Lifeworth Review of 2007 GOTO Lifeworth Review 2007: The Global Step Change
Jem Bendell
Adjunct Associate Professor,

Griffith Business School, Australia

Founder, Lifeworth, Switzerland

Autistic academe

There is much to collaborate on, because if management education is to be transformed it will require a changing of the incentives for the current unhelpful patterns of behaviour by faculty. This is an issue for all social science, not just management education. The Economist's analysis of the challenge facing business schools alludes to one of these broader challenges: the incentives shaping research. 'Business-school faculty members often seem to place greater weight on winning the approval of peers in their academic discipline than on gaining the approval of their business-school colleagues'. The way to win that approval is by publishing in the A-rated academic journals. This is because, in the name of accountability, around the world, academics' performance has increasingly become rated on the basis of their publications in journals that are held in high regard in a particular discipline. Aside from the fact that this discourages multidisciplinarity, the highest-rated academic journals usually uphold a particular concept of valid research, which expects research questions to arise from theory rather than practice, and incorporates many hallmarks of a positivist paradigm of science. Consequently, these assessment systems have promoted three main hallmarks of an academic approach around the world. First, a focus on particular details at the expense of context to a degree where one's analysis is irrelevant, often coupled with an elaborate verbosity on minor details. Second, a dislike or inability to explore the values and emotions of others as significant phenomena in society and a dislike or inability to reflect on one's own values and emotions as key in shaping one's research. Third, an inclination for repeating procedures, as in particular research methods, rather than changing one's approach depending on circumstances in order to achieve useful outcomes.

Is it mere coincidence that each of these hallmarks of the esteemed 'academic' approach are the same as the main symptoms of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)? Also called autism spectrum conditions (ASC), these are a range of psychological conditions characterised by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, as well as severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behaviour.3 Autistic traits have been recognised as beneficial for disciplines such as science, mathematics, engineering and computer programming, with some people with ASD displaying extraordinary powers of calculation.4 As a letter-writer in New Scientist once noted, 'many people with this condition go undiagnosed right through life and are often academically very successful'.5 That people with autism can play a useful role in society should be welcomed but, if societies' institutions of knowledge production demand it of people in order that they have a successful career, we may produce more mentally impaired societies as a whole.

3 World Health Organisation, 'F84. Pervasive developmental disorders', International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (10th edn [ICD-10], 2006); and also F. Happé, 'Understanding Assets and Deficits in Autism: Why success is more interesting than failure', The Psychologist 12.11 (1999): 540-46.
4 D.A. Treffert, 'Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis: Past, Present, Future', Wisconsin Medical Society (2007);, accessed 19 September 2007.
5 New Scientist 2282 (17 March 2001): 61.

In management academia the problem has been compounded by the dominance of economics, widely understood as the most autistic of social sciences for its extreme and scientifically questionable assumption of so-called 'rational' human beings who act according to narrow self-interests.6 The Corporation film and book made a name for itself for suggesting that, as defined in law, the corporation was psychopathic in terms of not having regard for the well-being of others, and previous studies have reported on psychological studies of psychopathic traits in successful business executives.7 Encouragement from an autistic academe for the disregard of values and emotions can only support psychopathic behaviour in business.

6 As political economy has been undermined within the broad economics discipline, so economics has been further reduced in its ability to study the making of a good society; 'Why are Students Leaving Politics Out of Economics?', Adbusters 65 (May-June 2006);
7 J. Bendell, 'Psychos in Suits: Corporate CEOs in Need of (an) Asylum', openDemocracy, 23 July 2002;

As the business environment evolves with growing social complexity, so these traditionally dominant ideological assumptions in business schools are making them less relevant to modern business practice. A survey by Egon Zehnder, a recruitment firm, found that just one in five of the international corporate executives it polled thought that an MBA prepares people for real-life management.8 As business schools are, The Economist notes, 'where academic theory and the practical world engage with each other', the current situation is a huge missed opportunity for research and practice to infuse each other in ways that benefit society as a whole.

8 Ethical Corporation Business Education Special Report 2007;

How effective might the various initiatives be in promoting change? The UN Principles are a useful start, but perhaps they do not yet fully address the factors that are creating the current situation. The Economist notes that 'One problem is the shortage of talent available to provide the blend of academic excellence and practical insight that everyone wants'. The reason for this is the current incentive system for academics. Therefore collaboration on changes in professional standards and incentives, such as teaching and research assessments at national and international levels, will be required to support the right kind of faculty development. This means the role of regulators, funders and employers needs examining. In addition, the Principles do not address the internal mechanics of a change process in a university, such as the adoption of a policy and communication of this across the university, allocating resources, setting benchmarks, creating staff incentives, and reporting on performance. This will also need to come. Finally, the Principles could be seen as culturally Western and perhaps too specific on the question of what constitutes 'responsible' management education. The Principles mention environment and stakeholder relations, for example, and there were debates in the drafting process about mentioning ethics and diversity, among other issues. Perhaps the Principles could be more fluid and adaptable, allowing different organisations to have their own understanding of responsible management education that is culturally specific and sensitive to their understanding of the market needs, while connecting with the universal values at the heart of the UN Charter and declaration of human rights. This broader approach, while also paying attention to the internal change processes and accountability, is the one taken by a sister initiative, the UN Principles on Responsible Investment (UNPRI).

Many business schools saw their founding mission as the professionalisation of the management of business, in much the same way as medical schools have institutionalised medicine. Professions usually have at least four elements: an accepted body of knowledge; a system for certifying proficiency of that knowledge before it can be practised; a commitment to the public good; and an enforceable code of ethics. Perhaps we could benefit from a managers' equivalent of the Hippocratic oath in medicine.

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