Author: David Muskett, MMU Business School
The purpose of this paper is to explore how far Christianity may be relevant to a 21st century school of business from the perspective of both an underpinning philosophy and as an academic integrity guide. Here the writer declares a direct interest as a regular worshiping Christian in a Methodist church in Knutsford Cheshire. The issue of whether this specific perspective could be used more widely as a teaching philosophy, rather than being ‘ghettoised’ in the more focused and secular subject areas of Business Ethics or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), where it currently may be given at least, an honourable mention by some, is what is being explored in this paper.
Declaring yourself openly as a Christian can be a tough call at a UK business school. There is a strong, if unexpressed, underpinning belief amongst many staff in the secular and rational, rather than adhering to faith-based belief systems that probably trace their origins as far back as the European enlightenment movement that began in the 18th century.
There are also more specific pressures and hostility to the influence of Christianity. This comes on the one side from the ‘evangelical atheists’ as epitomised by Richard Dawkins (Dawkins 2007) and on the other, it comes from those who are motivated by a belief in absolute equality for all and who feel it appropriate to recognise all belief systems as equal without favour, particularly those from minority religions (e.g. Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism) . These faiths are often practised by the black and ethnic minority (BME) population of the UK (some of the popular press pejoratively calls this latter attitude “political correctness”).
Taking a wider perspective, if we assume that in its broadest sense, Higher Education is part of the public sector, King (2007) also alludes to what amounts to hostility to all religion across the public sector in his study looking at the influence of religion and spirituality in US public administration. Whilst there is no direct study in the UK equivalent to this, it is likely to apply here equally, particularly as overt religious observance is lower in the UK than the USA. Yet in the last full UK population census (2001) 70% of the UK population declared itself to be Christian, so there may still be a place for the underpinning beliefs and ethics of Christianity to inform and guide how any business school in the UK may operate.
The recession brought on by the various banking and credit problems of the late 2000s or ‘noughties’ (characterised popularly as the ‘credit crunch’) sets a very different context for thought than the boom times that preceded it. The selfish pursuit of personal reward for individuals (‘bonuses for bankers’) and short term maximisation of shareholder value by extreme risk taking in business came under severe criticism from the population in general when the consequences of this crash became all too evident to them. Businesses were failing and closing or, if not, reducing their workforces substantially in the face of their falling orders and profits and rising unemployment has subsequently resulted from this.. It is seemingly a pattern repeated from previous recent recessions as observed by Cavanagh (1999), albeit more acutely this time. The subsequent spill over from this on to public finances, which were used to support the economy and the banks in particular, plus the severe cuts in public sector budgets imposed by the new UK government in response to this in 2010, will mean that the consequences of this risky behaviour will impact on all sections of the UK economy for a number of years to come.
The specific criticism that has been levelled at business schools by Gerald Cavanagh is that by concentrating on teaching techniques to future and current managers that are (at least perceived to be) value neutral, beyond seeking profit maximisation, across all the usual fields e.g. Accounting, Strategy, Human Resources and Marketing, we may have actually contributed directly to this severe crisis for western capitalism. The question arises as to whether we really can be ‘value neutral’ or indeed, if there is a clear need for such an explicit value system to underpin our teaching now. Perhaps the time has come to adopt consciously a gentler, more human and sustainable approach to be the underpinning philosophy for future success, in what we hope will be less turbulent and less unstable markets.
A number of writers have looked at this issue, though most look at business in general rather than business schools specifically (Hui 2008, Werner 2008, Palmer 1994). Specifically, Lynn et al (2009) sought to develop a scale to measure faith at work, basing their research in the USA with what they define as the Judaeo-Christian majority there. Whilst the specific nature of their scale may be only tangentially relevant to a more specific examination of the role of Christianity in business schools, some of their observations do help understand the context better. Specifically, they address the division between spirituality and religion that is drawn by some writers, defining spirituality, as ‘a quest or search for meaning and substance and religion is the specific beliefs, practices and historical and institutional scaffolding, which complements that quest’. They argue that spiritually ‘carries less baggage than does religion’ implying that it may be easier to accept in an intellectually doubting context like higher education (the author’s own university has a “mind, body and spirit week” annually for example) . Nonetheless , they do go on to argue that even this is not context free and that spirituality is often defined so generally that it ‘lacks any intellectual or institutional rigour’. Thus, the argument for an explicit underpinning value system, based on an openly declared religious perspective could perhaps be made to avoid this limitation.
