The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare economic weakness around the world. Current practices, led by the airline industry and manufacturing companies, include measures such as downsizing the workforce, halting shareholder dividends and cutting research and development investment. When companies lay off thousands of people during a global pandemic, claiming they have no choice, they may attempt to avoid moral or ethical responsibility for their actions towards their staff and the communities in which they operate.

The current pandemic will reshape industries and the workplace. It will ultimately influence higher education, specifically business education, and pedagogy will evolve post-crisis. This is important because in the past few decades business schools have played a central role in shaping business practices. They do so through offering a rigorous curriculum and advising managers in consultancy arrangements. However, way before the financial crash of 2008, a wave of critical voices have emerged from inside[1] and outside these institution[2].

This criticism was directed at modern management theories such as shareholder value; modern finance practices such as collecting rent on capital; using manipulative marketing tactics to drive demand; or Porter’s five forces model[3], the pillars of which are that companies should compete with regulators, suppliers and business competitors. This was evident in the relationship between book suppliers and Amazon when the latter used the analogy of a cheetah chasing a gazelle in pursuit of complete control of the online book market. Critics called for more reflective management that would take into account the health, ecological and social challenges facing modern societies.

In late 2019, the business scene has experienced scandals driven by short termism and corporate greed. One example is the unravelling of WeWork, which went from being valued at $60 billion USD in 2019 to the verge of bankruptcy; another is the collapse of Woodford Investment Management, which affected hundreds of thousands of investors and pensioners.[4]

These events exposed on the fetish for ‘unicorn’ companies where investors, desperate for growth at all costs, finance loss-making startups that lack a viable business model, hoping they will disrupt the market (i.e., the search for the next Amazon).

Such scandals raise the question of the need for critical theory and sociological thinking in business schools. An answer can be found in Bauman’s work[5] which asserts that the cornerstone of sociological inquiry is to question the assumptions that guide popular culture. This aligns with investigating the consequences of human action on wider society to pave the way for ‘understanding the human world that also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways’.[6]  The merits of critical theory and sociological thinking are that they establish a basis for questioning the way society works, equip citizens to encounter manipulation and oppression, and lay the foundation for better alternatives and a sustainable future.

Ideas and theory matter; as British economist John Maynard Keynes said, ‘the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and where are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood’.[7] This also applies to management scholars, whether publishing peer-reviewed articles or acting as consultants. While we face a wave of professionalisation in every aspect of our professional and personal life, liberal arts and philosophy remain essential to education.

Applications to undergraduate business programmes are booming and we have an opportunity to integrate philosophy and critical thinking into business school curriculum. They are essential to equip future managers with the necessary tools to succeed, and to instil ethics and moral responsibility based on the principle of ‘do no harm’. In an age of pandemic, capitalism is entering a new chapter that will play a critical role in how societies and the economy are governed. Envisioning another alternative to current governance is enhances our ability to face the coming challenges, question taken-for-granted management theories, and combine justice and moral philosophy with management education and practice.

[1] Ghoshal, S. (2005) Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4, 75-91.

[2] Bennis, W.G. & O’Toole, J. (2005) How business schools lost their way. Harvard business review, 83,96-104.

[3]  Porter, M.E. (1979) How Competitive Forces Shape Strategy. Harvard Business Review, 57, 137-145.

[4] Check BBC Panorama: Can You Trust the Billion Pound Investors:

[5] Bauman, Z. & May, T. (2014). Thinking Sociologically. Wiley-Blackwell.

[6] Ibid p.5

[7] Keynes, J.M. (1953). The general theory of employment, interest and money. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.306

Sherif Youssef is a doctoral researcher at the Centre of Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Studies at Leeds University Business School and The Bauman Institute at the School of Sociology and Social Policy. Sherif is an Organizational Theorist with a background in marketing and public policy. His research focuses on Hybrid organisations such as social enterprises in the emerging markets, which aims to address societal challenges while creating some financial revenues. He has a broader research interest looking at the economics of innovation, patient finance and economic growth.  Twitter:  @ShfYoussef