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Is The MSW The New MBA?

Recent corporate failures demonstrate the need for the very skills that social workers bring. Now a few schools are recognizing this and offering joint tracks that merge the interests of businesses and the communities they work in.

[Photo: Flickr user John Walker]

The MBA is now the most popular master’s degree in the U.S., making up one quarter of all such degrees conferred. But a few schools are recognizing that a different course of study might better serve both aspiring business leaders and the world at large: a master’s in social work.

The University of Southern California’s School of Social Work just launched a business concentration for its students, and a number of universities now offer joint MBA-MSW degrees.

The cynical might assume that social workers are simply trying to make more money as government and social service budgets continue to shrink. (And why shouldn’t MSWs be able to pay off their student loans like everyone else?)

But a number of corporate failures demonstrate the need for the very skills that social workers are trained in. At the same time, the MBA has come under fire for producing some of the leaders that brought on those failures—former Enron CEO and Harvard Business School grad Jeffrey Skilling comes to mind—and perpetuating the shareholder primacy mantra that has pushed the interests of business and the interests of society so far apart.

The USC program aims to produce "system thinkers who focus on the big picture, keeping in mind that businesses affect not only their employees and their families, but also the communities that depend on them." All companies—and society at large—could benefit from that mindset. In addition to foundational courses and a field practicum, students in the business concentration can take classes focused on translating social work theories and skills to corporate environments.

In numerous industries, the costs of fumbling community relationships are all too obvious. Walmart scaled back plans to come to New York City in the face of significant community opposition. Freeport-McMoran's Grasberg copper and gold mine in Indonesia has managed decades of violence and unrest among its workforce and neighbors, forcing the company to spend nearly $30 million a year on security alone. Liesel Filgueiras, manager of human rights and indigenous relations for Vale, the Brazilian mining company, told me that a few disgruntled community members can block the railway leading in and out of a mine: "The social license to operate is an ethereal and tangible concept for most companies. For us it is extremely tangible: it means stopping our operations."

I joined BP in 2000 after earning my MBA, and moved to Indonesia to crunch numbers on the assets BP had just acquired with its takeover of Arco. But I ended up focusing on a liquefied natural gas plant with a myriad of what we euphemistically referred to as "non-technical" risks, including the resettlement of 127 households; a notoriously violent and corrupt military that would be "protecting" our facilities; endemic corruption and a lack of social services.

My job quickly became less about spreadsheets and more about engaging with local communities to understand their needs, bringing in human rights experts to advise us, finding NGOs to partner with, working with every level of government, and developing policies and training modules for BP staff and contractors.

That sounds a lot like the National Association of Social Workers’ definition of its profession: "Social workers help people increase their capacities for problem solving and coping, and they help them obtain needed resources, facilitate interactions between individuals and between people and their environments, make organizations responsible to people, and influence social policies."

In the area of supply chain management, companies are trying to move beyond auditing to analyzing root causes and context—another skill that social workers possess. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in which over 1,100 garment workers died was a tragic example of how the prevailing model of employing auditors to run through checklists is sorely lacking.

When I tried to limit working hours for the contractor building a BP chemicals plant in China, I didn’t understand why there was so much resistance from both the supplier and the migrant workers whose safety I was trying to ensure—until I figured out that they had left their families behind and wanted to maximize their earnings while they were away. (I still insisted on international standards because I wanted them to go home alive, but I learned how to make my case.)

I might have been helped by the social worker’s "person-in-environment" approach, which sensibly stipulates that "an individual and his or her behavior cannot be understood adequately without consideration of the various aspects of that individual’s environment (social, political, familial, temporal, spiritual, economic, and physical)."

Yes, business schools have courses in the so-called "soft skills" (a phrase whose time has clearly passed) of management, leadership, and organizational behavior. But even at Yale, my MBA alma mater that was founded as the School of Organization and Management, I wrongly viewed those classes as a gentle respite from finance and operations rather than the reason I was there.

When Robin Eastman was working as a case manager for people with developmental disabilities, the inefficiency of the nonprofit sector led her to seek an MBA alongside her MSW at the University of Maryland.

In her summer internship with Hilton Worldwide this year, she worked on a program to reward high-performing employees. Her social work training led her to propose that managers conduct "stay" interviews, as opposed to the exit interviews companies conduct once employees are already on their way out. These "stay" interviews would try to understand what it would take to retain an employee, strengthen the manager-employee relationship, and acknowledge that not everyone is motivated by cash alone.

"That was a key point that maybe a business person would think of," Eastman admits, "but it’s a much more social work-y thing to do."

Of course, companies cannot be full of social workers. Ex-BP CEO Tony Hayward was widely derided after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill for having said one year earlier that BP "had too many people that were working to save the world" and "makes its money by someone somewhere every day putting on boots, coveralls, a hard hat and glasses and going out and turning valves. ... We’ve sort of lost track of that."

He was right, to an extent: Companies obviously need people trained in the technical skills of their core business. But I saw from my firsthand experience in Indonesia and China that BP could not make its money without a bit of world-saving.

Interns and alumni from the USC program have worked at Target liaising with local government agencies; at Pan American Bank conducting community needs assessments; and at Wells Fargo Life Management Services vetting service providers for high net-worth clients. These are all essential functions that serve not just the companies’ bottom lines but its external stakeholders as well.

Tomorrow’s CEOs will be working in an environment that demands proactive empathy with the needs of an ever-changing workforce, and innovative collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders on the most pressing issues that face our global society. That sounds to me like a job for a social worker who might be able to help not just the world’s companies, but its people and environment as well.

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