CSR and Strategy: Mixed Signals?

2 05 2013

Module C has drawn to a close here at Hult, and most of my classmates have said goodbye, off to one or more of Hult’s other global campuses. I’m not rotating- Shanghai Campus offers plenty of good classes, and while it could have been fun, it just struck me as an unnecessary expense that I can’t afford right now. Anyway, I’m probably more valuable here (as an “old hand” to Shanghai life) than I am elsewhere right now. Module C of the Hult MIB program is mainly focused around two core classes, Strategy and CSR, that essentially serve as the capstone classes of the Hult core curriculum. After going through the basics of accounting and management in Module A, and tearing through finance, economics and marketing in Module B, these last two classes (before the electives of Module D and action project in Module E) put it all together, framing how the material we’ve covered so far goes together to create a corporate strategy, and the ethical implications and considerations that should be taken when designing and implementing one. Having now gone through the Hult core curriculum, it’s become obvious to me how much the school’s roots in management consulting influence it- the whole thing is essentially a course in how to be a consultant- a useful set of tools to take into any business role.

The two professors we had for these classes- Dr. Cheng-hua Tzeng, from Taiwan, and Dr. Farzad Rafi Khan, from Pakistan, couldn’t have been more different… except that they shared a very surprising bond- both earned their Ph.D.s in Strategy and Organizational Management at McGill under management theory legend Henry Mintzberg, and even shared the same cubicle as grad students! It was uncanny- and apparently coincidental- that they ended up teaching the same students, at the same time, at Hult… yet what a contrast.

Dr. Tzeng, probably demolishing someone's strategic recommendations

Dr. Tzeng, probably demolishing someone’s strategic recommendations

Dr. Tzeng was a pleasant surprise- a Chinese professor who didn’t put me to sleep (our Financial Management professor, Dr. Xiaozu Wang, was also very good- Hult seems to know how to pick ‘em. I’ve only had one bad professor all year- and she was dismissed from the school at the end of the module due to a bad performance evaluation- another sign of Hult’s responsiveness as a school.) He could shred cases and presentations to bits in front of our eyes- and he was merciless in his criticism. When my group got fairly lenient treatment for our presentation on Zara, I knew we’d done something right.

The class was single-mindedly focused on the core elements of strategy- namely, how to gain competitive advantage to achieve above-average returns. Every question and criticism that Dr. Tzeng presented came back to this issue.

Dr. Khan, probably off on a tangent about angels, devils, and Michael Porter

Dr. Khan, probably off on a tangent about angels, devils, and Michael Porter

Yet, over in CSR, we were getting an entirely different message. Dr. Khan (who apologized for being our professor on the first day, and told us that we didn’t need to sit through his class, and that there are better uses of our time) believed that “Corporate Social Responsibility” was a contradiction in terms. Dismissing Harvard case studies as one-sided, ridiculous blather, he’d meander through his three-hour classes, gradually building his anti-corporate arguments through presenting the massive levels of fraud, criminal neglect, and blatant manipulation that the corporate world utilized, ultimately coming back to the untouchability provided by limited liability and corporate personhood. He took us on a tour of the failures of CSR efforts, and introduced a case he had worked on in Pakistan, in which a seemingly “successful” international intervention by corporations and NGOs made a fairly unproblematic situation much, much worse due to cultural misunderstandings and the unintended consequences of good deeds gone horribly wrong. Business school was the last place I expected to hear Michel Foucault, Edward Said and Critical Theory brought up- somehow I’d made it through an entire undergraduate curriculum in Philosophy and Political Science without ever studying them- but here I was.

The class made me begin to rethink some of my assumptions about the neoliberal world order. For years I’ve taken capitalist globalization to be the best of a passel of bad options, but now I’m not so sure. As angry as the class would make me at times, I did seriously engage with the arguments and bring them under consideration. One of the things I realized, for the first time, is that even though I’ve lived in China for more than five years, married into a Chinese family, and wrestled (though, arguably, to a loss) with the language, I’ve never really engaged Chinese culture outside of the lens of Western superiority and imperialism. I’ve always held back, on the edge, critiquing and judging everything. While my conclusions aren’t necessarily those of a parochial Midwesterner – I’ve never really fit that mold – they are rooted in certain ideas of “progress”, economics, utility, Hobbesian pessimism about humanity and technological optimism that may just be artifacts of the culture that I come from, not iron laws of the universe. (I wrote a bit about cultural engagement in a review of From the Ruins of Empire, but I didn’t realize just how far from engaged I was at the time)

While Dr. Khan has since returned to Pakistan, and I will probably never see him again, I have to thank him for presenting this side of the story. As much as Hult likes to advertise that it helps you get “plugged in” to the world, I’ve noted a kind of “sameness” to many of the students, reflecting that most of us come from very affluent backgrounds. Many students are preparing to become managers and executives in family businesses, so this is unsurprising, but it’s still somewhat interesting how many assumptions are just taken as “givens”, about life, the world, economics, etc. I didn’t take the idea of cultural imperialism very seriously before- as my father had once said, “aren’t people responsible for their own cultures?”- but this has certainly made me think more about it.



3 responses

2 05 2013
Michael A. Robson

…Family Businesses?

3 05 2013

Yes… a lot of the Hult students from the developing world come from wealthy families that own SMEs of one sort or another. The ones who come to Shanghai are, unsurprisingly, heavily into import/export.

3 05 2013
Michael A. Robson

Ah yes, the defacto business in China 😉 Congrats on nearly finishing your studies!

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