How Business Schools Can Help Students Understand and Tackle World-Scale Problems |

How Business Schools Can Help Students Understand and Tackle World-Scale Problems

By Helen Vaudrey

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Kathy Harvey is the director of executive education programs at Oxford Saïd Business School and program director for the executive MBA. In October, she will be attending the Executive MBA Council Conference in Singapore where she will discuss the role that business students could play in tackling global issues. We spoke to her about how Oxford Saïd is attempting to raise the issue of ethical leadership and responsibility among its students.

Kathy Harvey
Why do you think 2015 is the right time to raise this issue?

The world has never been more complicated and connected. It’s no longer possible to start out in your career and progress from a regional office to a national office and then apply to be part of a global corporate team. From the word go, even if you’re an entrepreneur with your own business, because of the way communication happens, we’re now operating on a global stage. The way that business has developed, whether you own your own business or you are from a much bigger business hub, means that we now must strive to understand the complexity of relationships across government and regulators. Business is not just about understanding competitors or suppliers anymore – or the usual group of stakeholders. The worlds a very complicated place now. In light of this, business education has to give its student a framework to understand and tackle and achieve great things within a very complex environment.

What inspired you to address the issue of global ethical responsibility in business?

Oxford Saïd Business School’s mission is to address world-scale problems and help individuals, businesses and organizations of all kinds through ethical leadership. One of the ways we’ve tried to serve our students and alumni community is to open up the knowledge of the whole university through new online platforms – we bring in colleagues from different departments to teach some of the content that they are teaching on more specialized courses. So, this year we have the subject of water management on the agenda, last year we had big data, the year before that we looked at demographics, and next year were going to be looking at the whole future of work.

Now our MBA students can study all of this through the online platform which is called ‘Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford’. We’ve created a new curriculum which is outside the straightjacket of the usual business school agenda. Everybody talks about the MBA toolkit, but we’re arguing that it’s time to add a few more tools. The most important tool of all is the tool of knowledge of things outside your own sector. Greater knowledge of the big issues and potential solutions being debated in MBA academia is going to help people if they want to be leaders in business. That’s why we’ve created this platform – each year we choose a subject that we’re going to ask our MBA students to study and that subject is multidisciplinary.

This year, we will be looking at how the world tackles water management issues. We’ll be looking at what difference the issue of water management would make to someone who is opening, for example, a Coca-Cola factory or building a new dam in Africa. 

We will ask students to think about these issues and follow the curriculum online – then they do a project based on what they’ve learnt. It seems to me that the time has come when business schools have got to think more broadly about changing the traditional MBA toolkit of purely functional subjects. It’s not that you don’t need to understand marketing or net-present value – that is the purpose of the MBA, to provide you with the skills and knowledge that you need to run a business – but you need so much more than that. I think business schools that are part of a big university have an advantage in that they can mine the knowledge they have outside their own department and provide all students with it.

There’s a shift happening in all business education. Business schools are realizing that they need to expand the MBA toolkit so that students have a much broader knowledge of ethical leadership and much more holistic sense of what it means to lead a business.

Do you think MBA students have an obligation to concern themselves with these topics as business leaders of tomorrow?

I think that business schools have a duty to put big questions before their students –  but no question is one dimensional. We have an MBA program at Oxford Business School called ‘responsible leadership’, which asks ethical questions that everybody across the world is asking – particularly since the financial crisis. I think it would be arrogant and presumptuous to say there’s any one answer to these questions. On our executive MBA we have a module called the strategic leader – and part of that is a two day course on governance and ethics.

I think business schools do have a duty to educate students so that when they leave they have a sense of responsibility and a moral compass for the way they run their business. But I don’t think business schools are the place to answer all the moral and ethical questions that exist in the world today.

Could you talk a little bit about the Global Shapers program?

The Global Shapers are a group of people who have been identified by the World Economic Forum as having huge potential to change the world. They are high-achieving young leaders who are committed to helping society. The global shapers community provides them with opportunities to develop their potential, networking and project work. They all have their own hub and they meet regularly to debate big issues about the future of business and the future of the world. We decided this year that we would partner with them to offer two scholarships to our full-time MBA program. These people are usually aged 20-29 and they have been selected for being exceptional for their potential – so naturally at Oxford Saïd Business School we are interested in people like that. We’re really looking forward to welcoming them in September.

How can students incorporate ethical values while enrolled on program at Oxford?

The very nature of business education is that it brings the theoretical and the practical together. So we teach wide a variety of methods – including case studies and debates. We have an ongoing yearlong conversational process with students which gives them the resilience, understanding and ability to stand back and think before they act – this all helps students become responsible leaders.

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