustainable development, environmental sustainability, and globalization of economic activity across cultures) through its policies, procedures, curricula, research, and/or outreach activities. [COMMITMENT TO CORPORATE AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY]

 Diversity, sustainable development, environmental sustainability, and other emerging corporate and social responsibility issues are important and require responses from business schools and business students.

 The school fosters sensitivity to, as well as awareness and understanding of, diverse viewpoints among participants related to current and emerging corporate social responsibility issues.

Guidance for Documentation

 Demonstrate that the school addresses current and emerging corporate social responsibility issues through its own activities, through collaborations with other units within its institution, and/or through partnerships with external constituencies

From Standard 9: Curriculum content is appropriate to general expectations for the degree program type and learning goals. [CURRICULUM CONTENT]

Curriculum content refers to theories, ideas, concepts, skills, knowledge, etc., that make up a degree program. Content is not the same as learning goals. Learning goals describe the knowledge and skills students should develop in a program and set expectations for what students should do with the knowledge and skills after completing a program. Not all content areas need to be included as learning goals.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs and Higher

General Business and Management Knowledge Areas

 Economic, political, regulatory, legal, technological, and social contexts of organizations in a global society

 Social responsibility, including sustainability, and ethical behavior and approaches to management

In sum, sustainability and related themes are now apparently integral to the AACSB business school accreditation process. Given the disciplinary power of ratings agencies, it will be interesting to see whether and how business schools respond.

Values Work Paper Accepted

I’m pleased to report that my paper with Linda Treviño and Raghu Garud on Values Work: A Process Study of the Emergence and Performance of Organizational Values Practices has been formally accepted for publication at the Academy of Management Journal. The paper has been a long time in the making and I couldn’t be more pleased with the final outcome.

In the paper we argue that existing cognitive and cultural perspectives on values have under-theorized the processes whereby values come to be practiced in organizations. We then address this gap by studying the emergence and performance of what we call values practices, defined as sayings and doings in organizations to articulate and accomplish what is normatively right or wrong, good or bad, for its own sake.

In other words, we conceive of values practices as ends in themselves, and thus, analytically distinct from organizational practices driven by technical or efficiency considerations. Examples of values practices include efforts to address normative concerns in areas such as ethics, diversity and sustainability, among others.

To understand values practices, we draw inspiration from scholars who have combined a practice perspective with insights from actor-network theory as a way of generating new theoretical insights. This approach enables us to move from cognitive understandings of values as abstract principles and cultural understandings of values as symbolic artifacts to a performative understanding of values as situated in networks of practices.

We apply this perspective to study the development of an honor code within a large business school over a 10-year period. Based on our analysis, we offer the concept of values work comprising four key interrelated processes – dealing with pockets of concern, knotting local concerns into action networks, performing values practices, and circulating values discourse. These processes are depicted in the figure below.

Taken together, these insights contribute to an understanding of the work involved in the emergence and performance of organizational values practices as well as the work that values practices perform and provoke in organizations. We conclude the paper by discussing some of the opportunities and challenges that values work implies for future organizational scholarship.

Putnam’s Ethics Without Ontology

Already this summer I’ve read a dozen or so books, most of them more or less academic. One of the books I read this weekend was Hilary Putnam’s (2004) Ethics Without Ontology.

The book consists of six lectures: four on “ethics without ontology” and two on “enlightenment and pragmatism.” Given my various research interests, I found the most profound and interesting parts of the book to be in essays 1, 4, and 5.

Essay 1: “Ethics Without Metaphysics.” This essay sets up Putnam’s next three essays.  On p. 24 he brings in Levinas: The foundation of ethics is my immediate recognition, when confronted with a suffering fellow human being, that I have an obligation to do something. No me, no ethics. No other, no ethics.  Thus, we can say that ethics is both personal and relational. To not feel the obligation is to not be ethical.

On p. 28, building on Dewey, he introduces the concept of “practical problems.” He interprets Dewey: Solving practical problems is the concern of ethics.

From here he turns to the issue of “controversiality” (pp 29-32). Solutions to practical problems are controversial — unless they are put into practice and succeed to the satisfaction of all those involved. In other words, problems cannot be solved in principle, only in practice, and even then, the solutions may “fail.” Indeed, even when a practical problem is successfully solved, there is still controversy as to whether the successful solution can be generalized to the next problem that seems similar. Even the “similarity” between problems is typically controversial!

Essay 4: “Ontology: An Obituary.” On p. 74 Putnam reprises quite quickly the “collapse of the fact/value dichotomy.” Valuings do not contrast with descriptions. There is an overlap between the class of valuings and the class of descriptions. As with solutions to practical problems (which are always ethical), ethical claims (i.e., valuings) are frequently controversial. But so are questions of fact (p. 75). In short, factual, descriptive and ethical valuings are controversial.

