Of Profits, Patents, and Societal Value

The Utah Economist blog posts an interesting question in the context of intellectual property rights and profit protection – how much societal value creation or destruction is there in companies protecting their innovations through patents?

A similar dillemma can be found in matters as diverse as regulated utilities with a guaranteed return and Mickey Mouse’s copyright restrictions. A certain degree of protection helps motivate innovation, but when does it turn into an unjust protection of incumbents?

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Does the MBA Oath imply MBAs are naturally evil?

An incoming 2010 Duke EMBA student has posted a critique of the MBA oath which reflects two common concerns that we have seen from MBAs regarding the oath.

At its core, the “MBA Oath” reads as if historically, the only reason that a person pursued an MBA was to become a better grifter.  Someone proficient at stomping on subordinates, polluting the environment, and who would kick their Grandma down a flight of stairs just to make a buck…So as an incoming student, I will not be signing the “MBA Oath”, even though Duke Honor Code played a large part in my decision to attend.  At best, it is redundant; at worst, it is dangerous in setting the expectation that anybody pursuing/possessing an MBA is someone to watch for unethical behavior.

We don’t intend for MBA Oath signers to be viewed as grifters restraining themselves from a “natural” set of unethical behaviors, just as doctors who have taken the Hippocratic Oath aren’t generally viewed as restraining a natural tendency to do harm.

That said, the MBA Oath is also born out of an environment that has shown that changes are needed in the management profession, and we hope MBAs can take the lead in driving those positive changes. The Oath is not a magic bullet or a vaccine against poor ethics or a lack of responsibility, but it is a public affirmation and a pledge to do better. As we’ve said earlier, affirmations themselves have been shown to be powerful, and we intend to offer mechanisms to help people live the Oath.

We also don’t think the Oath is redundant in the face of individual school honor codes. The Duke Honor code cited by the student in their blog post, for example, is primarily oriented towards actions during the MBA, while the MBA Oath pertains to actions taken by MBAs after graduating. Some schools, such as Columbia and Thunderbird, have codes and oaths which are outward looking. These various initiatives have played a part in setting the building blocks for the MBA Oath, and it is our intent to draw on that spirit of honor, professionalism, and ethics of all schools in order to promote an oath which can apply to all MBAs.

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Oxford Students Take Initiative

In a news bulletin on Oxford Said Business School’s website, the Vice-Dean of Student Programmes and a current student share their thoughts on the MBA Oath. Raj Tulshan, a current student, commented:

“Many of us have found this initiative to resonate with our own convictions. The point of an MBA should not just be about equipping individuals with tools for their own enrichment, but also to deepen our appreciation about the impact of our actions.”

Oxford Said is building on its important prior efforts in addressing the role of business in society. Its students have been among some of the most eager to embrace the MBA Oath and its principles, with Said being one of the schools with the largest number of signers.

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Another Ethical Dilemma

Reacting to the MBA Oath, an anonymous writer sent in an ethical dilemma to Careermee.com’s blog. The writer, an executive with a South American company, wrestles with a situation in which a company is faced with multiple dillemmas. The CEO is planning to bribe a government official in order to secure a contract, while the executive faces a lack of whistleblower protections, their own job on the line, and ambivalence about hurting the company at a time when  2100 jobs may be at stake.

We know that the ends do not justify the means and that rationalization of unethical behavior is very tempting, but how would you handle this situation?

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Change Needed At Business Schools

Joel M. Podolny, who was formerly dean of the Yale School of Management and is now reportedly transitioning into the role of dean of Apple University, expresses frustration about the lack of values-based leadership at business schools in an article in the Harvard Business Review.

The degree of contrition not just at business schools but also among executives and companies seems small compared with the magnitude of the offense. To reprise the line: I know you’re angry. I’m angry too.

Podolny chastises academics for sticking too closely to theory and overlooking the way organizations really work. How can both schools as well as initiatives such as MBA Oath make sure their values can live within actual organizations?

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MBA Oath in the Financial Times

Max Anderson provides an update on the MBA Oath in the Financial Times, describing the aspirational goal of extending the Oath’s presence even more broadly.

We have begun the process of creating MBA oath chapters on the world’s top business school campuses. We hope one day every graduating MBA will take this oath just as physicians take the Hippocratic oath. The history of the Hippocratic oath suggests this idea may not be so far-fetched. We think of the oath as a sacred medical creed, created in the era of Hippocrates. In fact, until the middle of the past century only a minority of physicians took the oath. Only after the second world war and the discovery of gruesome experiments conducted in the name of “medicine” did medical schools widely adopt it.

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Tough Calls And The Oath

The New York Times’ “You’re the Boss” blog features Jay Goltz, an entrepreneur who presents a dillemma which he thinks puts the MBA Oath to the test. Goltz describes a situation in which the owner of a small, struggling business is seemingly forced to choose between rescinding a job offer in order to hire an outstanding candidate or instead retaining an initial hire with uncertain qualifications.

Although this case might seem like a binary decision, one thing to remember is that the MBA Oath intends to encourage managers to think about the deeper implications of decisions. In this case, this includes thinking about the effects of any decision on all stakeholders.

I will safeguard the interests of my shareholders, co-workers, customers and the society in which we operate.

There isn’t a single “MBA Oath” answer to this business situation, especially with the limited information provided, but the important thing is to incorporate the principles of the oath into the decision-making process.

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From The MBA Oath to Der MBA Eid

We’d like to thank those who have developed translations for the MBA Oath. Versions have been submitted in Spanish by Andres Schuschny and Jose Fernandez-Calvo, and in German by CareerMee.com. Although no non-English version is official as of yet, we are very glad to see international versions arising just as the number of international signers continues to rise.

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MBAs Around The World Embracing Oath

As the number of MBA Oath signers races towards 1200, the diversity of signers continues to increase. MBAs from over 280 different programs have signed the oath, and of the 200 most recent signers of the oath, 93% are from schools other than Harvard. In fact, schools with the largest contingents of signers include Kellogg, NYU Stern, Oxford Said, Singapore Management University, Columbia Business School, Fuqua, MIT Sloan, Dominican University, and Wharton.

Enthusiasm for the oath is increasingly international, from coverage by the Shanghai Daily to support from similar initiatives in Argentina. Over half the pioneer MBA class at Singapore Management University has taken the oath, as has 70% of NYU’s Executive MBA class.

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The Mark of a Professional

The online discussion on the MBA Oath continues, with one interesting forum being the Bogleheads Investment Forum. Although one commentator wonders if they would want their financial advisor making decisions based on their own idea of the common good, another points out that it is sorely needed:

Subscribing to a code of ethics is what makes a professional a professional. Doctors have one. Accountants have one. Engineers (PE’s) have one.

Engineering is a good example to revisit. As the Online Ethics Center at the National Academy of Engineering points out, there are a number of codes of ethics followed by professional societies.

The OEC also references a very interesting engineering case involving a financial insitution. In 1977, William LeMessurier, a distinguished structural engineer, came forward after discovering structural deficiencies in his design of the Citicorp tower and mobilized support in order to avert potential disaster despite the potential damage to his reputation.

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