MBA progress, Nike’s board-level ethics and how to donate wisely

MBAs: getting responsibility on the syllabus

A decade ago, business school students were fed on a strict diet of profit maximisation. Gradually, perceptions on campus have changed. From tokenistic classes on ‘sham ethics’, business educators have sought to adopt a more ‘human-centred’ teaching model that integrates the social, economic and human elements. So how is the experiment unfolding?

The literature reaches a frank consensus. The institutionalisation of the subject within MBA courses remains “far from extensive”. For starters, business schools show little consistency, drawing variously on theories of corporate social responsibility, sustainability and sustainable development. Teaching methods and teacher commitment present a piecemeal picture too. The authors’ research, based on questionnaire responses from 103 business school faculty members and PhD students, indicates that only one in four of respondents think corporate social responsibility is integrated “a great deal” across their departments’ courses. Sustainability and sustainable development score even lower, at 13% and 11% respectively.

Curricular and administrative constraints are held up as a barrier in many cases, while the culture of certain schools can be severely detrimental as well. One way to turn the situation around is to identify a powerful champion for the subject, the paper suggests. The authors wisely point to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an important course accreditation group. Faculty should also look for frameworks that consolidate knowledge in this area. Suggestions include Simon Zadek’s notion of multistage corporate citizenship and Stuart Hart’s natural-resource-based view of the firm.

Controversially, the authors call on scholarly communities organised around the subject area to devote less time to research. Instead, they should be busying themselves designing innovative approaches to teaching and winning over recalcitrant scholars to their cause.

Doh J and Tashman P (June 2014), “Half a World Away”, Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, 21: 131–142.

Governance: board-level committees

Only one in 10 US corporations has a board-level committee dedicated exclusively to social and environmental issues. In that context, Nike is one of the rarities. In 2001, the then chief executive of the US apparel company, Phil Knight, established just such a governance structure. More than a decade later, this fascinating HRB article sets out to explain why that decision was a wise one.

Providing a source of expertise and acting as a resource for the board are two of the more obvious arguments put forward in favour of a board-level committee. Encouraging board accountability is another. Two other, even more compelling, reasons exist, however. The first is that the committee can act as a sounding board. Business leaders often suffer from a paucity of constructive critics. The fact that four of the five members of Nike’s sustainability committee are outsiders ensures they bring a “distinctive outlook” into the boardroom. This ability to see a problem afresh links to a second compelling driver: stimulating innovation. Nike’s sustainability committee, for example, was instrumental in pushing the company to reveal the names and locations of its contract factories – information considered highly proprietary until then.

Creating a corporate responsibility committee does not absolve the full board of its obligation to oversee the company’s social and environmental performance, the paper notes. But, through its “focus, expertise and sustained attention”, it can do much to keep senior leadership not only on track but ahead of the game.

Paine S (July–August 2014), “Lessons from Nike’s playbook”, Harvard Business Review, 86-94.

Strategic philanthropy: an emergent model

Advocates of strategic philanthropy prescribe a well-known formula: set clear goals, adopt data-driven strategies and, above all, rigorously evaluate the impacts of every penny given. Yet this “rigid and predictive model of strategy” doesn’t seem to be working, with ambition unmet and donors frustrated. The world of social investment is far more complex than existing strategies have assumed, this provocative essay argues. Successful interventions, for instance, involve negotiating cross-sector relationships and divergent motivations. They also suppose the tackling of the root causes underlying society’s complex problems.

The authors propose a new “emergent model” of strategic philanthropy. The Rockefeller Foundation, which launched an ‘impact investment’ investment fund worth $42m in 2008, provides their case study. Instead of adopting a prescriptive plan, the US charitable foundation followed three “emergent” principles that the authors argue other donors would do well to copy. The principles are a) co-creating your strategy (i.e. entering into dialogue with others), b) working out positive and negative “attractors” (i.e. identifying those “people, ideas, resources and events” that are moving the organisation towards or away from its goals), and c) improving system fitness (i.e. sharing visions across sectors, reinforcing trust between organisations and improving policies to encourage innovation, cooperation and the adoption of new ideas).

Think of it as approaching the strategy table with a compass, not a map. A map assumes you are going over known terrain, the paper says. A compass, in contrast, keeps you set on your goal “regardless of the unanticipated obstacles and detours that may appear during the journey”.

Kania J, Kramer M and Russell P (Summer 2014), “Strategic Philanthropy for a Complex World”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 12 (3): 26-33

From campus

Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain, is due to host the Third International Conference on Social Responsibility, Ethics and Sustainable Business 9-10 October 2014.

The Institute for Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University is due to run a three-day training seminar for sustainability practitioners in Durban, South Africa, 18-20 August 2014.

Academic news  Business School Bulletin 

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