Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Distracted Drivers

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Distracted Drivers

Article excerpt

Like Volkswagen, business schools have fostered some bad practices; they must rehumanise, says Douglas Board

The reputation of the entire automotive industry was damaged by the scandal late last year over Volkswagen's rigging of diesel emissions test results. But somehow nobody made the connection with what we might call the "business school industry".

Both are of a similar age, the business school and the internal combustion engine both having been born late in the 19th century. Both have large whole-system effects, reaching beyond the purchasers of individual products. Both do much good. But while we recognise that the auto industry also produces harm - mostly by accident; sometimes, as with Volkswagen, by design - society has barely registered the existence, let alone the scale, of business schools' harms.

For more than 10 years, distinguished "scholar-whistleblowers" such as Harvard's Rakesh Khurana and London Business School's Sumantra Ghoshal have flagged up some of these harms. To the jihad for shareholder value we can add meaningless work, leaders who are dehumanised and morally adrift, obsessions with league tables and, yes, the approach to ethics seen at Volkswagen.

Anyone wanting to change this situation confronts an ethical crossroads.

According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, the problem with the $20 billion (£13.8 billion) a year "leadership industry", including business schools, is that it is not sufficiently informed by science. In Leadership BS, published last autumn, he argues that what isn't science is wishful thinking. One example is ethics teaching. From this, he concludes that leaders should be taught to be more selfish. Yet this contradicts the commitment in many business schools to a larger place for ethics.

Pfeffer's target is primarily the crowd-pleasers, many with no academic credentials, responsible for the "almost limitless number of [leadership] books, articles, speeches, workshops, blogs, conferences, training sessions and corporate leadership development efforts". But he underestimates academia's reach in shaping and propagating "good" organisational and commercial practice - and its contribution to the fact that so much of the world - not simply Volkswagen - is managed by arseholes. …

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