It may also be worth exploring briefly, what the central tenets of Christianity are before this can be put into this specific context and examine how far they might now be particularly relevant as an underpinning value system for a school of business. The author of this paper professes no detailed knowledge of the underpinning theological literature which might well spark a debate amongst such experts about how fair a reflection of central tenets of Christianity these various views expressed are (his own scholarship is in Marketing!). The paper uses these references to gain insights to the particular question about business schools that is being considered here.
Clearly one could start with the biblical Ten Commandments, as did Ali and Gibbs (1998) who reflected on parallels across the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However Werner (op cit), after interviewing Christian business people, sums up the central tenets of Christianity in business practice, as expressed by her respondents as Calling, a sense of vocation to the business a person was in, Stewardship, an awareness that God had entrusted them with a particular responsibility, Witness, bearing witness to their faith, Holiness, an obligation to strive for ‘integrity and moral perfection’ and finally what she defines as ‘General Christian moral tenets, which seem to involve behaviour of fairness and justice towards their partners in business.
Alternatively, Hui (op cit) in the context of faith-based Corporate Social Responsibility defines the key Christian precepts as;
i. Honouring God,
ii. Honouring neighbours,
iii. Honouring creation,
iv. Honouring commissions (to live in obedience to God and to ‘make disciples of all nations)
v. The everlasting principle (of God, His constancy)
He sees this as a basis for what he calls ‘value driven Corporate Social Responsibility’.
On the face of it most, if not all, university academics would teach their subjects within a context that was broadly aware of CSR. This is not least now because of all the legal frameworks that have been drawn up and will further continue to be drawn up, to try to prevent the sort of crash that occurred in 2008-09. This seemed to have its origins in too lax a supervision of banking and finance, as well as some laxity in many other codes of conduct, both legal and advisory/non statutory, for example in Human Resource Management and Marketing, to take two. However the question may lie wider than this as to whether there is some fundamental change in how we should view the world of business that will in future shift attitudes away from the short-term on to a longer-term focus, which will aid the process of achieving greater market stability, and perhaps greater fairness and equality in the future as well. This clearly touches on to the world of politics as well as broad economics and business.
Cavanagh (op cit) cites Whitney (1997) who indicates that ” the modern focus on objectivity and the separation of science and spirituality, taken to fullness, leaves people separate from one another, separate from nature, and separate from the divine”. Cavanagh further comments about life being separated into compartments with a common pattern for many of a working life of 50 - 70 hours a week that leaves little time for family or for worship. Palmer (op cit) also describes it as ‘a functional atheism’ that this pressure or stress encourages. He takes the view that, as a result of this pressure, an attitude develops that ‘the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with me’. This is in direct contradiction with the true principles of Christianity, where believers feel we should hand ultimate responsibility over to God in a trusting relationship.
Cavanagh further makes the point that making this change of attitude will be easier for ‘religiously orientated business schools’ which are seemingly more abundant in the USA than in the UK. Whilst such schools do exist in the UK, coming from universities that were founded as religiously based institutions, (for example Liverpool Hope University and the University of Chester) none of the leading or large schools of business here have come from such institutions and thus would have no fundamental traditions to draw upon. Discussions with colleagues who teach Business Ethics at the author’s own institution suggest that beyond broad humanist traditions, there is currently no clear or explicit moral underpinning to their teaching; perhaps so far this has been intentional. Cavanagh goes on to argue that we should teach our students to have a sense of their own personal values and goals and to get them to reflect on the social and moral impacts of such things as global markets, downsizing, speculation and the impact of advertising and the media. A philosophical and moral basis for this is surely essential.
