Master or Servant — A New Agenda for Teaching Business

Think Tank

4 min read

Mark Goyder is a senior advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank. He’s the founder of Tomorrow’s Company and co-author with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation.

I once heard about a Syrian refugee, a biochemist, who reflected on the horrors and humiliations involved in fleeing his country. “I’m a scientist; I’m supposed to be intelligent. Yet I didn’t even think to bring a spade,” he said.

War is a time for re-appraising priorities. Bridges that civil engineers and construction companies built with infinite care must be blown up. Don’t worry about buildings, says Ukraine’s courageous President Zelensky. We can rebuild them. What matters is our country and the people.

Isn’t this also true in peacetime? What truly matters in our business lives? Is meeting our financial targets more important than being decent and serving our fellow human beings? Profit is essential to the progress of our businesses, but profit is only the means through which we do something that is useful and purposeful.

And what about the way we introduce the next generation to the world of business? Do we want them to think that business exists in a rarefied cloud, away from society, and that you get qualified so that you can make money and insulate yourself from everyone else’s problems?

We need business to be taught as part of civics, or citizenship — the study of the rights and duties of citizens, and of how government works. We are all citizens, all neighbours, all human beings of equal worth. Societies thrive when we seek to serve each other and work through institutions that do the same. Some will choose to serve by going into the military; some by working in health or education; some in transport; some in recycling and waste disposal; some growing crops or preparing food; some becoming artists, potters, musicians. One day, some of these may start a business or work with others who have started one. Inside or outside the market economy, we all serve. Rewards follow, albeit unevenly distributed.

With these foundations, we can then go on to explain the importance of business as a dynamo in the economy. Investigate a thriving business and so often you will find a migrant or refugee — someone with little to lose, taking a risk in the marketplace. Agile people who, in the words of William Blake, say “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.”

You can’t get students to understand business until they have begun to experience it. Only then are they ready to make sense of core business concepts. At primary school, Young Enterprise works with young students to give them an appreciation of the importance of saving, budgeting, and handling money prudently. At secondary level, it gets students setting up and running businesses, with guidance and mentoring. This can then open the door to complementary classroom sessions where students may make sense of their experience and understand the building blocks of successful and sustainable business. Teaching money and investment not as an abstruse world open only to clever people with accountancy training, but as a vital utility, like water or as a form of recycling, taking people’s savings and putting them to better use through investment in worthwhile business propositions.

University business studies could build on these foundations. Let students learn the obvious pillars — finance, strategy, marketing, operations HR, environmental management. But let them learn in a context of business as servant, not master. Ethics is not an elective. Every business has its own purpose and values. Capital is raised to support the business in pursuing that purpose. Few businesses are started with the enrichment of some absentee shareholder in mind.

There is now growing resistance to the mercenary idea that one can judge a business school by the salaries bring earned by those who attended them. The British Academy has found support for the idea that businesses exist to create profitable solutions to society’s problems, not to make them worse. The Chartered Association of Business Schools has produced an important report insisting that these institutions must be constituted to serve the public good, and this means equipping students at undergraduate and postgraduate level with the skills to operate as a force for good. There is also the Civic Universities movement which recognises that universities are part of their community and must focus on that community’s wellbeing.

Yet attitudes and assumptions have been set long before students reach university or business school. As Unipart CEO John Neill likes to say, “We don’t have thoughts; thoughts have us.” If by the time we come out of school we can already accept phrases such as “sorry; it’s business” as excuses for exploitation and shoddy behaviour, then even the best universities and business schools can only be involved in remedial work.

This is the context in which business needs to be learned in future. No longer the compartmentalised thinking that ties us to the assumption that business can exist inside its own bubble of self-enrichment, serving an abstract god called shareholder value. Instead, the joined-up thinking that sees money connecting savers and investors and consumers and advisors and employees and local authorities; that sees wealth as flowing from health, not the other way round.

We have always known what matters most. It is time to embed it in our teaching. Business is about profitably serving others.

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