Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Reexamining business school fundamentals (reconsidered) 8: business ethics and communications in a multicultural context

Posted in reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on March 1, 2017

This is my eighth installment to a series of brief, single issue sketches in which I reconsider each of a set of core issues that I first addressed in this format in a 2010 series. See Section II of my directory: Reexamining the Fundamentals for that earlier related series, and in particular see my earlier same-name counterpart posting to this one as included there: Reexamining Business School Fundamentals – business ethics and communications in a multicultural context.

I just reread my 2010 counterpart to this posting, from that earlier series and took a step that is essentially a first for me in this blog. I in effect rewrote it, expanding and clarifying my message offered there and with a later posting in mind: this one. The basic message offered there is unchanged, and it serves as a validly supportive starting point for this series and its renewed delving into business ethics.

I wrote my 2010 series at a time when free trade and global flattening and opening up were on the rise, with that driven by the development of the internet and its facilitation of globally reaching, from anywhere to anywhere trade and communications. I write this posting and its 2017 series at a time of backlash to that opening up and inclusiveness, as it has come to be seen, and by many as a source of new inequalities: in how the benefits created from it have been distributed with some gaining, and with others losing ground. This is a crucially important point that I have raised in earlier installments to this 2017 series, and it holds particular importance here, and for this posting too. The global flattening that I write of here, as a disruptive global transition point change, has had unequal and uneven impact on different groups, and both between and within nations and this disparity of costs faced and benefits received has created anger and bitter resentment. And we are now, circa late 2016 and early 2017 seeing that loudly and visibly play out on a global stage, in political and economic decisions made and carried out, and in the protest votes and other public actions that drive them.

• And crucially importantly to this posting and to the issues that I raise and address here, the backlash that I make note of here is seen by many of those who see themselves as being disenfranchised and left out, in moral and ethical terms – even if they do not always explicitly couch their plaints using those words.

I wrote my 2010 business ethics posting in terms of differences and uncertainty, and in terms of change and on how new perceptions and understandings can cast both current and prior behavior in a new and less flattering light. And I wrote that earlier business ethics note at least to a significant degree as a prescriptive offering, for limiting the possibility of entering into business transactions that would come back to haunt you, at least on business ethics grounds. And that was at a time of more general and uniform acceptance of this flow of change, and of greater consistency in understanding, both for how it would be carried out and in how its results would be perceived. So I offered that at a time of greater confidence and of at least expected greater certainty. I write this at a time of greater uncertainty and I add greater risk – and certainly where longer term business commitments are involved. And just as importantly, I write this at a time when some of the key technologies that have made global opening up and flattening possible, are being used to create new types of wrinkles and even new types and forms of walls and barriers between us.

I have been writing this series at what is primarily a higher organizational level, considering trade agreements and national and regional economies, more than I have individual businesses and the decisions and actions that they take and commit to. In keeping with the much more individualized approach taken in my July 28, 2010 business ethics posting that I build this one from, I switch to that lower level of organization and understanding here – at least for purposes of this posting itself.

Ethical guidelines and principles, and business ethics-motivated and defining law are societal and take place at that higher organizational level. But they are honored and followed, or only honored in their breach and bypassed and not followed, at the individual business and the individual business professional level. That is where higher level considerations and higher level mandated guidelines and requirements are tested, on a case-by-case basis and on a transaction-by-transaction, cumulative basis – and with all of that grounded in specific decisions made and actions taken by individuals and by the individual organizations that they work for. So this posting is one of my anchor points for this 2017 series, grounding that higher level of consideration to the more day-to-day lower level that has to be included here too. And I begin addressing that by explicitly considering a crucially important source of the new wrinkles, walls and barriers that I just alluded to above, but that I explicitly identify here:

• The epistemic bubbles, or filter bubbles as they are also called that we increasing live in,
• As what in principle could be a globally wide and connecting interactive online context has become increasingly partitioned into like-minded, opinion and bias-reinforcing communities
• And ones that have all too often come to see those who disagree with them as being morally and ethically wrong as well as factually in error.

To repeat a point made at the very top of this posting, I wrote in its title of business ethics and “communications in a multicultural context.” At the time I chose that title tagline in 2010 for my earlier posting in counterpart to this one, I was thinking more in terms of global contexts and national and internationally framed regional cultural differences. Now and in the context that I am writing this posting in, my focus of attention is at least as much within-nation, as for example exemplified by the blue state/red state chasm that divides the United States, and in ways that led to our 2016 presidential elections there, and their still rapidly unfolding consequences.

I cite to recent news stories here, to take that out of the abstract, I note here:

The Real Story About Fake News Is Partisanship, as an example of how biased and even seemingly alternative reality visions of news and facts, go way beyond the scope and sway of online social media, or of search engine results as exemplified in the term filter bubble as it was initially, more restrictively used.

