Thoughts on sustainability in Business Education and the future of Responsible Management Education
By John North, Executive Director, Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative
Recently I was asked by a business education journalist “How is business education becoming more sustainable?”
If one accepts the simplest definition of sustainable as the ability to exist constantly then the question was how business education could be continued indefinitely — how it could maintain “business as usual”.
To this I responded that it can only survive or sustain itself by adapting to what the world truly needs which in all likelihood is not “business as usual”.
So then what does the world need and what is required from business- and management education?
Revisiting the 50+20 Vision (2012)
A useful starting pointwas published in 2012 when we helped develop and launch the 50+20 vision (Management Education for the World) which highlights, in summary, the need for multi-level transformation of management education as follows:
a) develop responsible leadership rather than train managerial capacity and units of production for industrial age business (at the individual level)
b) enable companies to serve the common good rather than to promote dominant focus on the financial bottom-line (at organisational level) and
c) engage in pro-active transformation of our economic systems to fully account for and improve social and environmental well-being (at the systemic level).
The central “collaboratory” shown in the diagram above unites the three proposed roles of management education for the world into a concrete action research and learning approach. The collaboratory as described in the 50+20 vision is conducted without formal separation between knowledge production and knowledge transfer, while focusing on visceral real-life issues and developing solution in a process of engagement that is driven by challenges, not theory.
At the core of the 50+20 Agenda we called for redefining the ‘raison d’etre’ of business as per EFMD’s Global Responsibility taskforce report (2003) and more explicitly stated in GRLI’s 2005 call for engagement.
The elephant in the room becomes the deckchair on the Titanic
On the whole, business- and management education today is still taking an incremental approach to becoming sustainable and promoting sustainability. There is a lot of talk about sustainability and responsibility, there are many bolt-on changes to curriculum and the occasional attempts at systemic interventions but on the whole more needs to be done not discounting valiant efforts and interventions. (For some inspiration and examples see Giselle Weybrecht’s PRiMEtime blog).
Those at the very forefront of changing their practice and offerings will be the first to admit they are frustrated by the lack of progress. Those claiming major successes typically stand to lose the most from fundamental structural and normative changes in management education.
Let’s take a central and topical issue as case in point — climate breakdown. If business education providers, working in deep partnership with government, business and civil society are not 100% in the business of full-on addressing the climate crisis, they will not be in business in a 100 years from now. Business cannot succeed in a world that fails and nor can business education.
Still only a handful of the most wealthy schools that wish to portray progressive action can afford to carbon-offset their operations. Ironically we have known for many years that offset programmes hardly offer a sufficient response to the climate dilemma (as highlighted recently when UK Royalty came under fire for claiming that their carbon offsetting negates their private jet trips).
Management education trains tomorrow’s leaders and entrepreneurs — a segment of the population that holds overwhelming responsibility for issues of social and environmental justice. Again using the climate crisis as a reference point, let’s review a few key facts that place the responsibility of companies, executives and eventually management education in relation to the climate emergency in no uncertain terms.
- The 2017 CDP Carbon Majors report revealed that a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global climate emissions.
- A January 2019 article in Nature shows that “Calculating the emissions from 0.54% of the wealthiest of the global population, according to our estimates, results in cumulative emissions equal to 3.9 billion total Co2 emissions per year. This is equivalent to 13.6% of total lifestyle-related carbon emissions. In comparison, the world’s poorest 50% are responsible for about 10% of lifestyle consumption emissions.”
- According to GMAC’s data the media starting salary (U.S.) for business school graduates in 2017 was U$ 110,000 per annum placing them amongst top earners. Salary increase also happens to be the largest determining factor in business school rankings as it were. The race to the top is in fact fueling increasing social inequality and environmental and climate breakdown.
I guess one can say that we are rearranging elephants on the deck of the Titanic as Jillian Anable said recently in her talk on the astonishing absence of the carbon reduction imperative in transport policy and research.
Deans and Rectors are signing up to networks and declarations in what has become virtue signalling at industrial scale. Business Schools and Universities are producing glossy reports for marketing purposes and recognition amongst a small group of elect peers whilst the fundamentals that uphold the underlying social and environmental injustice remains unchallenged.
Whilst a few are working hard on forging a new path the majority of business education curriculum and teaching is still underpinned by our industrial age understanding of economic and management sciences.
From transactions to relationships
A few key things that can and should be done:
- Develop the human being in the leader not only the leader in the human being. The rapid adoption of learning facilitation approaches which develop the entire human being or the “whole” graduate cannot be emphasised enough.
- Along with relational innovations in learning methodologies we are also encouraged by more issue-centered learning and research. It not only provides the experiential learning opportunity for the individual or graduate but strives to create on the ground impact for the communities and context in which the learning or research takes place (whether focused on social development or environmental restoration).
- Linked to the need for action-oriented learning which promotes globally responsible leadership and practice we require better alignment of the various networks and initiatives that deal with these issues. Our small part in this has been to build on our strategic partnership with the two largest accreditation bodies AACSB International and EFMD and to form alliances with other entities e.g. the Academy for Business in Society (ABIS) in order to develop and work toward shared objectives.
The accreditation bodies (in particular EFMD’s EQUIS standard and AACSB’s most recent iteration of their criteria and their collective vision for Business Education) has and continues to play a catalyst role in placing issues of ethics, sustainability and responsibility on the quality agenda.
Beyond accreditation and of course rankings the other major forces that increase the focus on sustainability is of course students and employees. In many respects business schools are needing to play catch-up with industry and demands from a new generation of students more critical of the role of business in society preparing to join or start purpose-driven organisations and companies.
In conclusion if there are glimmers of hope, it resides in programs that explore and experiment with the shift from a transactional mindset and behaviors (quid pro quo) to mindsets and behaviors that are relational. A good example would be the Deans Cohort — a participant-driven action-oriented learning collective for Deans and Directors (not exclusively business schools as sustainability requires trans-disciplinary perspectives). The group directs its own learning (issue-centered) and within the Cohort Deans work on developing their own leadership practice, work with learning partners on driving change within their institutions and as a collective shift the needle towards responsible management education.
In stead of rearranging elephants on the deck of the Titanic we need to navigate through uncertainty and complexity to change course entirely.
The GRLI Partners and Associates form a community of responsible action specifically focused on supporting the transcendent thinking and action required to change course and develop resilience to deal with coming disruptions. When we gather (in person and online) this November we will reflect on the emergent global context, on developments in our shared landscape and consider the implications on GRLI’s work and future focus.