Are the world’s business schools walking the walk?

David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee introduce The Sustainable Business Handbook.

The last edition of Global Focus had a fascinating but sobering analysis by Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen titled “Are business schools talking the walk?” The article described their analysis of the websites of 680 business schools which are signatories of the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME). They examined how well the schools’ commitments to responsible management education are reflected on the front pages of their websites.

Some might quibble with individual metrics used by Moratis and Melissen. Specifically, the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), whilst important for governments, civil society, and leaders in sustainable business as an extra lens for assessing their sustainability strategy, may be less important as a sustainability starting point for the mass of businesses, and, therefore, for business schools. Nevertheless, the underlying point of the Moratis-Melissen article is important, as they found that supposedly committed business schools aren’t emphasising their sustainability credentials at the front of their websites. Quite likely, many of those PRME signatories are underselling what they are already doing – hence the title of the Moratis-Melissen article. Hopefully, the article’s analysis will be a stimulus to deans and their heads of communications to refresh their websites and key promotional literature and to ensure they deliver quality courses around sustainable business, lest they be accused of greenwashing.

There is, however, a deeper question behind the Moratis-Melissen work. Namely, are the mass of the world’s business schools walking the walk? That is to say, are they preparing the next generation of business leaders and managers for the scale and complexity of the sustainability challenges they will face?

One of us (David) teaches in a triple-accredited business school (Cranfield, UK). All three of us are regularly invited as guest speakers to business schools, and Mark has taught a course at the Haas School of Business at Cal Berkeley. We all experience the interest and hunger of students who want to know how they can make a positive difference.

The Sustainable Business Handbook

In writing our latest book, The Sustainable Business Handbook, we were very clear that our primary target readers are board members and managers of businesses which are not yet sustainability business leaders. We see many of these businesses being in global supply chains where (usually bigger) business customers have made ambitious sustainability commitments – commitments which will only be achieved if their suppliers embrace sustainability too. We wrote too for private equity-owned businesses, where the owners are now “getting sustainability” and want their portfolio companies to professionalise quickly and find value enhancement from sustainability. And we were targeting family-owned businesses which now want to adapt traditional ideas of stewardship and responsibility to the scale of the challenges in the 2020s and beyond.

It is fair to say, therefore, that in writing The Sustainable Business Handbook, we did not have in mind business schools and their customers. You won’t find any theory in the 300 pages. It is intensely practical.

Each of the thirteen chapters follows a standard format including: what the chapter is about, why it is important, a step-by-step approach to how to do it, profiles of two companies doing it well, an action summary and further resources. The Handbook also contains a “jargon-buster”. The thirteen chapters each cover what in our combined experience as advisers to businesses and business organisations over several decades comprise the essentials. It is certainly not a conventional student textbook.

It is fair to say, therefore, that in writing The Sustainable Business Handbook, we did not have in mind business schools and their customers. You won’t find any theory in the 300 pages. It is intensely practical.

Nevertheless, now that the Handbook has been published, we have been intrigued by the number of inquiries and feedback that we have received from colleagues in management education, leading us to consider how The Sustainable Business Handbook might help business schools accelerate their sustainability journeys.

How can The Handbook help business schools?

For starters, business schools and their parent universities are significant enterprises in their own right. The Handbook can be a resource for the Finance Director, the People Director, the Head of Facilities and other key executives of a business school to help improve their own understanding and application of sustainability.

The MBA – full-time, part-time, or Executive – is a mainstay of business schools globally. Many MBA course directors have already championed the introduction of modules about embedding sustainability. This may be an optional module, but, increasingly, it is a required component of the MBA. At Cranfield, Executive MBA students take an intense two-day, required module on Leading Sustainable Business early in their first term. A substantial part of this module is now based on the Handbook, which adds applied insights to complement theory.

Module leaders teaching sustainability on MBA programmes might review their syllabus against the contents of The Sustainable Business Handbook. For schools planning to introduce such modules, we have outline teaching notes. It is our hope that faculty everywhere will contribute to further development and refinement of these.

More business schools are now offering a range of Masters (MSc) in Management, Finance, Entrepreneurship, Supply Chains & Logistics, etc. As with the classic MBA, there are compelling arguments for ensuring that sustainability is incorporated into these MScs. This should not just be with a standalone module (either framing the programme at the beginning or a summation “capstone” module at the end), but also by challenging faculty to consider how global challenges like climate, bio-diversity loss, inequality, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and human rights change business strategy, marketing, supply chains and logistics, and so on. Similarly, faculty must consider how developments such as active citizens, open source intelligence monitoring of possible war crimes and human rights abuses, and the ESG investor movement, fundamentally change the environment in which businesses operate.

Upcoming podcast series

We know that business school students like “war-stories” relating the practical experiences and dilemmas confronted by business people, in this case relating to the challenges of embedding sustainability. While business schools are not our primary target audience, we are issuing over the next few months a series of free podcasts. In these podcasts, we interview representatives of some of the businesses featured in the Handbook and other sustainability experts. We look at the practicalities of, for example:

  • Identifying the most material social, environmental and economic (or ESG) impacts for a business
  • Making the business case for sustainability – broadly and for a specific set of investments
  • Uncovering societal purpose to become a purpose-led business
  • Building up a sustainability strategy and operationalising it
  • Creating and maintaining a sustainable culture
  • Ensuring effective board oversight of sustainability commitments and performance.

This forthcoming series of the All In: Sustainable Business Podcast will extend the existing library of our first season, which featured interviews with Chief Sustainability Officers at companies such as Citi, IKEA, Natura, Unilever and Walmart. These podcasts are ideal as preparatory work for class or as further resources for students who want to drill down further on particular issues after class.

Reviews by leading sustainable business figures

As we finalised The Sustainable Business Handbook, we asked experienced senior figures in leading sustainable businesses around the world to review chapters where they had particular knowledge and experience. These reviews greatly improved our text. It was also a very tangible demonstration of the collegiality and willingness to share knowledge for the greater good that all three of us have experienced in the corporate responsibility / sustainable business movement over many years, and which many newcomers comment on. There was a consistent, persistent message in the feedback that we received from our reviewers. It was that we must hurry up and get the Handbook out because the need for businesses to change course is great, while the time available to do so is shrinking fast. This sense of urgency was reinforced for us by the publication, just days after the Handbook’s release, of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The second tranche of the Sixth IPPC sustainable business handbookAssessment Report was published on February 28th 2022. In the words of The Economist, “It reads, for the first time, like something written from within the thick of things, an assessment of an ever more troubling present.” It highlights worsening food insecurity and malnutrition wrought by droughts and floods in Africa and Latin America. It warns that over three billion people worldwide already face rising climate-related threats. It powerfully reinforced the message from our reviewers.

We encourage business schools and their faculties worldwide to consider how The Sustainable Business Handbook might help you to speed up your institutions’ sustainability journeys and your efforts to help students and client businesses speed theirs up too. And hopefully, when Lars Moratis and Frans Melissen produce a second edition of their survey, there will be a far better story to tell, based on genuine and substantial progress in many more business schools – schools which see both the need and opportunity to “talk their walk” prominently too!

Are business schools walking the walk

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