Bringing Ethics to Life: Case Study Method and ARMA Internat

Article excerpt

What I hear, I forget.

What I see, I remember.

What I do, I learn.

Chinese Proverb

While most people find them stimulating, discussions of professional ethics sometimes seem a bit abstract. This "Perspectives" column provides a tested method for considering ethical situations in records and information management at a more specific, useful, and practical level than that permitted by more philosophical or theoretical approaches. Specifically, we will consider steps to enliven the ARMA sponsored "Code of Professional Responsibility" (see Appendix), which was introduced in an earlier column.(1)

While most of us who read newspapers or watch television realize that ethical professional behavior is an increasingly "hot" topic, understanding professional ethics does not come naturally. We are conditioned, of course, by family and society toward general ethical norms (e.g., don't steal, don't lie), and our fundamental values in these areas are formed in childhood. Typically, however, we have little instruction, training, or conditioning for the more specialized ethical behavior in our work lives. And, just as the content of each vocation varies, so does the set of ethical principles in each field. While many employers are issuing ethical codes for specific workplaces, these codes cannot address the specific issues of each of the occupations represented within that organization. And why should they; that is the role of professional associations. ARMA International has published a code; what is needed now is a way to bring its words to life. First, a basic premise about adult learning must be established.


Anyone who does a lot of training or teaching of adults has probably learned, perhaps even painfully, that instructional methods used to teach children (pedagogy) rarely work well with grownups. Increasingly, adults resist those who "talk at" them. The teaching-learning strategies for adults (andragogy) must--to be both accepted and meaningful--include a generous amount of participation or direct involvement. For transmitting specific factual information, lecturing often makes sense; but for developing values, judgment, and independent thinking--hallmarks of any field's professionals--a different direction is needed. In these areas, discussion oriented instruction is an increasingly effective substitute for lecturing.

Mediated discussion is a teaching/learning format which:

* Focuses on knowledge and judgment development rather than merely "dispensing" information,

* Is a learner-centered experience rather than being teacher centered,

* Emphasizes active vs. passive learning,

* Encourages expressive and participative behavior vs. reticent behavior,

* Fosters independent thinking vs. a mindless deference to authority (the teacher), and

* Promotes peer-level cooperative efforts found in professional settings.(2)

The case study method may be the form of guided-discussion learning most appropriate to the study of professional ethics.


Pioneered at the Harvard [University] Business School in the U.S., the case method for the study of management and related issues has evolved as a means to tie principles to practice and make concepts tangible and meaningful. In essence, "case studies" are pieces of prose with elements which often resemble those of a short story (i.e., characters, plot, dialogue). The review and discussion of lifelike cases accomplishes several objectives:

* It puts principles into concrete perspective,

* It facilitates that higher level of vision, judgment, and direction needed by the professionals in a field,

* It gives practice in analyzing situations, encourages the balancing of conflicts within a given situation, and helps the thoughtful practitioner choose the course of action best suited for a given situation,

* It helps guide later decisions by practitioners as they are confronted with new ethical decisions, and

* In group discussions based on cases, individuals can enrich their own views by understanding those of others. …