Reforming Management Education
Reforming Management Education
This series will showcase seven visions for how to reform business management and public policy schools.

Management education, particularly MBA education, is facing an existential crisis. Despite rapid growth in program offerings over the past two decades, threats loom. Many leading institutions in the United States have seen a decline in applications recently, arguably due to the current political climate. More broadly, commercial online-education providers have made skill acquisition and even credentialing both more affordable and flexible. Customized offerings through major companies—who also are often major recruiters for the leading business schools—are increasingly sophisticated and financially viable, especially at a time when simply maintaining an academic institution has pushed tuition out of reach for many. Meanwhile, both corporate users and educational accreditation bodies have expressed concern about the need for more “relevant” research—a need that often seems to run counter to the publishing demands placed on tenure-track faculty.

At the same time, management education is also facing a crisis of purpose. It has become relevant and necessary—and even fashionable—to ask whether these programs are preparing students not only for current and future business and market realities, but also for societal needs. In response, many business schools have adopted broad mission statements that address the role and responsibility of business as an institution and business leaders as global citizens. It is not unusual to see mission statements that talk about changing the world for the better, but it seems reasonable to doubt whether we are doing all we can to meet this lofty objective.

Between these questions of short-term survival and wider purpose, management education is caught in the same sort of quandary that we see reflected in the world’s larger environmental and social challenges: We struggle between short-term costs and long-term needs; between immediate fears and future possibilities; between the potential presented by technological advancement and its unforeseen consequences on humanity; and between emotion and reason—neither of which is sufficient on its own.

Beyond Dichotomous Framing

When management education actors try to work on these challenges, we too often are caught in a “Scylla and Charybdis” situation of our own making. On the one hand, we try to solve those immediate and individual competitive challenges via a focus on delivery modalities (e.g., online versus in-person; print cases versus simulations or virtual reality; development of international experiences), or on new content (e.g., design thinking, entrepreneurship, data analytics, behavioral economics). We hope to teach new ideas with new methods that will differentiate ourselves in the market, but we do not actually address the raison d’etre for learning these things. On the other hand, we try to solve the crisis of purpose with aspirational slogans and mission statements, and with new courses on corporate social responsibility, or social entrepreneurship, or business ethics, that too often raise the issues and make the case without providing skills.

These are all worthy endeavors and useful in their own ways. Yet, they risk being either too modest—enabling without inspiring—or too grand or superficial—inspirational without enabling. Faculty who value scholarship and knowledge creation are understandably uncomfortable with the latter, and those of us who see the challenges business professionals face now and into the future are dissatisfied with the former. And everyone—faculty and students alike—is all too aware of the time constraints of academic programs that, for pragmatic reasons, are precipitously shrinking in length.

Amid the many wonderful ideas for ways to enhance management curriculum and resolve this seeming “Scylla and Charybdis” challenge, perhaps it is in the way we frame the questions we ask and answer that the greatest gains can be made. When business schools try to address the questions of wider purpose, they often do so by means of debate. That is, for fear of appearing too normative or too tendentious, they sometimes fall into the trap of “false dichotomies.” I have often seen the sustainability issues framed, for example, as a debate between economic realities and environmental aspirations.

There are a number of problems with this dichotomous framing. First, this framing requires students to take a premature and limited stance on the issues that precludes options. By “options,” I am not referring only to the so-called “win-win” solutions; those of course are sometimes possible and often desirable. Rather, I am talking about actually reframing the question and by so doing finding the shared purpose and commonality of motivation behind it. In practice, this translates into locating shared goals, instead of simply finding a way to satisfy some of my goals, as well as some of yours, and agreeing to forego the rest. In an increasingly polarized world, this sort of genuine collaboration is critically needed.

Let me give an example: Years ago, I designed and taught the first elective on “managing diversity” at Harvard Business School. This was in the mid-90s and the vast majority of my students, even in a course on diversity, were white and male. I wanted to do a session on affirmative action, and, expecting it to be a controversial subject, I developed a case study on the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to use a lottery to distribute spectrum rights, in an effort to be more inclusive of small and women-owned and minority-owned businesses. This was clearly a sort of potholder case designed to let us talk about a hot issue with some distance. But the students saw right through this framing, and no one—not even in a course where one’s grade depended on class participation—would speak.

Needing to take a different tack, I drew a vertical line dividing the whiteboard into two sections and then asked the students to pretend that they were all passionate opponents of affirmative action: What were the underlying values that drove their position? They generated a list of terms like justice, fairness, meritocracy, equal opportunity, quality, and performance. Then, I asked them to pretend that they were passionate supporters of affirmative action and to produce a list of values that drove that position. They produced, of course, the same list. At that point, we stood back from the board and recognized the commonality of values. We acknowledged that this recognition by no means made the topic easier to discuss, but from this recognition we could begin to frame the discussion as one of implementation, rather than of moral character.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there are no bad motivations, or that some of the students might not have harbored prejudices. I simply wanted to get the students to pursue the discussion as if they were working toward a shared, values-driven objective. This opens the space for those students who are open to such a solution to maneuver, while enabling those who harbor unconscious bias to begin to see beyond those biases without having to feel shamed in order to do so.

An Innovative Pedagogy for Leadership

This reframing of the seeming conflicts between economic objectives and wider societal needs as “what if” scenarios, rather than “false dichotomies,” is at the heart of the “Giving Voice to Values” pedagogy (GVV). This innovative approach was developed as a means to address the challenges and discomforts that students and faculty alike felt with addressing values and ethics in the management curriculum. Students often found these discussions unfocused, preachy, or condescending, or merely unrealistic and impractical. Faculty often felt the same way, as well as uncomfortable with covering material outside their disciplines that took space on already crowded syllabi. In addition, I began to recognize that the way we would frame these values-based discussions—as false dichotomies—ran the risk of encouraging sophistry: Students would rehearse arguments and justifications for nearly any position, and they would imbibe the conviction that these choices were almost always “zero sum.”

