Sustainability at the Academy of Management Conference 2017: Conspicuous silence on the role of the current political context for business

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Text by Mette Morsing, Professor in Sustainable Markets at Misum/Stockholm School of Economics.

Back in the days, when I was a PhD student, the SIM Division (Social Issues in Management) of the Academy of Management was the one important Division to join if you had an interest in corporate social responsibility, environmental challenges or ethical issues related to business. This was the only Division where fundamental questions of the legitimacy of business institutions and their responsibilities in society were discussed intensely. US professors Ed Freeman, Tom Donaldson, Sandra Waddock and many others were leading the debate. Later on the ONE Division (Organization and the Natural Environment) emerged with an important focus on the environmental aspects related to business.  My academic “AOM home” was OMT (Organization and Management Theory) but here, like in the other AOM Divisions, ethics, environmental challenges and social responsibilities were regarded as exotic, abstract and somewhat peripheral issues to be part of mainstream research on the firm.

Today, that has changed considerably. The important questions about the role, functioning and legitimacy of business institutions in the context of global challenges are now debated across the AOM Divisions. In other words, CSR and sustainability have become important mainstream research topics at AOM. For example, this year the OMT (Organization and Management Theory), OB (Organizational Behaviour), OCIS (Organization, Communications and Information Systems) and SAP (Strategizing Activities and Practices) Divisions have all attracted a considerable number of research papers, symposia and caucuses on environmental disasters, irresponsibility, unethical behaviours, corruption, inequality, human rights abuse and climate change.

Undoubtedly the current rise in business scandals has contributed to raise the attention among management scholars about these urgent matters. But perhaps even more important for triggering the scholarly attention is the current global questioning among politicians of man-made climate change, their denial or disregard of science, and their inability to find solutions but rather stimulate harsh political disputes about immigration. As we have all seen, governments are currently in dramatic ways setting a changed tone for societal progress. This new tone has created uncertainty and a tense situation for businesses awaiting the changes of regulatory frameworks that will influence their space to navigate. The media furnishes our society on a daily basis with these socio-political changes.

Therefore, it was surprising to find a conspicuous silence in the AOM community about the socio-political context that so heavily influences these crises in today’s world. Across the AOM Divisions and in the many presentations, debates and panels on the challenges to ethics, responsibilities, environment and climate change, the current political transformations in society were not mentioned. Instead there was a conspicuous silence. Perhaps the new political tone is taken for granted among management scholars? Perhaps current politics is not for management scholars to engage in? Perhaps it is too complex for a single-argument paper? Or perhaps the current political systems have become a taboo in a US management scholar context?

One exception, though, was the ONE Division (Organization and the Natural Environment) that hosted a rather popular “ONE plenary”: “Green management under pressure”. This group took the liberty of debating the dangers of the current global political transformations in relation to sustainable development in a mode that included empirically substantiated knowledge as well as normative input.

In this context it is worth reminding ourselves that this is exactly what professors Tom Donaldson and Jim Walsh (2015) called for in a recent article: empirical analysis, practical opportunities and normative theorizing. They challenge the current theory of the firm, inviting us all to reflect on providing novel answers to four basic questions on the role of business in the current societal context of the planet: (1) what is the purpose of the firm? (2) to whom should the firm be accountable? (3) who should be in control of the firm? and (4) how do we define a successful firm? What the “ONE plenary” session at AOM did was to add a fifth and important question about politics: what is an appropriate political context to support sustainable development? And a sixth equally important question about temporality: today, what are the important political transformations in the current business context?

While the research agenda on unethical behaviour, irresponsibility and sustainable development has successfully spread from the SIM and ONE Divisions to a much larger debate on the role of business in society across AOM Divisions, perhaps it is time to reconsider the next move: to engage AOM management scholars in exploring the role of today’s political context for business.

If we as management scholars want to remain not just novel and cutting edge in a scholarly sense, but also want to remain relevant to today’s business and society, we need to provide some thinking about how systemic injustice, corruption, human rights abuse and climate change are not just externalities of poor business management to be repaired by (other) managers. These problems are also closely related to the political systems and governance structures. Some management research has already engaged exploring for example political CSR and sustainability governance (e.g. Crane, Matten and Moon, 2010; Scherer and Palazzo, 2007, 2011). It is good. It is theory. It is conceptual. However, we still need to understand how we as management scholars can integrate the current governance structures that businesses today are operating in. That will make our own community not only relevant but also potentially influential.

So, while the SIM and the ONE divisions over the past decade seem to have successfully integrated their research agendas across the AOM Divisions, there still seems to be an obvious silence to break and a relevant new challenge to pursue: how to bring the global current political climate into the AOM scholarly debate?

Footnote. Academy of Management is a management scholarly community with 20 000 members and 10-12 000 of these meet every year at the annual conference in the United States.

 

Written by: Mette Morsing, Professor in Sustainable Markets at Misum/Stockholm School of Economics.

 

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