A snapshot view of the CBERN PhD Winter Research Meeting 2012
by James MacDonald, MBA Student, Schulich School of Business, York University
Let me start by saying I’m not one for getting intimidated. My background involves performance so I’ve been caught messing-up on stage and getting heckled many-a-time. But even an MBA student like me can feel a little intimidated entering a room full of PhD students who specialize in ethics and panel members that are ethics professionals. Within the PhD Winter Research Meeting there were PhD students that presented their papers in progress, undergrad students that were note taking, faculty advisors, non-faculty advisors, the CBERN employees and me. Although I was relieved when I found that everyone at this conference was extremely friendly, I was caught off guard by how much further on the education chain these people really were and how much my schooling is missing the point on contemporary ethics.
CSR from an MBA student perspective
This was the first day of CBERN’s 2012 PhD Winter Research Meeting. Somehow through being in the right place at the right time I had gotten an invite to attend this event as a guest blogger. While I’ve always been interested in ethics and sustainable practices I don’t think I really understood the position of CSR and ethics in this modern global economy.
As a business student I’ve noticed how these days every course and textbook has some aspect of ethics and sustainable practices mentioned. Unfortunately these books simply cite how it’s becoming important and not how it works or what you should do. Certainly this is becoming a bigger and bigger issue in every discipline. Just look at the increase in the number of news reports, annual reports and research groups focused on these topics. It wasn’t until hearing some of these PhD students talk about their research papers that I truly realize that all this talk about ethics and CSR is fairly new and “fuzzy” in nature. This is perhaps the best argument why conferences and events such as this are become more important. I’ll discuss more on this a little later in terms of why we are only going to find clarity through collaboration.
The term “fuzzy” often comes up in my classes since this new hyper-economy is ever-increasingly uncertain in nature. Most of the talks that I got to attend at this event were based on revealing the duality and uncertainty of CSR and how to actually create change in organizations. These students are trying to spearhead the search for answers about this new frontier and are diving into the deep end of uncertainty. Does CSR actually benefit the right people or does it create just enough compliance in society? Is the developing world’s idea and structure of CSR reflecting what is actually happening in developing countries? Do global corporation take over the governance of certain countries or areas? How are relationships between stakeholders being affected by this unclear and uncertain new buzz trend? Is this green washing or genuine? And most importantly how can things change and why don’t they? These students are taking on some huge, wicked problems. The level of complexity of these issues and the complexity of how to develop a research method to find answers to these questions is mind-boggling.
CSR in a wider context
If you think of the world’s collection of human knowledge as a giant library, ignore physical distance for a moment, it as if we have built and dedicated a new wing of our library to this great new thing CSR. However a problem has arisen. We only have a couple of books that are mostly from other disciplines to put in this new library wing. But what is CSR? Well unfortunately there is no one definition. There is also little tangible evidence available considering the wide range that CSR encompasses. This is not to say there is no evidence at all because there any several great studies out there about CSR.
However almost every situation has a unique context depending on what countries, companies, groups of people, type of projects or existing norms are involved. This is where having people from many disciplines, geographies, and different stages of education helps to meet these challenges on the terms of “the nature of the issue”. These problems require perspectives from many areas because the world doesn’t really fall into easy to classify titles. This is especially true for an MBA student to understand since every discipline requires good business practices or at least would benefit from it. Whenever there’s business, which is always, there are issues with ethics. Through cross-sectoral, multi-disciplinary events, such as this one, students get a rough road map of places to check and people to talk to.
I pose an open-ended question; If we know that the world is become ever more interconnected, ever more uncertain and ever more complex then why is it what we accept as good education practices are not also following these trends?
This event really exemplified how bringing together people from all over Canada, from many areas, helps to make the answers to these difficult questions obtainable. Within this one room there were people from disciplines such as law, accounting, sociology, philosophy, business and several other areas that helped to direct these students.
These people were able to cut down research time by days by sharing their insights and personal knowledge. This allows the PhD students to really look at their papers from a truly holistic perspective. Thus for a few days these students get their comfort zone pushed a little to expand. If the hardest part of anything is just starting, then starting to look and something you’ve spend hundreds of hours on in a different perspective (that you have no experience in) would be almost impossible. Thus through the collaboration with this diverse range of people the starting point in many directions is now behind them.
Multi-perspective events; multiple flashlights on common questions
One of the PhD students that I spent time getting to know told me a great quote that I’ve used for the title of this article. We were talking about how each discipline has its own terms and also its own tools. We agreed that with more tools you can analysis questions in ways that reveal many new insights and can help strengthen an idea. She mentioned to me how she once heard someone say, “Tools are like flash lights. They show some things, but leave other things in the dark”. I thought this was a great metaphor since if you have many flashlights pointing from many directions you not only see the parts you couldn’t before, but it also enhances the part you already thought you saw properly. Some of you might be thinking, “yeah but it can also wash out the details with too much light”. Well that’s where CBERN got into the driver’s seat.
The entire event was very student focused and structured for very open discussion. CBERN established that they would follow the Chatham House rule, which is when you are off the record and not considered to be a representative of the organization you are from. Each talk was structured in the following way; 10 minutes for the PhD student to present the main ideas behind their paper, this was followed with a couple of comments from fellow PhD students, then 15 minutes of advisor discussion followed by 15 minutes of further open discussion. The advisor discussion was divided between faculty advisors, whom all read the paper and then non-faculty advisors, whom read the abstracts. After this discussion, feedback and recommendations the student was allowed to respond and share their intentions for further development of their paper. All of them said how they felt they got tons of great feedback and new information to look into.
Getting a grip on the issues and concepts
Clearly I was being privileged to get a sneak peek into this behind the scenes world that CBERN, these PhD students, and the advisors are all a part of. Right now there is a ton of CSR and ethic based projects, papers, and ideas floating about. However no one seems to really have a grasp on what this means for the world at large. These are the people who are grabbing some of these ideas and showing how they are useful or what the true natures behind these concepts are. These are the champions of ethics who are working to make the place a little better and a little clearer on how to make the best of this interconnected, uncertain and complex place we all call home.