Case Studies and the Disorientation of the Moral Compass

By August 20, 2007Business

There has recently been much criticism of business schools, suggesting that their graduates emerge having been ethically desensitised. Indeed, several research studies have shown correlations between unethical behaviour and a person’s seniority, the size of their company and the competitiveness of their industry, as well as the fact of their being male. Most business school graduates do indeed gravitate towards senior jobs in large companies in ‘hot’ industries, and statistically many of them are male. Is this an accident or are business schools somehow complicit in this state of affairs?

My own experience suggests the contrary, with the MBA curricula at Edinburgh and Ashridge both requiring the study of ethics. However, I think I have spotted the culprit. It is the much vaunted Harvard Case Study method. Stylistically, the standard case study format sets out a business dilemma of some kind, whether it be about strategy, marketing, ethics or something else, and asks the class to discuss what they would do if they were CXO Mr A or Mrs B. What this means is that, for large chunks of the MBA, the students are pretending to be someone else, building a schizophrenic repertoire of hundreds of different executives in different situations in different industries across the world.

My objection is this. Part of the pedagogy behind the method is to help students to learn by grappling with real issues, to help them with problem-solving back in the workplace. This may well help them to recall the interesting and diverse viewpoints represented in their classroom discussions, leading to better decision-making, or it could instead train them into thinking abstractly and ideally about what the ‘correct’ answer might be to a particular situation, within the constraints of the MBA ideology. This intellectualising of decision-making could well have the effect of dislocating the decision-maker from their conscience. While the case study method has its benefits, I would argue for it to be used in tandem with classes that fine-tune the moral compass as well as the business brain. Forgetting to reconnect choices made ‘in role’ with consequences lived out in the conscience is too dangerous a risk to keep taking, and business schools must take seriously their role in mitigating a risk that they have created.

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