Communication for Sustainable Development

Discussion round-up: The role of business schools in advancing sustainability

• How can business schools teach complex sustainability issues to the leaders of tomorrow?
• This was the topic up for discussion in our recent live chat. Read a summary of the debate here

Business schools often integrate sustainability into at least one course for each of their disciplines. Some have gone further by embedding a focus on sustainability across the entire curriculum.

Participants agreed that it is preferable for sustainability to be integrated into core business programmes and across the curriculum, than to be taught as a separate topic. This gives students a better understanding of the concepts and how they can be applied to a business context.

Integration across the curriculum helps future leaders integrate sustainability into their thinking process. This applies to people with a particular dedication to sustainability, as well as those whose main interest lies in areas such as finance, strategy and marketing.

Learning for sustainability

There can be a disconnect between what students learn on sustainability/CSR focused courses and the skills that businesses expect their new recruits to have. An issue also exists in that students from dedicated CSR or sustainability MBA programs are focused on working for CSR or sustainability departments of major companies, whereas businesses need graduates to embed sustainability within different departments such as HR, finance, operations, distribution and marketing.

The benefit of learning about sustainability issues accross a variety of disciplines was highlighted as this broadens a student's perspective.

Shift the mindset - business schools

A significant obstacle to sustainability becoming more embedded into the business school ethos is that a major mind-shift away from academic traditions is required for this to be come a reality.

At Harvard Business School, there has been a backlash against the revamp of its curriculum towards sustainability.

At another school change is being slowed down by divisions between faculties, with some viewing sustainability as being irrelevant to business and others pushing for innovation in the way business education is delivered.

An example of good practice is the model pioneered by Gifford and Libba Pinchot at Bainbridge Graduate Institute where social and environmental responsibility and been woven into all courses, including MBA core competencies.

Encouragingly, 381 business schools worldwide have signed the UN initiative for Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME).

A wider problem highlighted by panellists is the lack of an economic model, roadmap or clear vision of a sustainable economic system. One said, "We lack an uber-theory", and another, "How can we have a meaningful conversation if we don't know where you are going".

Shift the mindset - students

The relationship between personal and sustainable development was noted. Programmes such as "the personal leadership and development" Marlboro sustainability MBA, which places a lot of value on community building, focus on this idea. The Doughty Centre at The Cranfield School of Management takes a similar approach with its Organisational Behaviour and Personal and Professional Development (OBPPD) course, which involves psychologists and sociologists as advisers.

Shift the mindset - society

Sustainability should be integrated into all of higher education, not only business schools. Schools in South America, Africa, and Asia have strong sustainability curriculums.

There are cultural differences between regions in the approach to teaching. Holistic approaches seem more common in developing countries than in western society.

What drives the teaching of sustainability in business schools?

Experience suggests that the integration of sustainability into faculties has been most successful when a few staff are personally motivated. However, overall integration requires a clear strategy and commitment from the head of school.

Accreditations appear to be a valuable way of encouraging business schools to change. Examples include:

• The European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS), an international system of quality assessment, improvement and accreditation of higher education institutions in management and business administration.

• The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which provides accreditation to assure employers, students and parents of the top quality education of the accredited schools.

• The Association of MBAs (AMBA), which takes in students, graduates and employers with links to the accredited business schools.

The role of businesses

Businesses are looking for answers and tools relating to the "how to" of sustainability, and business students should be the ones testing, exploring and creating these new ways of thinking.

Two panellists said the business sector was more advanced in dealing with sustainability issues than business schools, while it should be the other way around.

One said that what tends to happen is an individual within an organisation would develop a particular idea in response to a business need. This would materialise into a new business practice, and eventually a business school would notice the trend, give it a name, and help spread the idea.

Businesses could be effective in communicating the need for change in the curriculum, and there is a need for genuine partnerships between businesses and busiess schools. The challenges and dilemmas facing businesses should drive a large part of research and teaching in the schools.

Already some positive corporate involvement is leading to initiatives such as the Academy of Business in Society (EABIS), a partnership between Business Schools in Europe and some large companies. Another initiative is led by the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), a network of companies and learning institutions focusing on the exchange of learning.


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