April 28, 2011

Michael Johnson-Cramer
Michael Johnson-Cramer

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Michael Johnson-Cramer, associate professor of management and director of the School of Management, talks about business ethics and the liberal arts approach to teaching management.

Q: You have said a goal in teaching business ethics is not so much to teach right from wrong but to inspire students to manage deliberately. What you mean by that?

A: The "deliberate life" that Thoreau describes in Walden is one of self-reflection and independence, a critical examination of society, and an abiding awareness of things greater than ourselves — of nature, justice and the transcendent. To "manage deliberately" is to conduct oneself in this spirit and to encourage it in others.

Business does not have to be devoid of this sort of reflection, but, as Thoreau points out, it all too often is. For him, the opposite of a deliberate life is practiced resignation, a confirmed sense of desperation, in which we engage in incessant activity but never ask whether that activity is worthy of us as human beings.

Management education is a one-trick pony at times. We present a problem, a real-world situation: "A worker has a disagreement with a teammate." "A candy bar isn't selling well." "A company has a low return on an investment." What is going on here?

We pause for a moment, and in that space, a student gives an intuitive answer: "The conflict is a result of miscommunication." "The candy bar isn't selling because the wrapper is red." "The underperforming company is inefficient." Often, those intuitions are wrong.

We then ask students to step back and apply an analytical framework of some sort - to classify personalities or cross-cultural differences, to evaluate the candy bar in a portfolio of company brands, to account for the strategies, systems and cultures that lead to financial under-performance. We ask students to step back and make the sorts of calculations that help them to make better decisions.

But that's not living deliberately; that's living intentionally. It requires insight and problem-solving skills, and there's nothing wrong with that. But being intentional, Thoreau might say, is only a way to get your living, not a way to actually live.

Q: How does this translate to managing deliberately and teaching that approach?

A: Managing deliberately also means asking deeper questions about the tools and frameworks that we've produced and the ends toward which we use them as managers. Do we really understand who that person is as we're assessing their personality or motivation or developmental stage? How do we think about markets or consumption or even beauty as we design a candy bar wrapper? And, toward what end or underlying conception of justice is that organization being managed anyway?

Those are the questions — of meaning, of value, of a broader orientation toward self and the other, the good, the right, the past, the future — that a liberal arts education is supposed to answer. Students who do a BSBA (Bachelor of Science in Business Administration) at a school of management at a highly selective liberal arts university like Bucknell should be encouraged to confront these questions as surely as literature, art and philosophy majors elsewhere in the college do.

It is in this sense that cultivating a deliberate approach to management offers a better model for moral reflection about business than any easy notions of right and wrong. To teach students to think independently and to have a positive motive for why they engage in their activities — be they attempts to innovate or create sustainable organizations or engage with the broader world or pursue more noble ends than empty ambition or greed — prepare them better for business than a host of negative ethical "do's and don'ts."

Q: How is the Bucknell blend of management and liberal arts unique and what do our students get here that they wouldn't in a more traditional management program?

A: Undergraduate management education has grown enormously over the past 20 or 30 years. Degrees in business and management account for approximately 20 percent of the undergraduate degrees conferred nationwide.

Historically, undergraduate education prepares graduates who are engaged citizens, critical thinkers and lifelong learners, above all else. If management education fails to meet this objective — or worse, undermines it — we end up with a very different society.

In its undergraduate program, a traditional business school has a general education program in the college of arts and sciences and a technical management education in the college of business. And it hopes for the best.

What's different about Bucknell? I asked my students this, some months back, and the answer was interesting. One of them said, "I talked to my buddy at another school who is taking a marketing class. They're looking at a textbook. They're looking at the five questions to ask to decide which distribution channel to use. They're taking an exam with 100 or 300 other people, and they prove that they know exactly what those five ways are. At Bucknell we learn the ideas behind that list of five. We learn about the process that produced those five so that, later on, when distribution channels change completely, we are capable of thinking about a whole different set of choices."

Q: What does this say about our students and how we teach them?

A: There's a lot in this. One is the substance of how that student defined the Bucknell experience. Those connections with the process of creating knowledge are unique to a place that defines itself as we do. We recruit faculty with radically different perspectives on the world, and we encourage them to teach courses where they can talk about the things they study. The goal isn't transferring facts but modeling curiosity and rigorous thinking and scholarly passion. It is the unanswered question, much more than the pat answer, that engages students and faculty alike in a common learning enterprise.

That student was also talking about how we achieve this. Because we have close relationships with so many of our students, we can say, "You've got questions about cognition or personality or motivation. There's a great course in psychology, and you really ought to be taking that." Or we have a student who's interested in marketing and has done formal marketing courses. We say, "Maybe you should do undergraduate research in this topic, or maybe take an art history course about contemporary art, so you have a deeper sense of why certain things work and feel and are the way they are in aesthetic terms."

That notion of inter-disciplinary learning through guided exploration, rather than holding liberal education at arm's length, makes the School of Management at Bucknell different. And we are so committed to building these connections that we've re-written our curriculum, structured our school and hired our faculty with an eye to making it a reality.

Q: Tell us about the new School of Management - particularly the advantages of its being a school.

A: First, it increases our external visibility. Our goal as a university must be to attract the most talented students, the most talented faculty, and the resources to fuel their interaction. Those are the three requisite ingredients for a thriving learning community, and we've got to compete in markets for each of those. The school (as an entity) is a visible commitment to management education, that signals something to faculty and students who are comparing Bucknell to its peer institutions, all of whom have made similarly visible commitments.

Second, a school of management plays a vital role on a campus. We are a liberal arts university. But this doesn't mean that we are disconnected from the private sector or the marketplace. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is essential that we understand the business world, with its global corporations and financial markets, its product innovations and its environmental impacts. Fifty to 60 percent of Bucknell's graduates every year go into business, and it's only natural that they should be curious about this world that will so affect their futures. Even for those who will go into other professions, the business world will shape their lives in profound ways.

A school of management can be a natural conduit for the world of business - and the world of management writ large - to come to the University. Just as a public policy institute can connect us with the public sector and a department of modern languages can connect us to far-off regions and cultures, there's got to be an organized way of connecting Bucknell to the world. Consider how distinguished our alumni in the private sector are. Bucknellians have built companies and revived brands and amassed assets and done amazing things in business and risen to the top of some of our most interesting and important companies and organizations. The School of Management is the natural meeting place for students, faculty and alumni to interact around this vital area.

Finally, a school implies an administrative structure that is capable of playing this role. To date, the creation of the School of Management has generated an enormous amount of faculty energy around important initiatives toward that end. We've made fast progress toward AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) accreditation, implemented a brand new, cutting-edge curriculum for the Class of 2015, completed the successful hiring of several outstanding new faculty, and created a highly functioning committee structure. We've organized events and master classes, connected with an energetic Bucknell Business Advisory Board, and helped students to compete in business-related competitions - all on top of the day-to-day business of teaching and scholarship. The ability to sustain this energy long term requires the administrative structure of a school.

New editions of "Ask the Experts" appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future topics or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn.

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

Contact: Division of Communications



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