Corporate Calls for Global Competence: Rhetoric vs. Action

planet444.jpegI have an educational exercise for you. Embark on a tour through your closets and dresser drawers. It will be an inexpensive trip. Everyone, especially fellow citizens of the famously inward-looking USA, should give this inventory project a try. The targets I have in mind are tags saying “Made in Mexico” or “Made in Jordan.” At this point, “Made in China” may be a given. Once you have completed the tour, even the most worldly readers of may be surprised at the extent of their unavoidable, everyday connections to the rest of the world. You will have experienced a common tool for educating students of all ages about the phenomenon of globalization. Wrapped up in that simple exercise, and in those items from various shores, are complicated issues that mirror the “greyness” of our world. Human rights, the global environment, cultural traditions, political concerns – so much complexity, so little black and white. The process of making, packaging, shipping, selling, purchasing, and eventually disposing of any given product exudes the greyness that is globalization.
This is not rocket science, but I worry that the next generation of leaders in business, government, and other sectors may not fully understand these concepts or have the global awareness and experience to act on them appropriately. Just as attention to environmental and social concerns has become a measure of visionary corporate performance, excellence in education is not achieved without a significant infusion of global perspectives, at all levels and across disciplines. If we can agree on that, maybe we can agree that the corporate world should seek more ways to partner with the world of education toward global competence outcomes wanted by all.

I am a professional generalist who helps internationalize a state university campus, conducts outreach programming for schools, and speaks to groups of educators and other professionals about international education and global trends. I often find myself enabling the ideas and initiatives of others by sharing various “rationale pieces,” state and national reports voicing an urgent need for greater global competency among teachers, students, business leaders, and citizens in general. We are awash in reports, some published in recent months, like Education for Global Leadership by the Committee for Economic Development. Over the years, I have contributed to some of them and have followed others closely. The reports have come and gone (no doubt more are on the way), all of them speaking to the same urgent need. A constant flow of rhetoric, words upon words, upon words.
Many of those reports were driven and co-written by corporate leaders across the U.S. who are adept at that rhetoric. Don’t get me wrong, the rhetoric is useful. I just happen to think that we are sophisticated enough to realize deep down that, by now, most of it is dusty old news. Despite that, and truth be told, the private sector collective has failed to put its money “where its mouth is” at levels anywhere near the levels of urgency resonating in the message. Corporate response to the global competency imperative has lacked significance, far too little support for those in a position to address the needs voiced by CEO’s. In all fairness, there have been a few wonderfully productive exceptions to that rule in recent years, such as the Goldman Sachs Foundation Prizes for Excellence in International Education. Yet, the rhetoric continues to outweigh the action locally and nationally, big time. People feel good about saying the right thing, it makes them seem worldly, attracts spotlights, even generates some hope and occasional action. Acting on the rhetoric in major ways, however – putting one’s nose to the global competency grindstone – is something altogether different.
Accompanying the rhetoric vs. action have been some closely related trends. A recent survey of “global executives” indicates that “relatively little is being done” by companies in response to climate change, even though that topic is considered to be “important and awareness is high” (PR, Media Attention & Consumers Driving Climate Change in the Corporation,, February 11, 2008). The Pew Global Attitudes Project published the results of another worldwide survey revealing that “anti-Americanism is extensive, as it has been for the past five years” (Global Unease With Major World Powers, June 27, 2007). Not much was being done by the private sector along those lines either, until recently. It was an echo of the familiar refrain, the gap between rhetoric vs. action (or inaction vs. logic).
Finally, new trends are on the horizon. Something remarkable has happened along parallel fronts, a flash of worldly corporate enlightenment:
* Companies are redefining their missions and their definition of the “bottom line” as “triple bottom-line,” to encompass not only financial concerns, but also environmental and social concerns of a broadly global nature. Klaus Schwab, Executive Chair of the World Economic Forum, mentioned this new trend in a compelling article for Foreign Affairs (Global Corporate Citizenship, January/February 2008). The former CEO of a major company in Green Bay, Wisconsin, resigned recently in order to help others act on the trend – a trend indicator unto itself.
* Some of the world’s largest corporations have banded together to address the issue of anti-Americanism abroad and its impact on profits, a bottom line concern of a different sort. The leadership of Business for Diplomatic Action represents American Airlines, Coca-Cola, DDB Worldwide, McDonald’s, Microsoft, PepsiCo, Weyerhauser, and many others. They are acting on a problem that, “unless checked, is certain to have wide-ranging and long-term negative effects on U.S. business endeavors, to say nothing of the damage to our reputation as a people, our future economic competitiveness, and the threat to our national security.” In a unique and somewhat unprecedented twist, BDA recognizes that objections to U.S. foreign policy are not the only reason to act. “Other root causes include the perception that we are arrogant and insensitive as a people, that our culture has become all-pervasive, and that the global business expansion on the part of U.S. companies has been exploitive.” In effect, BDA is talking about the need for international education and social justice.
* The U.S. Department of Education sponsored a national “forum” recently on innovation and collaboration in international education. It was refreshing to hear a panel of international business professors address the need for non-traditional, outside-of-the-box approaches in sync with a rapidly changing world. Their view is that the worlds of education and business are moving too slowly in response to global realities. On the bright side, it is encouraging to note an increasing number of MBA programs with sustainability at their core.
Developments like these, as overdue as they are, represent concrete responses to the many calls for greater global competency. Those of us in international education are sometimes tempted to roll our eyes, slap our foreheads, and exclaim “We told you so long ago!” Instead, we admire and welcome those who are leading the way. There is room for more leadership. We remain ready to utilize concrete corporate support to engage global challenges within education circles. Any company in any community can make a significant difference by funding any option on a menu that includes:
* Scholarships for student experiences abroad.
* Fellowships for educators seeking international professional development, abroad or through unique programs in the U.S.
* Resource libraries stocked with cutting-edge curriculum supplements, or memberships in international education collaboratives, or events bringing diverse community resources together on behalf of education.
* Global issues programs (and accompanying awards) for students, such as simulations, essay contests, and service learning opportunities abroad. Such programs exist currently, but most are sponsored by NGO’s and government agencies. More are needed.
* The menu goes on, dependent in part upon local context, which suggests the need for collaborative conversations.
These are the bridges that will span the gaps between rhetoric and action. The triple bottom line approach to business should always be “think globally, act locally,” a slogan often attributed to Rene Dubos, adviser to the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in 1972.
The slogan is commonly understood to mean that action should be triangulated to address global ecological, economic, and social/cultural concerns, but within local contexts through collaboration and communication. If corporate CEO’s really mean what they say about global competence and triple bottom line concerns, some of the best solutions can be achieved through helping international education do its thing, at any level.
What is corporate activity if not a grand combination of human endeavor making a tremendous impact on our surroundings, near and far – our global commons, our shared humanity, our interconnected future? Memo to current and future corporate leaders, and those who teach them: You can ignore that fundamental in a world of exponential change, or you can aspire to something beyond easy rhetoric and dive into meaningful action. Leadership is about diving in before the pool gets crowded. Just don’t forget your swimsuit, the one “Made in Bangladesh.
Jay Harris is an international projects producer and global perspectives consultant, having worked with universities, schools, government agencies, NGO’s, and companies. His most current work takes him to Jordan on a regular basis on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.

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