Alison Kemper is associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Toronto.
Editor’s Note: We are grateful to Professor Kemper for sharing these thoughts following the 1 July 2020 “Decolonizing the Business School” online workshop. Alison first proposed an inquiry into decolonisation of management education at the GRLI’s All Gathering Momentum (AGM) event held 2016 at Kemmy Business School in Limerick, Ireland. Ted Rogers School of Management is a full institutional partner of the GRLI.
In June, Canadian management scholars attended a session on decolonization held during their annual ASAC conference. A few weeks later, hundreds of scholars attended Decolonising the Business School, an online workshop sponsored by the ETHOS Centre for Responsible Enterprise, at City’s Business School (formerly Cass Business School.) Hundreds more of us have read Bannerjee, Rodriguez and Dar’s column in The Conversation.
The increasing interest in this topic is encouraging to many of us for whom this has long been apparent. Many more of us are now trying to develop responsible leaders are beginning to ask, “How are business schools colonized, and why do we need to decolonize?”.
The COVID crisis has brought so many other failures into stark relief: income inequality and precarity, systemic racism, the collapsing climate. All of them demand responsible business leaders. And our work developing these leaders requires that we consider our role in the broader system, the one that seems to be failing so spectacularly.
Examining the racist origins of the field of business management (Business history can be a dangerous discipline.)
Academics seldom both know and identify the roots of our theories and disciplines, instead treating topics like productivity or span of control as enduring problems with constantly improving solutions.
However, in recent years, we’ve learned that Frederic Taylor’s “Scientific Management”, the book that underpins our understanding of management as a scientific discipline and informs much of business scholarship, grew out of Taylor’s experience of his grandfather’s slave ownership¹.
Because of this awareness, we can no longer ignore the close links between the concept of management and the control of enslaved peoples by overseers and accountants. Consequently, management scholars can begin the process of decolonizing our work by centering on the humanity and agency of human resources.
Accounting, too, depends on concepts developed that allowed absentee investors to conduct business from afar and profit from plantations². The alienation of lands and resources by colonizing Europeans has depended upon accounting conventions that allowed governments and corporations to control territories full of trees, animals, waters and rock, converting them to productive assets, a status they continue to hold³.
In finance, we teach our students about shareholder primacy in the joint stock company and the importance of limited liability without teaching them that these were devised to make colonialism profitable. The most iconic organization of colonialism, the East India Company, provided the world with the core institutions of business, the joint stock company and the concept of limited liability. In addition to these centrally important innovations, they were granted the remarkable status of being an agent of state policy. This tripartite structure underlies the form of multinational companies to this day⁴.
Perpetuating control: How do business schools maintain colonial processes?
First, business schools train the most capable of students to produce optimal profits for principals. The division of the interests of principals and agents can be traced to colonial structures.
Second, researchers theorize and test systems of refining and replicating systems of wealth transfer from labourers to capitalists, from the Earth and its Indigenous peoples to the companies which extract and develop land and natural resources. We do not simply replicate old models.
Third, administrators and fundraisers legitimate fortunes made in the past and those to be made with little regard to the moral circumstances of such fortunes. We name our schools and our research chairs after the wealthiest donors with little regard to the manner in which these funds were generated.
Fourth, few business scholars research or teach alternative forms of commerce, and almost no scholars work to prepare students for a future in which prevailing models of capitalism cease to be viable. We do not (cannot?) teach degrowth. We do not (cannot?) help students model business strategies to be used in a catastrophic climate. And we do not (cannot?) help students plan for doing business while paying reparations to the descendants of enslaved peoples, while restoring land and resources to Indigenous peoples, or as we restore the water and air to the state prior to its fouling by industries.
Amie Wolf, commenting on the relationship between reconciliation and economics, writes:
The cause of Indigenous poverty is not a lack of money but a lack of justice. This lack of justice is created by government policies of assimilation designed to undermine and erase Indigenous cultures, identities, and economies for over 150 years. Indigenous peoples have resisted assimilation and have shown incredible resiliency. We have refused and continue to refuse to merge into the economic mainstream of Canada because this requires us to surrender our values of stewardship — caring for the earth and sharing with one another. This is part of our traditional holistic worldview, and the capitalistic worldview does not reflect these values. We’ve shown that as Indigenous people we will not commit cultural suicide for money. We cannot be bought⁵.
It is time that business schools owned up to our dependency on models developed to ensure that both slavery and the alienation of native lands were profitable for investors and furthered the interests of the crown. We need to explore models that reunite principals and agents, that provide benefits and profits with short spans of control, that connect resources back to those who best know them and care for them.
COVID has taught us that our business models are fragile. The resultant collapse of consumer demand has demonstrated that the exploitation of human and natural resources is not inexorable: we have chosen to build economies through a continuing effort to maintain and increase consumption and produce profits.
Reinvent and reverse
It’s time to use these hard-won lessons to reinvent business schools as economic innovators and begin to reverse our dependency on exploitative colonial models.
: R. Keith Aufhauser, “Slavery and Scientific Management,” The Journal of Economic History 33, no. 4 (1973): 811–24; Katie Johnston, “The Messy Link Between Slave Owners And Modern Management,” Forbes, January 16, 2013, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/01/16/the-messy-link-between-slave-owners-and-modern-management/; Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, electronic resource (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018).
: Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery.
: Dean Neu, “Accounting and Accountability Relations: Colonization, Genocide and Canada’s First Nations,” Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 13, no. 3 (2000): 268–88.
: Philip J. Stern, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (Oxford University Press, 2011), https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195393736.001.0001.
: Amie Wolf, “Real Reconciliation Starts with Fair Economics,” The Mainlander (blog), January 22, 2020, https://themainlander.com/2020/01/22/real-reconciliation-starts-with-fair-economics/.
Alison Kemper is associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: Alison Kemper