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Posted 10.19.05

Jim Walsh, the Gerald and Esther Carey Professor of Management in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, participated in an October 20th panel discussion at The Center for B·A·W·B’s recent summit, The Future of Management Education at the Intersection of Business and Society: Designing a School within the School for Business as an Agent of World Benefit. Walsh lent his thoughts to a crowd of 140 attendees on the direction management education must look to in the future.

 

“Business schools are under assault today for their supposed irrelevance,” said Walsh. The charge is that research scholars spend more and more time examining the pixels of business activity, while all the while losing sight of the big picture. Walsh suggested that most business scholars have, in fact, lost sight of what is important to both business and the society that sustains and is sustained by their work. He argued that the path to “relevance” is not to examine best practices or the latest management fad. Rather, he said that we need to take stock and consider what questions are worth investigating. The most important question before us today is to examine how the corporation sits within society.

 

“Walk down the street of any major city in the world and note the large buildings you see. They will represent the church, the state and our business enterprises. That was not always so.” Walsh pointed out that we have been living with corporation of this size for little more than 100 years. “We are just now coming to terms with the power and influence they have and can have in our lives. Some of us want them to do even more for us and some of us are petrified by their already immense power and reach. They want to rein them in.” He asked us to consider Kofi Annan’s call to help fight AIDS.

 

The UN Secretary General recently asked all U.S. business leaders to contribute their wealth and firm’s capabilities to fight AIDS. Kofi Annan reasoned that sovereign states cannot act as quickly and decisively as can a corporation. How should firms respond? Some who see business as an agent of world benefit might say yes, direct at least some of the firm’s capabilities to say partner with NGOs and save lives. Others with a BAWB mindset might say that public health is not a part of most any corporation’s core competence, nor should it ever be. They would politely decline. And still others in the BAWB tradition might want to attack the problems posed by incompetent and corrupt governments. They would use the firms’ resources to improve the institutional infrastructure where they do business but at the same time, steer clear of direct involvement with such social problems. What is the correct answer? Walsh argues that we really do not know: “Everyone may want to help but we simply don’t know the best way to do it. Sorting out questions like these is a job for contemporary business scholarship, scholarship that is as relevant as relevant can be.”

 

Walsh pointed out that many firms are publicly involved in social activities of various kinds. He shared data showing that the 86of the top 100 companies in America today tout social investments on their web pages. Walsh also shared some data to show how the “Top Ten” Business Week business schools are far more interested in studying competitive business strategy than they are these kinds of business and society issues. Walsh argues that we have an incredible opportunity to do some really important work if only we can see the problem at hand. He complimented the Weatherhead School and the BAWB initiative in particular, for helping to lead the investigation of these incredibly important issues.

 

He closed his remarks by sharing both the syllabus for a course he teaches in this area and a picture of his own research efforts. His course frames these kinds of questions and then helps his students appreciate all that we know and don’t know about how to answer them. He hopes that his research and the work of his colleagues in places like Weatherhead will someday provide a better set of answers. He shared an overview of his many projects that investigate some fundamental questions about the purposes and accountability of the firm. He invited everyone in the room to join him in creating a research program that can be both theoretical important and practically relevant.

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