Business schools and business school students are everywhere! In fact, this is not just a feeling but a fact. A whopping nearly third, or 30% of the world’s tertiary education students study business, management and economics globally. This translates into 70 million graduates per year (UNESCO data).
These figures are not only daunting but make business the globally largest field of higher education by far. Thus business schools have a huge responsibility to ensure that these graduates are fit for the world they are facing. But are we really taking this responsibility seriously and carrying it with pride? Who are we serving in our schools and have we got it right?
Management and business guru Peter Drucker already said that a healthy business cannot exist in a sick society. More and more we are realizing that our current social, economic and political systems are not working and we are already seeing a paradigm shift. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs for short, launched already in 2015, offer a plan to save our systems and to encourage solutions in 17 different areas crucial to achieving sustainability and prosperity.
But we still need to ask how many business schools seriously take the SDG17 into their curriculum and teaching. Are most still stuck in the old way of seeing and doing?
Unfortunately it is clear that the competencies addressed by the traditional curriculum are inadequate to address the newer challenges faced by organizations and society today. The essence of business education in this new era should center around sustainability, ethics and equity and thus fully embrace the world’s new vision of the role of business. Unlearning is critical in this paradigm shift.
There are some key words in business and in business models that need to urgently be updated in all business school rhetoric; otherwise our graduates will look like dinosaurs once they leave the school and enter the job market.
Firstly, we should let go of the idea of shareholder primacy and instead talk much more about stakeholders and community. The company creates, and destroys, value for such a large variety of stakeholders that to just focus on the shareholder is missing the mark. And contrary to some thoughts, considering a wider array of stakeholders is not away from the profit-making potential of the company. For example, Wayne Visser in his book Thriving: The breakthrough movement to regenerate nature, society and the environment provides proof that for every 1% increase in gender diversity, company revenue increased by 3% and higher levels of ethnic diversity can increase revenue by 15%.
Secondly profit is and should no longer be the only and main aim but as a condition to fulfill the needs of the company, stakeholders and society. Large multinational companies such as Unilever, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and numerous others have successfully shown that a company can simultaneously both be profitable and work towards solving a societal or environmental challenge in society.
Thirdly, the company needs to be viewed and treated as an integral part of society, not a stand-alone system only responsible for its own development. Coming back to Peter Drucker’s quote, a company can’t flourish if the environment in which it operates is not flourishing as well.
Fourthly, sustainability needs to become something of a quality mark for products and services. This requires a mindset change both with consumers and with businesses to start valuing products and services along sustainability criteria. In this respect we need clear criteria and markings that allow consumer to make better informed decisions about their consumption.
And lastly, increasingly attention is given to different forms of cooperation (the partnership model) instead of competition (“business is war” model) within the context of business models. Business researchers have even coined the term coopetition. As Jana Ganzmann, a young Austrian social entrepreneur said in a panel when asked about competition: “I wouldn’t have gone into entrepreneurship if I didn’t like competition! But we must be clearer about what we are competing for!”
The PRME – Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative under the UN is aiming to bring responsibility into management education. As a voluntary initiative with over 800 signatories worldwide, PRME has become the largest organised relationship between the United Nations and management-related higher education institutions. Some members are more active than others and members are varied in how far along they are in embedding sustainability in their curriculum. But with 800 signatories, there are still many more that are not singed up.
Let’s hope that in the very near future all graduates will have an understanding and appreciation for sustainability by the time they graduate or that in the last we at the business schools have not been able to take students away from their intuitive and sustainability oriented- management and thinking styles!