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Harvard cheating scandal says something about tomorrow’s workplace

September 11, 2012

Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Joe DeSantis  

Getting things done by collaborating with coworkers is what defines the successful workplace today, it seems. In fact, workplaces revere teamwork so much that the ability to collaborate may be the most important individual skill that a worker can bring to the job.

There is irony in that thought. And yet, a great many recruiters and talent managers would readily admit it to be true. For them, teamwork is not a plus skill but a base skill, perhaps even the sine qua non of individual success.

It makes one ponder what the place of individuality in the workplace should be—or even whether there will always be a place for the individual who thinks differently from everyone else, who delivers a steady stream of ideas both brilliant and cockeyed and is willing to go to the mat for  every one of them.

Recent news of a cheating scandal among undergraduate students at Harvard University is noteworthy because it may be instructive about how today’s students expect to operate in tomorrow’s workplace. The scandal suggests that for some students collaboration is so instinctive, so automatic, that it obliterates other considerations. In the Harvard case, the other consideration was the ethics of high-stakes test-taking. Extrapolating from that to the workplace, the considerations could be not only ethical ones but important cultural ones: might not a given task be better accomplished by an individual than a group? And is there a place at all for the misfit with the genius idea?

The short version of the Harvard story is that about 250 undergraduate students took a final exam for a course in government. The exam was, according to its instructions, “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.,” and the students had about a week to complete it. But the instructions also said “students may not discuss the exam with others.”

The teaching assistants who graded the exams noted an unusual number of identical answers and appropriately raised the red flags that triggered an investigation. About 120 of the students are now under investigation for cheating. Some of them readily admitted collaborating with each other on the wording of their answers. They acknowledged being aware of the instructions to not collaborate, but argued that all of the other signals they received from the teaching assistants during the test period, and even throughout the semester, encouraged them to do exactly that. And so that is what they did, despite the clear instructions to the contrary. And they staunchly defended their actions on that basis.

Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson, in a commentary about the Harvard scandal, pointed out the ethical distinction that the Harvard students clearly missed. The problem was not so much that they collaborated with each other; the problem was that in turning in their exams each one implicitly represented those answers as being his or her own.

Were the Harvard students ethically challenged? Surely to some extent they all were, and some were more challenged than others. But is it possible that some of them literally saw no other way to solve their problem than to collaborate, and so they never thought at all about the ethical side of what they were doing?  Many, it was established, felt the test questions did not reflect the course material, and they were decidedly unhappy with the way the course had been taught.

What does the Harvard cheating scandal tell us about the future workplace? Surely nothing definitive, but it triggers fair questions. Will the ethic of collaboration become so embedded in the workplace that the inveterate lone wolf with the quirky but occasionally genius new idea will disappear? Will individual risk-taking inside the organizational culture disappear? If so, when? In the meantime, how will Baby Boomers, who still hold most of the senior management positions today and who respect teamwork but do not necessarily revere it the way today’s undergraduates do, evaluate the work performance of the latter when they enter the workplace?

Will the workplace gain more than it loses from collaboration, or will it be the other way around?

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