Business education is in trouble. The aim of business, it says, is to survive at the expense of others in a jungle. Yet businesses are embedded in a wider ecosystem, let’s call it a rainforest. How can we change the lenses through which we understand our environment? Can technology support education in achieving this shift?

Especially since the advent of the financial crisis, business education is subject to growing criticism. The teaching of prescriptive approaches disconnected from moral and ethical values and a focus that is overly self-centred to the exclusion of wider societal consequences are singled out as partly responsible for the current economic and social morass. Predominantly framed by neo-liberal economic thinking, the business environment is portrayed as a jungle, where the fittest survives whilst disconnected from the greater ecosystem in which it is embedded. Yet, in reality, an organism that thinks only in terms of its own survival will invariably destroy its environment thus ending up destroying itself. By disconnecting the reciprocal integration of business and society, by dismissing their fragile interdependence, education is compounding what Fritjof Capra describes as a ‘crisis of perception’. Students never get to see their business as part of a wider rainforest where collective well-being is cardinal to long-term survival. This leaves prospective and often well-meaning change agents, aka the students, paralysed, with TINA (There Is No Alternative) sapping any creativity they could tap into.

When dealing with systemic shortfalls, technology is often portrayed as a given solution. Clean technology will make us sustainable allowing us to side step any real questioning of our economic model; medical break-through will overwrite unhealthy lifestyles. For the cynic, technology can be a convenient way out of any obligation and responsibility we may have toward our environment, society and ultimately ourselves. In the field of education, and more specifically business and management education, does technology however have a place?

Rainforest or Jungle?

Education is not about TINA. It is about developing awareness of the particular position one takes in the world and instil loyalty to its associated relationships and values. Equally, it is about developing the awareness that others around us, need to have their own position understood and engaged with. In short, it frees individuals from unreflective conformity through self-awareness and reflection. Providing us with comfort in our moral foundation and trust in our cognitive, instinctual and emotional resources, we can then overcome any defensiveness when relating to the stance or viewpoints of others. It creates free individuals, i.e. individuals having acquired self-mastery yet able to contribute in a wider society. This is positive freedom.

We currently have an education that sets us free, but in a negative sense. Negative freedom, according to Isaiah Berlin, is defined by lack of constraints. Unfortunately by removing the global societal and political constraints that surround any business and concentrating solely on technical matters, business education is creating a breed of self-righteous practitioners operating in a vacuum of moral references, geographical or political commitment and little capacity for compromise. Education ends up creating philistines that happen to be financial wizards for who greed, opportunism and selfishness become the new freedom, with catastrophic consequences for society, families and governments. Under the pretence of total freedom lies the reality of externalisation and alienation. Of course, I am generalising, not everybody turns out callous and reckless, and humanity has enough inherent goodness to retain some sense of morality. However, if greed becomes a motivating factor not only all brakes are off, but this greed will also be rewarded.

The Rainforest Agenda

To shift the perception from jungle to rainforest, business ownership need to be repositioned within the web of community, worker and citizens that supports it. In a rainforest, brand or shareholder value creation are secondary to the interest of the greater community. Indeed the latter is an end, the former is a mean. By placing the focus solely on means, one ignores the punitive consequences of constant restructuration on the system that supports the business, hence endangering its survival.

Do we then need a new guru on “Managing the Web”? One could argue that too much of business education is dedicated to management. There is an over-emphasis on managing time, others or change (and what else) yet too little in managing self. Where do I stand as actor in an economic system that promotes growth in a world I know to be finite? How do I deal with the limitations of management techniques when I know it can harm my family? What does it mean to be efficient if my father-of-three colleague will be made redundant? What is progress if I have no spare time to pursue personal interests? What is prosperity if I am ultimately a cost to my disembodied employer? How do I stand in front of “goods” I consider bad?

Those are philosophical questions that traditional management lectures tend to stay clear off. Yet those are fundamental. Philosophical enquiries about how we perceive ‘reality’, the impact of business from a sociological point of view, the value of work from a psychological one, the historical evolution of commerce and organisation, the comparative economic and politic assumptions behind market dynamic should all be part of the standard curriculum. At a time when change is too rapid to track, education needs to focus on the lens by which we perceive our environment. It needs to grasp the complexity of a pluralist world, not simplify it. It is important because our filters are what influence how we make decision, process information, manage ourselves and others, perceive our environment, manage our time, value others and define ourselves in relation to others. More critically, it defines what we deem to be fair, just and normal hence providing a basis to build trust and interactions. Those are the basis for collaboration and the silk that makes the web.

By reintroducing humanities into the curriculum, future decision makers can explore complexity for itself and develop a habit of intellectual curiosity and self-reflection in order to see patterns, connection and relationships that will sharpen their discernment when framing problems. Indeed only humanities address the aspect of free will rather than rationality. As such, it has to explore moral concerns, hence developing not only character of mind but also habits of heart. When reason is allied with empathy, it draws us into the wider web, instills a sense of responsibility for the common good and absorbs us into the entangled logic of the family, government and market place. By making the world ours, we can start recreating it. The amoral, dehumanised and static nature of economic and business logic does not allow for this to happen. It is too focussed on quantity, competition and expansion. It also places us as observer rather than actors. E. F. Schumacher elegantly alluded to the necessary four fields of knowledge in order to achieve positive freedom in his last book “A Guide for the Perplexed”. In it, understanding ‘Myself’ and ‘The World’, ‘Outer Appearance’ and ‘Inner Experience’ become the axis in which one can comprehend business logic from the outside and from the inside. Through the four fields, not only does one acquire self-mastery but also becomes part of a process of socialisation and legitimation that provides cohesion among actors who will be contributing within a particular economic and political context. The social contract is hence strengthened yet still open to evolution.