Some ethical questions are such that agreement is unlikely until such time as it can be demonstrated that we agree (p. 76). [Note the performative quality to ethical controversies.] And even in the case of success — i.e., cases where the problem is solved for now — questions may arise as to whether the same thing would work again the next time, or in the next case, etc.

If we try something in connection with a social problem and it works well, meaning to the satisfaction of those involved, those who object to such a solution in another situation are unlikely to concede that it will work again (pp. 76-77). In short, it is impossible to “verify” that something is the right thing to do, even when the success criteria are agreed upon, unless you have actually done it, and it has worked to everyone’s satisfaction. But even then, questions may remain about its ongoing applicability. This is a general feature of practical problems, that is to say, a general feature of ethical problems.

Essay 5: “The Three Enlightenments.” Lengthy quote from Dewey on the “common good” (p. 97). In short, the common good is only possible when it involves those whose benefits are intended. Again, more interpretation of Dewey as positing a kind of participatory democracy as integral to resolving social problems (pp. 99-100).

Although not invoked, recall Levinas’ ethics as implicating a me-other relationality. From this Putnam concludes that contra to Kant, Hobbes, etc., there can be no morality prior to sociality (p. 101). That is to say, moral beings do not confront the social world. Rather social beings confront the moral world, or perhaps, moral worlds. Although Putnam has supposedly done away with ontology, clearly he is saying there is a primacy of sociality over ethicality. But if that is the case, if I am social before I am ethical, then there are bound to be ethical lapses in social life. My capacity for ethical living grows out of my social life. The ethical response is a response to the confrontation of the other.

Is Starbucks Socially Responsible?

This semester I am teaching MGMT 451W Business, Ethics and Society, which is a required course for management majors at Smeal.  It is also a W course, which means that it is writing intensive.  As such it also fulfills one of their degree writing requirements.  Because of the focus on writing (and the amount of grading it generates) the class size is thankfully kept small — 25 students.

Our latest assignment asked: Is Starbucks a socially responsible company? I divided the assignment into two parts: 1) an individually authored paper (3-page maximum), and 2) participation in a team debate. First, students were giving the option of choosing their own teams or having me assign them to a team. (All picked the former option.) 

I then assigned each team to a particular stakeholder group (i.e., employees, consumers, or suppliers), along with a particular position (either arguing that Starbucks is or is not ethically and socially responsible towards the assigned stakeholder group).

In addition to being assigned a core group of five readings, everyone was expected to find 2 additional legitimate, credible sources related to their assigned stakeholder position . The papers were then to summarize the arguments for their assigned position (2 pages) and to counter expected arguments on their opponents (1 page). The assigned readings included:

  • Argenti, P. 200 “Collaborating With Activists: How Starbucks Works With NGOs.” California Management Review.
  • Herbst, M. Dec 31, 2008. “Starbucks’ Union Blues.” Business Week.
  • Maher, K. Jan 23, 2008. “Starbucks Emails Describe Efforts to Stop Unionization.” Wall Street Journal.
  • Starbucks Corporation. “2007 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.”
  • Stone, B. Jul 4, 2008. “Lax Real Estate Decisions Hurt Starbucks.” New York Times

Each team was then expected to combine these individual papers together for an in-class debate. On the day of the debate each of the six teams argued their side for 5 minutes.  Then we took about 5 minutes for them to caucus and decide how to spend their 2 minutes of rebuttal time.  

Along the way each team rated the four teams not related to its own position (e.g., the pro consumer team rated both employee teams and both supplier teams, but not themselves or the con consumer team). I also rated each debate team. Grades were assigned based on a combination of individual papers and each team’s ability to combine all the individual work into a cogent argument.

Along the way I developed a Debate Rating Sheet, a Grading Sheet, and an Assignment Feedback Sheet (designed for me to assess the assessment, namely, how well the assignment accomplished my learning objectives). Each of these is provided below.

Overall, the quality of the papers and the debate teams was better than I expected. Perhaps more importantly, feedback on the assignment exceeded my expectations in terms of the the learning and reflection it provoked on the part of the students. It turns out that many of them were assigned to positions that ran contrary to their own feelings and this forced them to see issues in a new light.

Through the assignment others recognized their own tendency to argue based on feelings and not credible evidence. Critically, almost everyone seems to have come away with the realization that ethics and social responsibility are not black and white issues. Instead, telling the story of companies such as Starbucks is complicated, one that defies a simple explanation or determination.

Download Debate Rating Sheet (29k .doc)
Download Grading Sheet (28k .doc)
Download Assignment Feedback Sheet (28k .doc)