Hui (op cit) from the perspective of CSR cites the methods that should be used to develop this Christian business perspective as;
Corporate philanthropy; where any immediate benefits to the organisation from this approach are fairly intangible, though they are clear to the direct recipients. In the long run, however, there is more than just PR value in this to the organisation and stable market development can be a result; even Henry Ford wanted his workers to be able to afford the Model T cars they made. Earlier in the 19th century in the UK both Cadbury and Leverhulme had built model facilities for their workers believing that happy and fairly rewarded and housed workers were better workers.
Environmental preservation; currently a sensitive topic with ever scarcer resources and global warming in the headlines, but again, this can lead to long term better relations ships with environmentally conscious consumers and a wider set of stakeholder groups. Many businesses are currently striving to demonstrate their ‘green’ credentials to their customers having identified particular groups that are sensitive to this appeal.
Social reporting; where adopting an honest approach to reporting corporate performance and deliberately eschewing activities that seek to avoid tax or mere minimum legal compliance will enhance long term business stability and corporate reputation.
Competition approaches; responsible competitive intent, use of competitive advantage and outcome are stressed. In other words to keep shareholders aware that fairness to suppliers and customers and dealing in the wider competitive market in an ethical way will lead to fewer pressures for regulation and thus better long term stability and earnings.
To make this more tangible, the author would argue that when we teach Marketing, we must discuss the idea of avoiding designing products and services that might be profitable in the short run, but would ultimately harm our final customers. When we teach Accounting, we must teach the impact on small suppliers of our delaying payment, and not just the advantages it might bring for managing our cash flow. When we teach Operations, we must consider the environmental costs of any processes and the impact on the health of staff of particular ways of producing output. When we teach Human Resource Management, we must teach the importance of respecting work-life balance and to evaluate the impact of overwork on teams when posts have been left unfilled to save budget cash. When we teach Information Technology Systems, we must recognise the value of systems that are easy for customers and particularly staff to use and also to recognise the unique pressure in the physical environment of staff working with IT equipment.
In this broad direction, Klein and Laczniak (2009) took a direct look at Marketing teaching specifically in the context of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) for exactly these reasons indicated above. They sought to demonstrate that the ethical issues in marketing relating to product design, promotion and pricing, consumer ethics, public policy and regulation and market globalisation are susceptible to the application of CST principles. There is no reason therefore to doubt that wider Christian precepts could also apply to this field and to other key delivery areas of business schools as well.
The upshot of the change being suggested is that we should move to teach the value of medium and longer-term gains over the immediate and short term. We need to show that by honouring our neighbours and all creation as a whole we can create a long-term sustainability. This will lead to more stable long-term rewards and returns and not just to periods of short term, but ultimately unstable high rewards, followed by periods of high losses. Such unstable fluctuations benefit no one ultimately and are wasteful of limited resources, both physical and human. A directly Christian perspective on this would suggest that this would also better honour God and His everlasting nature.
There is a clear problem in changing attitudes to achieving this in that Public Limited Companies are driven by the pressures of stock markets and their trading systems, which directly encourage this shortsighted approach to achieving ever-higher short-term returns/profit, rather than seeking the long-term stability of earnings. Perhaps some different corporate structures of governance or an increase in the proportion of privately held limited companies might ultimately help this. After all a number of organisations have returned from being publicly listed companies to private ownership to achieve exactly this sort of long term development, e.g. Virgin group, to be free of share price fluctuations.
A wider question would be to reflect on what is so uniquely Christian about these ideas. It is possible to argue that all three Abrahamic faiths would share many of these ideals, though the Islamic prohibition on interest as ‘usury’ makes conventional western money lending systems more difficult to operate. However, if capitalism and financial markets are currently still dominated by the at least nominally Christian west, then ours are the minds that have to be changed first. If we as business schools cannot change the minds and influence the future leaders of business, then who can? So in conclusion, the author agues that an academic integrity context is essential to effecting this change and suggests that Christianity does provide the underpinning framework in an appropriate and useful way to start this process.
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