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The Customer Is Not Always Right: A Reply to Elliot Berkman

We have probably done more to encourage business crises and immoral managerial behaviours than prevent them, a fairly insane outcome considering how often we speak of corporate social responsibility.

· 10 min read
The Customer Is Not Always Right: A Reply to Elliot Berkman

It’s a disheartening time for academia. Our cloistered world is beset by a number of existential challenges. Many of our once-venerable institutions are suffering from mission drift, saddled with administrators who have no idea how to navigate interfering voices on all points of the political spectrum. At the same time, the university’s business model has been under pressure from disruptive online competitors whose products are becoming more sophisticated, more attractive to students, and cheaper, making the high cost of a university education increasingly difficult to justify. Wide swathes of the general public are losing faith in higher education, both for partisan and practical reasons.

Here at Quillette, University of Oregon psychology professor Elliot Berkman recently offered an intriguing analysis of some of the self-defeating actions taken by academics. Berkman argues that academics need to take the social impact of scholarship more seriously, step out of our ivory towers with greater frequency, and otherwise work harder to earn the trust and respect of the broader world. We need to craft research that is more accessible and less prone to the biases of our specializations, spend more time and effort teaching undergraduates, and do a better job of disseminating the knowledge we generate.

On the surface, these seem like reasonable solutions to some of the major challenges facing our universities. Undergraduates are the group we are likely to lose first, and in the greatest numbers, to online substitutes. Emphasis on the practical implications of research findings should quiet the critics who see our work as ideologically-motivated or simply naïve. And wider dissemination of our prescriptive work should reinvigorate public support for the academic mandate.

Yet I would argue that these proposed solutions have been tested and shown to fail. My own research suggests that a focus on reach, impact and, if you will, customer ‘buy-in,’ actually can have surprisingly dangerous implications for academics—especially on issues of critical social importance, such as applied ethics and policy development.

In my dark corner of the academic world—strategic management and business policy—we have always made sure that our research would present itself as relevant to the practice of management. And despite the fact that many of us quietly believe that future managers would best be served by a humanities education at the undergrad level, we have been expending great effort on seeking the best possible learning outcomes in our undergraduate management programs. Most importantly, we have privileged and celebrated impact above all else. The teaching rock stars of our field have lucrative consulting practices, and spend as much time in boardrooms as they do classrooms.

And what has emerged from these dedicated efforts to closely shape our work for ‘real-world’ impact? We have probably done more to encourage business crises and immoral managerial behaviours than prevent them, a fairly insane outcome considering how often we speak of corporate social responsibility.

But for academics, being ‘practical’ often means being amoral. So, to those hoping to spread the gospel of reach and impact in your own field, I say this: If you want to know what will happen to disciplines such as philosophy and psychology after a few decades of close focus on mass-market interests, you need look no further than their damaged cousins in the management field.

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It has become common for the media to report every now and again on the silly topics or obvious research conclusions that have managed to receive funding. And Berkman lists some pretty hilarious academic studies in his own field. But I would much prefer to endure low-level researchers engaging in scholarship of dubious merit that may break through into something substantive and surprising, than have star researchers engage in practical work that contributes to (as I see it) social ruin. I’d much rather laugh at my colleagues than fear for the future.

In case you think I am overstating the danger, let me share the research implications of two recent articles published in one of the most prestigious journals serving the management field.

In the first instance, an article entitled “A Behavioral Theory of Social Performance: Social Identity and Stakeholder Expectations” argued that if a company is getting positive feedback about its social performance from large customers or close partners, they need to view this development as an efficiency risk. Investing in social-performance activities beyond what the firm’s most loyal allies expect of them should be viewed as a waste, in other words. Put another way: When you get positive feedback on efforts to do some good, take it as a signal that you are doing too much good.

This is the sort of work in business ethics that will indeed have ‘reach’ and ‘impact.’ We are telling CEOs who already buy into the idea of corporate social responsibility that they may be going overboard, a message they are all too happy to hear. In order to reach a wide audience, we are using the economic language of ‘efficiency’ to describe projects that may, in fact, have been guided by principles that go beyond any desire for material gain. Complexity makes research confusing. So we craft simple messages that every CEO can understand: If folks are praising your efforts to be nice, you are being too nice.

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And yet that wasn’t even the most eyebrow-raising paper published this summer. In an article entitled “How Applying Instrumental Stakeholder Theory Can Provide Sustainable Competitive Advantage,” some of the top scholars in my field argued that because robust, ethical trusting relationships with stakeholders are strategically valuable only if they are rare and difficult to imitate, most firms should not even bother trying to build them. It’s just too hard.

A little bit of background: Both of these papers were published in the Academy of Management Review, and constitute part of the ‘stakeholder’ research tradition. Stakeholder theory emerged in the management field as an effort by scholars with humanities training to bring a more humanistic angle to a discipline that was otherwise dominated by economic thinking. The hope was that if managers talked about the need to meet the expectations of a broad group of ‘stakeholders’ within the community, instead of just the narrow interest of their ‘shareholders,’ this shift in vocabulary and thinking would open the door to more ethical discussions.