Aware of these challenges and informed by the observations and emerging research in social psychology, behavioral science, and cognitive neuroscience, GVV takes an entirely different approach. It is not about persuading people to be more ethical in their business and treatment of the planet and other people. Rather, GVV starts from the premise that most of us want to act on our values—and that there are, in fact, many shared values or “hyper-norms” among us—but that we also want to feel that we have a reasonable chance of doing so effectively and successfully. This pedagogy is about raising those odds. Rather than concentrate on ethical trade-offs, GVV focuses on ethical implementation and asks the question: “What if I were going to act on my values? What would I say and do? How could I be most effective?” 

This is the “GVV Thought Experiment.” Instead of asking, “What would you do?”—a question that triggers the sort of emotional and psychological reactions and biases that cause us to act out of emotion and then rationalize post-hoc why our actions were the right or the only option—GVV cases are “post-decision making,” as Carolyn Woo, former dean of University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, describes them. Students are asked to focus not on whether to behave ethically and responsibly, but on how one might do so effectively. Through the form of an assignment, we give students both the permission and the cover to address these issues without feeling vulnerable, and we engage skeptical students in working on these challenges without requiring them to be convinced it is possible before they start. The discussion is removed from the realm of philosophical analysis and placed squarely in the realm of practical action.

In this way, the concerns of both students and faculty are addressed. This is not preaching; it is about action planning and scripting. This is not a distraction from the already crowded syllabus, because the students are asked to use the very language, frameworks, and analytics of the discipline at hand to make their case for a values-driven position. (Managers don’t typically reference John Rawls or Aristotle when making their case.) This is not about adding new courses—from the humanities, and the natural and social sciences—that are hugely important but that run into faculty, budget, and time obstacles. Rather, this is about helping students recognize the questions that these other disciplines will help them answer and encouraging them to value and seek out the input of experts. And GVV is not impractical. In fact, although developed for use in management education, increasingly companies (and other professions) are piloting GVV programs because they see it as a powerful leadership development approach.

Inspiring and Enabling People Around the World

As GVV has spread rapidly all over the world—piloted on all seven continents with translations into several languages—and to many schools, companies and organizations, we have also encountered questions and concerns. For example, some business educators who acknowledge the appeal of GVV argue that it would not be relevant to other cultures. On the contrary, we have seen great interest in other regions. For example, the United Nations Global Compact Principles for Responsible Management Education funded a project to develop ten GVV-style cases on anti-corruption in India, written by Indian faculty. The ILO and German University of Cairo funded a similar project in Egypt that resulted in eight published GVV cases on business and social impacts. The approach has been featured in many African countries, too, from a pan-Africa executive education program, to an undergraduate program at Ashesi University in Ghana, and a customized GVV program for Unilever in Nigeria as well as South Africa. The book and/or some of the curriculum have been translated in Mandarin, Korean, Russian, with forthcoming materials in German and Arabic.

Along the way we have learned how and why this can work across cultures:

  • GVV starts from a place of respect (not teaching values but appealing to the widely shared values—the “hyper-norms” that learners are likely to already share).
  • It acknowledges context (that there are realities on the ground that make some ethical choices very difficult or sometimes risky) without abdicating to the idea that, therefore, the underlying values are not relevant or the idea that those who live in a particular region are thoroughly happy with the challenges they face.
  • It applies the “GVV Thought Experiment,” reducing the emotion and defensiveness that may otherwise be triggered.
  • It tries to include positive examples from within the culture at hand.
  • And it explains that the voice in “Giving Voice to Values” is a metaphor. That is, voice does not mean stomping one’s foot and accusing one’s boss or customer of being evil; rather, it is all about re-framing choices, building coalitions, gathering data, crafting scripts, and building action plans—and then “rehearsing” them and engaging in peer coaching to enhance them. In this way, we address concerns about cultural deference to authority.

GVV was inspired by and based upon research that suggested that rehearsal, pre-scripting, and coaching were effective tools to build the “moral muscle memory,” and the comfort and habit of effective voice and action. But users requested more impact studies to determine whether and how GVV was fulfilling these objectives with regard to the future behaviors of students and the current choices of employees. Now that the approach has been used for several years, companies as well as academics have begun to conduct this research, and we are seeing encouraging results. On the academic side, for example, accounting faculty have been using the approach long enough to collect data and publish articles about the positive results. On the corporate side, Lockheed Martin, which is the company that has used GVV for the longest period of time, has also gathered promising results from employee feedback.

But in order to address the challenge to management education of marrying inspiration with enablement, purpose with skill-building, and emotion with reason, the reframing of the questions we ask and answer needs to transcend the ethics courses, the corporate social responsibility and sustainability courses, and the orientation programs. We now need to ask not whether profit can co-exist with sustainability; not whether investors can assess and consider ESG factors; not whether business can have a policy voice in the service of longer term and wider societal goals—but how we can do all these things effectively, efficiently, responsibly, and appropriately in a diverse society. That is, we need to ask how can we move beyond the false dichotomy, and even beyond the “win-win,” to find the values that we actually already share and can build upon. We need to give students the permission, even the assignment, to apply the tactics, analytics, and lessons of every management discipline to these societal survival goals, rather than getting stuck on whether this is the domain of business. This is not only the right thing for management education to do; it is essential to its survival.