Management of Moral Knowledge and Ethical Processes in Organizations

Management of Moral Knowledge and Ethical Processes in Organizations

Agata Kostrzewa (Uppsala University, Sweden), Mikael Laaksoharju (Uppsala University, Sweden) and Iordanis Kavathatzopoulos (Uppsala University, Sweden)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-873-9.ch012
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Moral knowledge is necessary for organizational functioning in order to get legitimacy and increase profits. Given Blackler’s assumptions about organizations, the authors discuss managing moral knowledge in organizations as a set of organizational processes with a time point and in a certain environment. They argue that to become ethically competent, organizations have to combine individuals and organizational ethical skills. Instead of on what is supposed to be done, the authors focus on what is done: interactions within the organization and with its environment, structured by practical routines, bearing main responsibility for transferring moral knowledge. The means facilitating this are organizational roles and structures, trainings, formal and informal support systems along with rules and guidelines. Further, the authors suggest two tools to assist managing moral knowledge: Ethical Index ETHIX (questionnaire to describe how ethical issues are handled in the organization) and the IT system ETHXPERT (supports and structures the process o ethical decision making).
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In order to avoid raising the reader’s expectations we feel urged to state already from the start that we, in this chapter, will not give any clues to what a correct decision in an ethical matter is. We will focus only on the process of handling moral problems, disregarding the normative content of them. Without doubt, it is necessary that the solution of the problem at hand becomes satisfactory, but if the process is correct then the result will be appropriate (Kant, 1997). If we compare with baking a cake it seems obvious that the result, the cake, would be what we judge the quality of the baker by. Nevertheless, if we would like to reproduce an excellent result it seems better to investigate exactly how the baker did when producing it instead of fooling ourselves to believe that the daintiness and aroma of the outcome are results of just using the right ingredients. We would correctly assume that a delicious cake requires both good ingredients and suitable processing. Moral problems are on the other hand often treated as “good in- good out”, i.e. if good values are guiding the solution then the result will be good.

Psychological studies have shown that this is not always enough; the process is often complicated by the strong emotions involved (Sunstein, 2005; Baron & Spranca, 1997). An explicit process when handling real-life problems, in situations where we can assume to be naturally constrained by moral boundaries, does not mean that the results will risk becoming immoral. More likely, a systematic structuring will widen the problem scope and help discover other important aspects. Consequently, we will discuss how ethical issues are handled in organizations, where we treat moral knowledge as latent in the ability to manage moral problems, i.e. knowledge as a process.

Moral knowledge about what is right and what is wrong is not always offered ready to use. Neither is it easy to have awareness of the moral problems an organization is facing, or of the moral problems that might be coming. And, of course, the ability to handle moral problems, to find solutions and to make decisions is not located explicitly in a certain group or in a specific person. Both moral knowledge in the form of suitable solutions, and ethical competence in the form of skills and processes are spread in the organizations.

One might think that the aim for a decision maker always should be to establish a conception, as complete as possible, about the problem at hand. However, one easily realizes that such a conception is often hard to achieve for many reasons. If we for a moment disregard the apparent difficulties in the actual information gathering and instead focus on the mental process of decision making, we can identify unawareness about possible implications, inattention, preconceptions and cognitive biases about the problem as some of the obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of a wide problem understanding. The decision maker thus seems to need help to block tendencies to biased decision making apart from the obvious call for help with widening the understanding of a problem (Kunsch, Kavathatzopoulos & Rauschmayer, 2009). From a knowledge management perspective we also consider it to be important to make a decision process explicit and formalized; the organization as a whole should benefit from the experiences made in specific problem situations. The usual strategy to facilitate organizational learning about moral problems is to codify implications into codes of ethics and ethical guidelines. These assemblies of ethical considerations tend to have a more or less general and normative approach, addressed more to the public at large than to the decision maker facing a difficult situation. They are purposeful, because are telling to the public what to expect from the organization, and thus also for setting up moral boundaries for the people in the organization. Nonetheless, for a specific decision maker in a specific situation, or for a group during a process of creating ethical rules or policies, it would be more valuable to have some kind of support when structuring the problem, in order to be better able to judge which of the codified principles to consider relevant for the specific case and which to disregard. The most important issue is to understand why choices are made and to have good explicit arguments supporting the final decision. Therefore we seek to codify the actual process of ethical decision making rather than the outcomes of it.

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