Unfortunately, this sort of scholarship provided little reach and impact, and stakeholder theory struggled to find its place in management research, amid fears for firms’ bottom lines. So in the name of reach and impact, stakeholder theorists shifted course, and began working to convince managers that those who treat their stakeholders well would establish a competitive material advantage over those that did not. The aforementioned pair of articles demonstrate what the consequences are of linking ethical behaviors to competitive advantage

I know several of the co-authors who wrote these two articles. They are talented, idealistic scholars who care about their students and the field more generally. But they have become so focused on finding ways to make their work relevant to Fortune 500 CEOs, so interested in positioning their work as having a consulting angle, that they are incentivized to advance the arguments that powerful CEOs love to hear. Pursue ethical business strategies, we tell corporate leaders—but not so ethical that it becomes an efficiency risk affecting your bottom-line. Build trusting relationships, we tell them, but only because it will give your firm a competitive edge. The more successful we are in persuading academics to focus on reach and impact, the further will go down this same road.

In a recent New York Times review of Anand Giridharadas’s new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz chastised “thought leaders” in the management field for pushing buzzy but ineffectual concepts such as social entrepreneurship, social impact investing, and sustainable capitalism. CEOs prefer these strategies because truly “doing the right thing—and moving away from their win-win mentality—would involve real sacrifice; instead, it’s easier to focus on their pet projects and initiatives.” But it is the pet projects that, at least superficially, provide reach and impact. If management scholars instead focused on “real sacrifice,” they wouldn’t be invited to Davos because their message would be too challenging for business leaders to hear.

On the teaching side, we are not fairing much better. In our maddening desire to signal real-world practicality at the expense of innovation and creativity, our deans insist on course outlines that take the form of binding ‘contracts’ with undergraduate students. We are quick to embrace experiential learning in order to ensure our students have real-world exposure. We outsource critical facets of our teaching to technology companies. Our corporate partnerships are so vast that it’s no longer even clear that our administrators believe that their faculty know what it means to run a classroom in the digital age.

Consider Riipen, a company that provides a digital platform for potential employers to post challenges for students to work on. The performance of the students is then ranked and assessed by the posting company. Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that the exercise is undertaken under the auspices of a university course.

I remember sitting in on a pitch meeting in my capacity as member of the undergraduate program steering committee. I listened as the millennial founder lectured me on the meaninglessness of “made up examples” and “cases from the past”—as opposed to the “real time” challenges his company provided for students. I was schooled on how they offer the ultimate CV, giving students a chance to display a “portfolio of real-world projects,” which are of course so much more meaningful to employers than our assessments of how they performed on academic projects or exams. And don’t worry about what it means to give up on the unique pedagogy individual universities have spent decades developing: Riipen were offering brandedportals: Our school’s intellectual capital would be cast aside, but we would still retain our marketing identity.

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I think the problems facing academia go deeper than Berkman realizes. Because whether you have been socialized as an academic on the Left into a narrow echo chamber of specialized expertise and social justice, or socialized as an academic on the Right who believes the customer is always right (with Wall Street usually being our customer), I don’t think very many of us still believe the academy remains a bastion of free inquiry or a space for youngsters to develop intellectually. Even fewer believe that the assessments contained in student transcripts offer meaningful information. And, perhaps the saddest truth: Almost nobody really believes that sitting in a lecture hall is still time well spent.

Some years back, I was fortunate enough to attend a session at a conference with Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen. He was giving a talk on how disruptive innovations that already destroyed certain industries were now threatening the viability of universities through a technology enabler (online learning) and business model innovation (non-credentialed learning facilitators, experiences instead of degrees, and rock-bottom pricing). He was worried about the future of universities.

As a consequence of his concern, Christensen spent time talking with Harvard donor-class alumni to discover what in their experience was so meaningful that it created a life-long bond of loyalty to the institution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody spoke of the courses or the lectures. What they valued most about their time at the university was the personal relationships that were cultivated. The one time they met informally with their professors outside of class and were challenged, off the record, to think—that was more valuable and memorable than a semester of lectures.

Christensen said that these findings made him nervous for the future, because when Harvard conducts faculty recruitment, they don’t look to hire folks who students would want to hang out with or who would want to hang out with students. This is true of every university I’ve visited, and the problem is getting worse. Between our rush to create a virtual classroom in response to technology pressures, and our fear of social relationships between students and faculty, we are killing what may be our only meaningful path forward—the consecration of the traditional university as a place for human connection.

I agree with Berkman that academics need to engage in serious introspection. I also agree that it is incumbent on us to change, and to change fast. But I don’t think we need to embrace reach and impact in a way that makes us more palatable to the business elite or the average citizen.

I think our job is to challenge the kings and queens of industry, not act as courtiers. I think it’s okay to say that we have little to offer an American political class that supports a president who said he “love[s] the poorly educated.” I actually want to hear more from the folks in disciplines that offer relatively little in reach and impact. I think we need more philosophers, ethicists, theologians, literary critics, visual and performing artists—and fewer consultants. I also want to hear more from scientists with a sense of humour, an infectious curiosity, or a controversial finding, and less from the dogmatic careerist or researcher chasing funding from a major corporation.

In the course of researching my forthcoming book, I spent a year talking to my counterculture heroes. I learned more from these exchanges than I ever had at any specialized academic conference. As the philosopher Richard Rorty has explained, wisdom is found in keeping a conversation going. Our mandate as academics should be to converse with as wide a diversity of thinkers as possible—including our own students—forging real human connections in the process.

That’s our job. To keep the conversation going. Our primary mission as members of the academy is not to sell a simplified educational product. There are disruptors who are better positioned to offer that. And let’s acknowledge that our ‘customers,’ such as they are, aren’t always right. What we offer as universities is a space for unique human interactions, not a proving ground for bought-and-paid-for ideas. And while the spaces we inhabit are not always safe, they are essential for the health of our society and the future of wisdom.

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