The types of knowledge and opinion partitioning that I write of here has expanded to significantly include what have traditionally been open news outlets as well, where for example media giants such as Fox News have completely blurred the distinction between factual reporting, and editorializing and opinion making in their reporting. And Fox, on the right politically has its equally bubble enclosed counterparts on the left, politically too. And as a second, “sum of all fears” voice here, I would cite this Thomas L. Friedman Op-Ed piece of January 11, 2017:

Online and Scared.

These and I add a steady flow of other, related news stories and publically visible online postings reflect a public awareness of how we are becoming partitioned off into likeminded within, but closed off to the outside, communities. And as noted above, these increasingly are communities that view those who differ from them with suspicion and as being morally and ethically challenged. And this is the context that businesses and the people who work in them have to function in and certainly as they seek to reach out to wide and even globally open markets and their demographics – where the boundaries of those target markets do not necessarily align with the boundaries of the society shaping epistemic bubbles that we all see forming around us.

When I wrote my quick set-up notes for this posting in preparation for actually writing it, one of them read:

• “Note the moral and ethical challenges thrown up for us all across the bubble divides, as noted above, and how making business decisions in the midst of them is of necessity more complicated, and how disagreement is so often framed in what might most accurately be deemed morally and ethically phrased xenophobic terms.”

A part of me would argue for more restraint in my wording there when actually writing this. But the viciously partisan nature of the red state versus blue state, and conservative versus liberal communities in the United States, as a single nation case in point example – and particularly from their political right, and the incredibly divisive exclusionary 2016 campaign of now President Trump have shown that even words like xenophobia can be restrained and carefully considered, and even mild as I write this.

What are business professionals and their organizations to do as they seek to traverse this complex emerging mine field? One point that I would raise here is to remember that longer term contexts do apply and that they will continue to do so, even as we face our immediate here-and now fears of the consequences of our current divisions and divisiveness, in our immediate now. And in that regard I repeat how the context of today differs from that of mid-2010, and note that in a few years we may be facing still another current and of the moment context and with new challenges and opportunities and at all organizational levels that will arise from that, from that of the individual to that of entire societies. And with that stated, I repeat my prescriptive bullet points list of 2010, with minor rewording for use in this 2017 context:

• Follow the dictates of your moral and ethical sense and your own conscience.
• Follow the norms and the legally mandated restrictions and opportunities of your own country and culture and certainly where that seeks to uphold a higher standard.
• And follow the norms and the legally mandated restrictions and opportunities of the countries and cultures that you work with and within, and certainly where they do not violate your own ingrained sense of right and wrong. (Here, “country” can mean national boundary-defined country. But I repeat this point with epistemic bubble-defined communities of all sorts in mind too, as they define themselves for their like-minded members, and I write here about seeking ways to work constructively with them and even across their dividing barriers.)
• If a given action or decision would be disallowed by any one or more of these standards consider it being at risk of being deemed ethically questionable, and I add at least potentially legally risky (and opportunity limiting and even for creating what would arguably be more widely genuine good.) And act accordingly.

And with today’s early 2017 context in mind I explicitly consider the word “communications” in this, and add:

• Seeking to behave both effectively and ethically and certainly in a divided and divisive world, calls for more effectively reaching out and even across bubble barriers, to enter into dialogs – real dialogs and not just exercises in talking at or even just past each other.
• And that means really listening and even when you do not automatically, comfortably agree and even when you cannot come to fully genuinely agree at all
• … and with that a necessary step for lowering the uncertainty and the tensions that our dividing bubble walls create as we take our currently very bumpy ride through this period of transition and change.
• What does this mean operationally and from a practical, action oriented perspective? Seek out and focus on areas of agreement and of potential agreement that might connect us to each other, that might be hidden behind the rhetoric of our perhaps more photogenic disagreements and differences, and building from there. And address our differences when and as that becomes necessary, but from the perspective of our shared points of agreement and similarity. And it means building from a foundation of the first of the four bullet pointed recommendations, as just repeated above and I add without change, as originally posted to this blog in 2010.

I am going to finish this posting here, noting that I will come back to the issues raised in it, in future postings and series too. Meanwhile, you can find this and other related postings and series at Reexamining the Fundamentals, with this series offered as a new Section VII in that directory.

I am going to follow this posting with a next series installment where I will address the basic issues raised in my 2010 series with its posting: Reexamining Business School Fundamentals – reading between the microeconomics lines. And in anticipation of that, I note here that I will frame its discussion at least in part in terms of the issues and points raised in my Part 7 installment to this series.

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