Should We Teach Students About the “Social Impact” of Business?

As regular readers know, I’ve blogged a lot about the vocabulary we use to talk about ‘doing the right thing’ in business. Here’s another example of a term that some people seem to want to use to capture that entire topic: “Social Impact.”

See for example this piece, by NYU’s Paul Light, in the Washington Post: It’s time to require students to do good.

I’ll start by pointing out that the headline is inaccurate, though that’s likely not Light’s fault. (It’s more likely the fault of the newspaper’s headline writer. Hard to say.) At any rate, Light’s article isn’t about making students “do good;” it’s about teaching them courses about doing good. And that’s a very different thing.

Light points out that many business schools now offer courses on what he refers to broadly as the “social impact” of business. “Social impact,” he says, can variously be defined in terms of “social responsibility, innovation, engaged citizenship or plain old public service.” (Note that Light is in trouble here, already, implicitly assuming all of those terms are good things. For counter-examples, see my recent blog entry on unethical innovation.)

Anyway, Light says business schools are increasingly realizing that they need to teach students something about the social impact of business (and presumably, more specifically, about how to maximize positive social impact and minimize negative social impact.)

For what it’s worth, I should point out that many business ethics classes — presumably among the courses that Light sees as part of the trend — absolutely would not focus primarily on social impact. And that’s a good thing, because social impact is just one of the many ethical issues that arise in business. Courses on business ethics can cover a large range of issues, many of them not directly related to social impact:

  • product safety (which is mostly a concern to customers, who very often make up only a tiny segment of “society”)
  • employee health and safety
  • truth in advertising
  • the environment (which, depending on your philosophical views, may have ethical importance independent of society’s reliance on it).

Each of those topics has relatively little to do with social impact, and indeed there can be important tensions between, for example, what is good for employees and what is good for society.

But maybe Light doesn’t want courses in business ethics more generally; maybe he really does think it most important to focus on social impact, thereby ignoring the issues (like those noted above) that got the field of business ethics off the ground in the first place. Such a focus by business schools would be incredibly unfortunate, because it would leave business students radically unprepared to face the ethical challenges that they really will have to face on a daily basis in their professional lives. And even if courses on “social impact” do tackle a broader range of issues (including the ones listed above) the title of the course is going to mislead students into thinking that social impact really is the key issue after all.

Finally, I’m confused by the fact that Light views “social impact” as a skill:

Making social impact part of every student’s curriculum would send the signal that social impact is an essential skill….

What are we to make of this? Is social impact really a “skill”? Personally, I’m not sure how to make sense of that turn of phrase. I suppose we can read Light somewhat more charitably as meaning that an appreciation of the social impact of business, and an understanding of the key issues and how to respond to them, are essential parts of a sound business education. And surely he’s right. But we ought at least be clear on the fact that what we’re struggling with — and what we need students to struggle with — is the complexity of the role and impact of business in society. Calling it a skill misleadingly implies that we know what to do about it all, and now we just need to do it. If only life were so simple.

3 comments so far

  1. Coillective Responsibility on


    I am currently teaching a course titled Sustainability and Responsible Leadership to a class of 180 MBA students in China, and in reading the original article and your comments, I have a few comments of my own

    1) If we are to believe that the balance between economics, the environment, society, and community has been lost on any level (climate change, labor abuse, etc), and that the solutions (all or in part) lie in the business communities, then business schools have a responsibility to change their programs and begin offering courses that supply the tools their students will need as leaders of business.

    2) As the original article briefly mentioned, the courses need to expand beyond the classroom and engage the students on a real level. volunteering (mentioned in article) is one way, but in my course we require students to engage in LIVE projects where they have researched an issue of sustainability and then bring a solution to the market. for some students we are bringing in partners, but for others the student have built very unique business plans. Some placing highly in US and Asia based business plan competitions

    In general, what I would say though is that the idea the author is presenting is one which is seen as being in direct contrast of the traditional MBA core. that, in teaching “responsibility”, these courses are telling students to make decisions whose economics are unsound in some way, but I would disagree with that by saying that what we are asking students to do is to understand that the price of commodities, labor regulations, and consumer expectations are NOT static elements of business and that they MUST begin understanding the dynamics of these issues when making decisions going forward.

    That, while many would think of climate change as an issue of carbon emissions and solutions with solar panels and electric cars, it is in fact a far more complex and that as business leaders will need to have a far deeper tool set in order to understand and adapt to these dynamics.


  2. Ben on

    I recently completed an Ethics unit as part of my MBA in Perth, Western Australia.

    The interesting and different thing about this unit was that it focused on HOW you should go about speaking up about an ethical issue that you encounter, if you choose to do so.

    Basically the unit took a strategic approach. Some aspects included building a case by identifying stakeholders and coming up with responses to common arguments that you will hear against doing the right thing. e.g. “It’s not a priority to change this right now”, “everybody else is doing it this way”, “it doesn’t hurt anybody” etc. The course also emphasised rehearsal of arguments and scripting of responses when involved an ethical conflict.

    The curriculum was based around “Giving Voice to Values”, a book by Mary Gentile.

    So – although we did touch on environmental and social impact, we didn’t focus on any issues in particular.

    But I thought the unit was quite helpful because it assisted students in practically handling conflicts as they occur – I think it’s good to give students general tools to use, rather than to learn about specific ethical problems.


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