On 20 December 2018 a PhD degree was awarded to Jelle van Baardewijk at the VU university in Amsterdam with a research study on moral education of Business Administration (BA) students at three Dutch universities. He investigated both the ethical-philosophical foundation of BA programs and the impact of this acquired knowledge on BA student’ behavior. The impact is remarkably low. First of all, hardly any attention is paid to ethics in BA study programs; secondly, BA students know little about ethics at all.
Based on his interviews, Dr. Van Baardewijk discovered five types of BA students. The two most striking types are: the student who wants either to become a manager with impact or a hard market-driven manager. The surveyed students only have of vague image of their future profession. Making profit and managing about twenty employees were among the most frequent answers.
Keeping these findings in mind, you’re inclined to agree with Mintzberg fulminating against business schools already for years. He wonders whether it makes sense to fill BA students with theories and instruments. At the same time, these students lack work experience. They can’t yet imagine how ethical issues really work in business practice. Mintzberg advocates to only permit BA students with work experience to enter a business school. Of course, the North American context that Mintzberg refers to differs from the Dutch; nevertheless, his criticism remains valid when examining Dutch BA programs. For example, these programs predominantly apply Anglo-American textbooks, with casuistry and focus on large multinationals, while in Dutch industry SMEs are key.
During the PhD ceremony, several opponents brought up the used “Q methodology”, Stephenson (1953). Can you draw any conclusions at all on this basis, in their view, weak method? To recall the wise words of Cor Lammers, professor of organizational sociology at the University of Leiden (1964-1993): “qualitative research outcomes are almost always confirmed by quantitative follow-up research!” Apart from the question whether quantitative research produces more powerful research results at all. The PhD candidate’s call for further research is in line with the well-known tradition of “further research is needed”. As a working hypothesis the initial findings of Van Baardewijk are a fine starting point. In my opinion, follow-up action research is required of relevant BA departments in co-creation with the business community.
The author highlights BA pre-assumptions in BA textbooks and lectures. Profit, competition, effectiveness and efficiency play a major role in the mostly used Anglo-American literature and cases. While the reality of the 21st century workfloor includes many more and deeper internal and external layers such as culture of fear, democracy, transparency, climate, diversity, the interests and concerns of employees, bullying in the workplace, and the physical environment. These layers are easy to expand ad libitum with, among others, discrimination, human and animal rights, loneliness, poverty, peace, exploitation, justice, the Sermon on the Mount, immigration, etc. Of course, a company can’t take the needs of the whole world on its neck. However, the ubiquitous corporate examples of abuses are a moral call for all of us to reconsider BA studies if we are serious about improving the world.
Choice processes in the ethics of companies
A lot of research has been executed on decision-making processes, with pioneers March and Simon in the 1950s to 1980s fifties of the last century. These and other studies show that decision-making is never straightforward, but is to a large extent determined by complex layered internal politics within organizations. This is beautifully portrayed in the British comedy series Yes Minister, later followed by Yes Prime Minister (1980-1984). In other words, ethics about internal or external company circumstances is not a rational line of ‘that’s how we do it here’, but always has to go through the disruptive funnel of decision-making.
Disinterest in ethics
Is ethics something for wimps? The lack of interest in ethics is not exclusive to BA but is more widespread in society. NRC Handelsblad published Saturday, January 4 2019 a number of articles about lawyers at the Zuidas region in Amsterdam. “We are there for the customer” is the moral. This is entirely in line with the the BA students profile described above, about their future work perception. Their professional image comes down to earning money and managing an x number of employees.
Ethics as a collective responsibility of companies
Van Baardewijk makes a number of relevant recommendations to improve the ethical dimension in BA courses, where business practice meets theory of history, sociology and political science. He advocates ethics not only focusing on the individual but also on the collective responsibility of organizations. In recent years, BA courses are already taking steps in this direction, such as re-introducing the practical internship. Nevertheless, BA departments at universities should pay more serious attention to and rethink the subject that Van Baardewijk investigated and reported. In developing their moral compass, BA students of tomorrow deserve sincere support from academia and practitioners.
Secondly, readers argue and underline the relevance of the moral compass theme, given the disruptive changes in business organizations nowadays.
Thirdly, the readers highlighted the interlinkage of the moral compass with new ways of organizing. This implies an organization type beyond the rather popular Machine Bureaucracy in Mintzberg terms. Readers agree to change to more modern types of organization that are flatter, less hierarchical and less rule based.
Your comments and good practice cases are most welcome!
Lisa van de Bunt, Vdbconsulting.com
- Baardewijk, Jelle J. van, The Moral Formation of Business Students, 2018
- Driessen, Camil, The career path on the Zuidas is simple: up or out, NRC Handelsblad, 4 January 2019
- Heijden, Teri van der, Joris Kooiman, ‘I would appeal to lawyers: show public leadership’ NRC Handelsblad, 4 January 2019
- Huygen, Maarten, ‘Do not know what’ do good ‘means’, NRC Handelsblad, 2 January 2019
- March, James G., & Johan P. Olsen), Garbage Can Models or Decision Making in Organizations. In: James G. March and Roger Weissinger-Baylon (Eds.), Ambiguity and Command, 1986
- Matthew 5, 6 and 7, the Sermon on the Mount
- Mintzberg, Henry, Managers Not MBAs, A Hard Look at The Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development, 2005
- Reason, Peter, & Hillary Bradbury, The Handbook of Action Research, 2nd Edition, 2007
- Scheffer, Paul, The moral myopia of Uber continues to surprise, NRC Handelsblad, 30 January 2019
- Simon, Herbert A. Administrative Behavior: A Study or Decision-making Processes in Administrative Organizations, 2nd ed., 1957
- Stephenson, W. The study of behavior: Q-technique and its methodology, 1953