Rainforest, not Garden of Eden

Natural patterns and processes, F. Capra

Natural patterns and processes, F. Capra

The difference between rainforest and jungle is the awareness of the interdependence that links all actors. It could then be argued that if jungle exists, it is always within a rainforest, not the other way round. Equally, a rainforest is not a romantic and infantilising Garden of Eden. Whilst interdependence, balance and natural selection prevail, it remains a tough environment with strict rules that drive competition within a more integrative environment. Such rules cannot focus on actor’s behaviour since freewill cannot be codified; they focus on the overall dynamic of the environment and the role of each actor within it. In a rainforest, to be tough is meaningless and purposeless; to feed a family provides intent and function. Fritjof Capra defines six meta-principles that drive the ecology of rainforest and reinforce the ideas of quality, cooperation and conservation (see picture). In a fragile ecosystem, how do these translate in terms of expected role and contribution from businesses? A prosperous, collaborative and sustainable society demands the business actor to be:

  1. A citizen (vs. predator) interconnected in a network of relationship that will be affected by her decision. This calls for an ability to think beyond self-interest.
  2. A contributor (vs. plunderer) to the wider ecosystem in which it is nested, relying on the capacity for discernment
  3. A regulator (vs. opportunist) in participating in the cycle of economic and social life, which depends on the appreciation of “enough” in times of plenty and resourcefulness when resources are scarce.
  4. A catalyst (vs. owner) in distributing flows of information and knowledge, generously believing that benefits can be by all and for all
  5. A coordinator (vs. controller) in allowing organic change and development to take place and trusting others in their intent
  6. A diplomat (vs manipulator) in translating and bridging the diversity of views and intent with a view to achieve a state of dynamic balance. Open-mindedness and tolerance become then cardinal virtues instead of weaknesses.

By better understanding our role, we also become clearer on how we can make a difference to a web that can overwhelm us. Having defined how education can equip us for positive freedom, where can technology help?

Technology for Understanding or Technology for Manipulation

Embracing plurality and understanding our own bias is a contact sport and the unlimited resources offered on the net provide an unbeatable source of friction for our preconceived ideas. The exposure to alternative interpretations and different cultures combined with various mediums of engagement not only sharpens our own perception but also amplify ideas, blending insights and creativity. The engagement can be direct through forums and blogs where the lessening of peer pressure, political correctness and self-consciousness allows for greater exchange, exploration and experimentation. It can be by watching documentaries or movies that can express the tacit and appeal to the emotional better than the proverbial thousand words. It expands the range of viewpoints to include activists, NGOs, and foreign news channels, which are traditionally excluded from business studies. Examples such as ‘The Faceless ones’ and ‘Story of stuff’ address very quickly the tensions between businesses and their environment, documentaries (among many) such as ‘The Corporation’ or ‘The Commercialisation of Children’ address powerfully the hidden face of business-as-usual or the cumulative impact of a whole industry focussed on vulnerable markets, movies such as ‘Baraka’, ‘Samsara’ or ‘The Qatsi trilogy’, without a word, reflect on progress and its consequences. All documentaries by Adam Curtis explore powerfully the dynamic of unintended consequences. The list is obviously not exhaustive. All provide reflection on the role and responsibilities of businesses, leaders, employees and consumers. They all ask the question: as decision maker, how do we bridge conflicting interests, harness good will, coordinate collective effort and contribute to stable ecosystem?

But here is the crunch: the value of technology does not matter so much on the content as the willingness to reflect. Where do I fit in all this? How am I contributing and how do I want to contribute? There is so much out there that one could watch documentary after documentary, gorge on movies, delight in blogging and be none the wiser. One has to stop, be willing to feel, think and absorb, probably feel despondent at times and yet recoup strength to contribute still. By not reflecting, irrespective of the quality of the content, cynicism, defeatism or keeping the status quo are very easy options. Technology, like our economic system, can be obsessed with power, speed, motion, standardisation, mass production, quantification, regimentation, precision, uniformity, regularity, predictability, testing and control. It can provide step by step learning as well as ground-breaking contextual interpretation. In itself, technology can be freeing as well as alienating. It needs to be reflected on. It is our responsibility to do so and if we are not satisfied with the current outcome of education or economic system, it is reflection, not technology that will initiate change. And by the way, technology or studying humanities are not the only means to promote reflection. Apprenticeship where theory is checked by experience is also a valid medium. Any human contact, more so than any theory or expose, can be an eye opener if we choose it to be so.

E. F. Schumacher stated we have two types of science: science for understanding and science for manipulation. The same can be said of education or technology. Purpose and intent hinge on our will and on whether we see ourselves in a jungle or a rainforest.

“The truly educated man is not a man who knows a bit of everything, not even the man who knows all the details of all subjects(if such thing were possible): the “whole man”, in fact, may have little detailed knowledge of facts and theories, he may treasure the Encyclopaedia Britannica because “she knows and he needn’t”, but he will be truly in touch with the centre. He will not be in doubt about his basic convictions, about his views on the meaning and purpose of his life. He may not be able to explain these matters in words, but the conduct of his life will show a certain sureness of touch which stems from his inner clarity.” E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful