The quest to educate socially responsible managers

10 May 2011

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

Speaking in 1926 on The Social Significance of Business and on the related role of business schools, Dean Wallace Donham of Harvard Business School observed that: “The business group largely controls [the mechanisms placed in society’s hands by the development of science and technology] and is therefore in a strategic position to solve [the resulting] problems. Our objective, therefore, should be the multiplication of men who will handle their current business problems in socially constructive ways.” Donham served as dean of HBS for 23 years and during that period worked tirelessly to elevate the professional stature of business management to the same respectability as medicine and law.

Through more than a century after its foundation in 1908, HBS pursued Donham’s vision and achieved premier status among schools for business leaders in the world. However, the challenge that faced business schools during Donham’s time, that of orienting business leadership towards social responsibility, remains as daunting as ever. HBS graduates, for example, have been linked with some of the most troubling business debacles of the last decade, including Jeffrey Skilling of Enron, Stanley O’Neal of Merrill Lynch and Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase.

The loss of prestige for business leaders due to recurrent business scandals has not been lost on Harvard’s leadership and it has acted decisively. In May 2010, the university appointed leadership and ethics professor Nitin Nohria as Dean of Harvard Business School. Almost like a reincarnation of Donham, Nohria said that his thrust will be on business ethics. Nohria has been a vocal critic of irresponsible management especially during the last financial crisis. He has also been unhappy with management education in general and the leaders it produces.

Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, another HBS professor, co-authored an influential 2008 Harvard Business Review article which argued for a code of ethics for business leaders, akin to the oath doctors and lawyers take. Harvard students adopted the cause as their own and launched a voluntary MBA Oath ( which has since been taken by MBAs from around the world.

In the Philippines, business has not always been seen by the public as being imbued with noble purpose and the public interest. Prior to Martial Law, the business elite were seen as a self-interested oligarchy, amassing wealth to the detriment of the majority. During Martial Law, cronyism became the common complaint, with a select few in Malacanang’s inner circle of business leaders being perceived as cornering the juiciest business deals, often at great disadvantage to government and the public it represents. At present, it is a glaring reality that amidst general growth in business and the economy (7.2% last year), a significant and increasing number of Filipinos remains mired in poverty.

This poses a continuing challenge to, if not an implicit indictment of, a local institution that, like HBS, has been training business leaders for roughly a century: De La Salle University. The university’s response to this challenge during its 2011 Centennial Year is to create a new academic department -- the Management and Organization department (MOD). Dean Brian Gozun of the College of Business has envisioned the MOD as "the heart and soul of the College of Business”. He expects the department to “focus on how managers can act ethically and responsibly and make their organizations accountable to local and global communities.” The leadership for carrying out this role through business management programs at the undergraduate, masters and doctorate levels has fallen on the founding full-time faculty members of the department. These include Dr. Divina Edralin, Raymund Habaradas, Pia Manalastas, Marissa Marasigan, Dr. Andrea Santiago, Dr. Rachel Quero and myself.

From Donham, to Nohria to Gozun, visionary deans of business schools have pursued the quest of carving out a noble role for business managers in society. We can only hope that their quest eventually succeeds.