Cuba and our professional responsibilities

As a new ethicist blogger, and co-chair of the Academy of Management’s Ethics Education Committee, I wish to echo Thomas’s appreciation for our three pioneers in this endeavor – Lorraine Eden, Kathy Lund Dean, and Paul Vaaler. All accomplishments begin with a vision, and we owe them much appreciation for their innovative idea, substantial contributions, and dedication. These will be large shoes to fill. My objective in this post will be to focus directly on examining how elements of our carefully constructed AOM code of ethics can be better recognized, understood, taught, and practiced.

I just returned from visiting one of the very few countries on the planet more or less disconnected from the internet – Cuba. During my visit I had ample opportunity to meet people of all stripes in diverse locations as well as researchers and academics at the University of Havana. My travels took me to both rural and urban locations, although I studiously avoided the ‘all inclusive’ tourist traps. Instead, my attention focused on trying to understand a culture and an environment with a trajectory substantially different from any of the 116 countries that AOM members represent (Cuba, obviously, is not one of them). My visit was particularly timely given the recent announcement by President Obama, who stated “ 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.  It’s time for a new approach”.

The very first item of general principles in the AOM code of ethics addresses responsibility. I think this is an excellent place to begin my reflections of our code, with Cuba presenting an interesting example to speculate regarding what some of my observations may mean to us, as practicing professionals.

In section of our code (1) we are asked to develop trusting relationships, recognize our obligations to society and our communities, manage conflicts of interest, and avoid exploitation or harm. Finally, we are asked to contribute portions of our professional time for little or no compensation or personal advantage.

Cuba is just beginning to authorize private ownership of businesses, although it continues under very strict regulation. One senior professor readily admitted that they had no tools for teaching or preparing their university students for private sector firms – something that, until recently, simply did not exist. In my meetings with them, they were unanimous in requesting assistance in my own field of entrepreneurship, both for research and for developing instructional programs. I found my colleagues to be dedicated professionals, with an unusually keen interest on community and regional development, particularly in rural areas.

A similar knowledge gap existed in the USSR when it opened up in 1989. In a very well documented example, Jeffery Sachs, then at Harvard, recommended ‘shock therapy’, as a way of opening up Russia and other satellite markets. The results were mixed, and critics, including Nobel prizewinner Joe Stiglitz, as well as William Easterly, claim it created unnecessary suffering, advocating a more gradual approach such as that taken by China.

It seems highly probable that in the not too distant future, Cuban scholars will join our AOM community. No doubt, there will be exciting research opportunities as well as substantial financial rewards in store for the pioneer management scholars willing to ‘show them the way’. However, I can’t help but wonder how closely we will adhere to our code’s demand for personal responsibility as academicians. How many of us will contribute ‘for little or no compensation or personal advantage’? How can we, as the world’s largest association of management scholars, provide responsible and ethically sound advice for a situation that 1) exists nowhere else in the world and 2) represents an environment that our copious research experience has not examined, and is largely ignorant of. Will we approach our Cuban colleagues with arrogance or with humility? Will the implementation of our undoubtedly forthcoming advice enhance the life prospects of the average Cuban, or only that of select elites? What role can AOM play in tackling this very important transition, and how can our code of ethics guide us in responsible practices?


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