MBA Ethics Education: Designing the Designers

As a Visiting Scholar at the Rotman School of Management (more specifically at the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we educate tomorrow’s business leaders. This is the first of a series of blog entries on that topic.

Clearly, what we need to teach future managers (especially MBA students) about ethics depends crucially on what we understand the role of managers to be. And with regard to management ethics, we should carefully distinguish two very different educational needs, rooted in managers’ two very different roles.

One role managers play is that of decision-maker, and so the first issue to consider with regard to managerial ethics concerns the ethical behaviour of managers themselves. In this regard, business schools are in the business of educating decision-makers. Such being the case, it makes sense to teach MBA students about various ethical theories, about what can be learned from various scandals, about social expectations with regard to business, and so on. We want to instill in MBA students that doing the right thing matters, and give them the skills to figure out what that requires of them. (Relatedly: I blogged recently about the MBA Oath and the question of professionalizing management.)

The other role played by managers is that of a designer: managers essentially are tasked with designing organizations (or parts of organizations — teams, branches, functional units, and so on). And so the other key ethical issue with regard to managers is whether they will have the skills to design business units that make it easier, rather than harder, for subordinates to act ethically. MBA students, then, need to be taught about the ethically-salient elements of organizational design. They need to be taught, for example, about the kinds of incentive structures and the kinds of organizational cultures that foster rather than frustrate, good ethical decision-making, so that they can try to design such structures and cultures in the workplace.

But it’s worth noting that even individual ethical decision-making (and not just the design of decision-making contexts) itself involves design. As Caroline Whitbeck points out (in an excellent article* that I recently taught to my Business Ethics class), there is a very strong analogy to be made between ethical decision-making and the kind of design thinking that engineers engage in. Ethical decision-making, like engineering design, involves an attempt to solve a problem, in order to achieve certain objectives, taking into consideration a set of constraints. And it involves attempting to find a good solution, in a situation in which there may be multiple adequate solutions, no clear best solution, but many clearly unacceptable ones. Ethical decision-making, in other words, is precisely not like a multiple-choice exam question. Real ethical questions are very seldom of the form “Should we choose option A or option B?” More often, the question is “what options are feasible?” And, “what would those options look like, in practice?” And, “what series of steps will that option include, and what will happen if we do X and so-and-so does Y in response?” Ethical decision-making is a design process.

So, whether we are thinking about training MBAs to make particular decisions, or training them to build the contexts in which particular decisions are to be made, business schools are in the business of designing designers. The question, then, is not just which ethical principles ought to be used as the building materials of good decisions, but what ethical principles ought to govern the design process itself.
*Caroline Whitbeck “Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems” (from Hastings Centre Report, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1996).

7 comments so far

  1. […] perhaps, Heath nods to the role of managers as designers. (See also yesterday’s blog entry, “MBA Ethics Education: Designing the Designers”.) The fact that managers are involved in the design of the work environments they manage implies […]

  2. Jeff Moriarty on

    Hi Chris. Interesting stuff. Here’s a friendly addition to your account. I think there are (at least) two important things about organizational design from the point of view of ethics. First there is the point you raise: how an organization is designed can make it more or less likely that an individual within it will behave ethically. But there is also the point that certain sorts of organization structures can be better or worse intrinsically, from an ethical point of view. An organization that allows more decentralized decision-making may be better, from the point of view of employee autonomy, than an organization in which most decision-making is done by the higher-ups. Managers should take this into account, too, when they design organizations. I bet you would agree . . .

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Absolutely right. Good point. And in Whitbeck’s terms, we could add that choosing among organizational designs isn’t a multiple-choice question. It’s not like there are just 4 options to choose among. Given the huge number of variables, managers (at least sometimes) have to design the options, from the ground up.


  4. Mark on

    Hi Chris,

    Many thanks for the Caroline Whitbeck reference. It’s one of the best articles on issues surrounding ethics education I’ve come across.



  5. […] is the third in a series of blog entries on ethics education for MBA students (the first two are here and […]

  6. […] MBA Ethics Education: Designing the Designers (…whether we are thinking about training MBAs to make particular decisions, or training them to build the contexts in which particular decisions are to be made, business schools are in the business of designing designers….) […]

  7. […] follows more generally from what we might call a <a href=””>&#8&#8230;; perspective</a> on ethical decision-making. Because design (whether of machines or […]

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