Business & economics

MBA students need to be taught ‘information resilience’.

Following the case of ANZ, Tim Evans, Professor of Business and Political Economy, highlights the importance of ‘information resilience’ for MBA students

While business schools the world over teach marketing, communications and stakeholder engagement, few, if any, seem to recognise the burgeoning significance of information warfare and therefore the importance of information resilience across our economies. 

Sean McFate’s recent book Goliath provides a powerful wake-up call. It makes the case that in a new and looming age of information conflict, few leaders in business, civil society or government currently have the training, skills or knowledge to deal with the rising tide of information threats. Disturbingly, McFate even goes so far as to suggest that our militaries are behind the curve and struggling to catch up. 

Three male students sitting around a mac computer with business and economics information appears on the screen

The ANZ attack and example

As tensions between the US and China mount, ANZ, one of Australia’s major banking groups, got into trouble recently when they reputedly became subject to a co-ordinated information assault aimed at one of their employees. Lacking the requisite skills and understanding, instead of backing the seemingly innocent co-worker, the bank apparently took the side of the aggressor.

No doubt unaware of what was going on, ANZ’s leadership appeared to crumble between the shafts of their own professed tolerance and the adversarial objectives of an increasingly authoritarian regime eager to impose their will on innocent bystanders. By silencing one employee, the assailants appeared to be sending a broader message to subdue dissent further afield. 

While this episode may subsequently have cost the bank’s former chair, David Gonski, his position, it nevertheless serves to highlight the epistemological challenges facing today’s business leaders. Not least when it comes to such matters as strategy, reputation and investment. 

For example, how could ANZ’s leadership have known that by placing the bank’s leading data centre in the Chinese city of Chengdu things could go so politically awry?  As tensions mount in the region, how could ANZ have known that cyber-attacks on Australia were set to follow, or that US diplomats would be expelled from the very same city? 

Likewise, how could ANZ have known that their data centre would become a political football putatively putting sensitive customer data and information at risk?

Senior executives are not politicians. Instead, they are often talented people focused on serving customers in a quest for organisational success. 

What this means for the future

When it comes to academia, this area of contestability is increasingly important because targeted disinformation campaigns can not only challenge organisations, enterprises and democracies but they can also undermine shared values such as tolerance, diversity and trust; underlying institutional architectures vital in free and open societies. 

It is in this context that McFate’s book is not just a good and timely read. Nor is it merely a wakeup-call for those tasked with defending collective security and the rule of law. Over and above all of these things, it is also a seminal read that lays down the gauntlet to business schools and universities across the democracies.

Nearly century on from Edward Bernays’s book Propaganda, and his placing of public relations on the commercial centre stage, scholars now need to understand and teach aspiring managers and senior executives how to cope with the looming realities of information conflict.

Together, we need to think through the wormholes of a new business-related discipline focused on the production and maintenance of ‘information resilience’.