New Approaches to Business Ethics – University of South Australia

Many schools have been teaching business ethics classes for years, some as electives, some as part of the core. The question is no longer whether or not business ethics should be taught, but how to best teach it. One school that has been testing out a new approach is the University of South Australia Business School. Here they have created a course that is not only part of the core, but is not textbook based. I spoke with Thomas Maak from the University of South Australia Business School about their new approach.

Introduce your new course on business ethics.

“Business ethics” is a new course for all post-graduate management students. Previously an elective offering, we decided to make an introductory course on the ethical challenges for businesses compulsory, demonstrating a long-standing commitment of School and faculty to research and teaching in the area of ethics, sustainability and corporate integrity. The course design is novel in that it focuses on the ‘grand challenges’ for businesses and their leaders rather than a textbook-driven approach. It is built on the understanding that in order to succeed in an environment of contested values managers at all levels need to understand the real challenges, develop skills, relational and ethical abilities, as well as moral imagination, and demonstrate responsible leadership.

How does the course work?

“Business ethics” follows a 10-week schedule (30 hours in total) and a highly interactive format. That is, following a short introduction into the topic students are then engaged in classroom discussion, short cases and some group work. The first session provides the context and identifies some of the key challenges and is entitled ‘Business in an environment of contested values’. Week 2 forces student to rethink their assumptions about the purpose of business and engages them in a discussion on purpose beyond profit, including social performance and hybrid organizations. In week 3 we review the history and significance of CSR and how its meaning has shifted over the decades. Subsequent sessions include social innovation and the advancement of human dignity; stakeholder management and resolution of stakeholder conflicts; how to deal with daily temptations and the weakness of will; and ethics and the (mis)-use of power in organizations. The last session of the course outlines the pathways to responsible leadership and a roadmap for students on how to become a responsible leader.

Hence, the last three sessions expose the students to the challenges of moral and financial corruption, the corrosive nature of power, and the intricate relationship of toxic leadership and institutional pressures. For example, we discuss the omnipresent practice of gift-giving and how it may lead to the corrosion of character – stressing the virtues of transparency and integrity; we explore the dangers of groupthink and organizational pressure and what leaders must do to ensure and enhance respect, dignity and well-being at work. While these themes are timeless the discussions with students from different cultural backgrounds and the discussions of current cases ensure an intriguing contemporary business ethics landscape.

What is unique about the approach you are taking?

The course is driven by the ‘grand challenges’ that business faces and the responsibilities that emerge from it. Literature and textbooks are used as reference and background only, not as a foundation. Instead, the course seeks to develop critical insights and reflective abilities, and guiding practical knowledge, such that students are equipped to master future ethical challenges in informed ways – through integrative thinking. To support that learning process guest speakers make the course and respective challenges tangible, up-to date cases illustrate the topics at hand and a weekly reflective journaling exercise helps to capture the key takeaways. In addition, students work in groups on a CSR character analysis, choosing a company and investigating its CSR performance and authenticity. They also present and discuss their findings in class.

What do you mean by ‘grand challenges’

By ‘grand challenges’ I refer to the challenges in a ‘vuca’-world and the aspirational objectives captured in the SDGs, in particular the ones focused on the environment, poverty, inclusion, equity, peace and dignity. The acronym “vuca” has gained traction in recent years because it captures the experience of many business leaders that the world in which they operate has become quite volatile and uncertain, that it is increasingly complex and that they have to make decisions under conditions of ambiguity, especially across cultures. Moreover, not only are businesses under more scrutiny than ever but stakeholders at home and abroad expect more: they want business to play an active role in addressing climate change; it is argued that business must do more to fight poverty and increasingly, we witness a call for businesses to accept their political responsibility as a company and contribute in conducive ways to peace, human dignity and above all, to the affirmation of human rights wherever a company or its subsidiaries operate. What this means in detail, and how companies should go about it, is of course contested territory and reflects the ambiguity of both, the shifting expectations of stakeholders and the changing nature of the role and purpose of the corporations in the 21st Century.

What have been some of the challenges? Successes?

The challenges are perhaps the most common ones for an Australian university. Many international students are exposed to business, ethics, and sustainability for the first time. Our practical as well as reflective approach – in light of the grand challenges – helps them a lot. Like in most places our course could be better integrated with the rest of the traditional curriculum, especially finance, economics and other ‘hard’ topics.

The course is now in its second year and its success comes in form of excellent student feedback making it one of the most highly ranked courses. Student applaud the fact that it is current, tangible, practical and in some cases, revolutionary. “This course changed the way I think about business”; “I wish all courses were as relevant as this one”; “The course opened a new world to me (…) I will choose the organization I work for more carefully…”, are typical statements we receive. The PRME initiative is now overseen centrally which may open up opportunities to foster more SDG-focused projects across the curriculum.

What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

Follow an approach that is relevant, entertaining, and speaks to the current generation of students. Don’t become a victim of other people’s thinking, develop a customized approach toward teaching ethics and sustainability.

What other initiatives at your school you are particularly proud of in this area?

We developed short, customized video cases in collaboration with an award-winning film maker portraying local SDG champions such as Haigh’s chocolates and the cosmetics company Jurlique. These video cases will be available for faculty to be used in internal and external teaching as soon as the final edits are done. For example, the Haigh’s video captures the company’s history and values, its focus on environmental stewardship and the challenges and rewards of being true to one’s beliefs in steering a 100-year old icon into the future. It will be available on the Centre’s website from April 2018 for people to see.

We are also quite proud of the Responsible Leadership course developed by Professor Nicola Pless for the MBA program. The course integrates the latest knowledge and tools on how to become an effective responsible leader with customized 360-feedback and the introduction to, and practise of, mindfulness to strengthen self-leadership. In other words, it provides participants with the tools to become a resonant and responsible leader.

One Response to New Approaches to Business Ethics – University of South Australia

  1. This is a very interesting approach to business ethics. Business ethics is sometimes difficult for students to absorb in some degree. Our university has done a good job of making sure our students understand the importance of business ethics but this approach is something to ponder on. Thank you for sharing this.

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