The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

how to develop a sustainable business school - watercolour world painting
In their book, Véronique Ambrosini, Gavin Jack and Lisa Thomas build on their disciplinary knowledge and body of work to elaborate on how sustainability could become the modus operandi for business schools.

We have a passion for education and research, and the profound belief that sustainability and ethical behaviour should underpin education and research and what business schools do. Schools should positively impact society, policy, and practice.

Business schools play a significant role in society, and we expect them to do so even more in the future. Sustainability is now one of the most salient challenges that the world faces. We argue that this means that key pillars of sustainability (economic, environmental and social sustainability) should be embedded within schools’ operations, education and research.

We follow the United Nations’ lead and consider the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 as the de facto embodiment of what sustainability is about and signifies. While there is much awareness and understanding about the SDGs, there is still room for business schools to engage and commit further. How schools can achieve this is the purpose of the book and hence its title as a ‘How to Guide’. Translating sustainability into practice is now a top priority. While fully recognising that the SDGs are interrelated and of heightened importance, we concentrate on those most salient to the business schools’ ecosystem when dealing with their operating model. These include quality education (4), gender equality (5) and partnerships for the goals (17).

Exploring the drivers of sustainability

How to develop a sustainable business school cover book coverThe book opens with a review of the current environment highlighting some of the drivers of sustainability. The number, size and scope of business schools have expanded substantially over the last 50 years, and this transformation is ongoing due to significant pressures, such as globalisation, disruptive technologies, demographic shifts and deregulation. This has resulted, amongst other things, in the entry of new players nationally and globally and increased demand from international markets. All this is coupled with the search for the exploitation of new markets such as online courses, executive education programmes, and micro-credentials. The competition for the best students, academic faculty, senior professional staff and research funding has also intensified. It has led to educational massification, focus on operational efficiency and profit margin optimisation. Internationalisation has become an imperative, with many universities relying on business schools’ revenues to grow. Altogether this transformational journey is not sustainability neutral. It has many implications, be these in how business schools are run, for instance, their carbon footprint and their effect on climate change; their diversity and inclusion agenda; or what their students are being taught.

The business school environment is part of a broader educational institutional environment that includes industry, accreditation agencies, government organisations, commercial institutions, and wider society. Business schools must work with relevant stakeholders as part of wider stakeholder networks to support the achievement of sustainability objectives. We discuss the requirement for greater stakeholder engagement emphasising that since business schools play a role in shaping human behaviour and cultural expectations, a more integrated approach to tackling sustainable development is needed. We posit that making practical contributions towards advancing teaching and research committed to making a difference in the ‘real world’ is central to the agenda of supporting the co-creation of actionable knowledge with various stakeholders in management education.

Achieving sustainability ambitions

Next, we suggest that the time is ripe for greater recognition of the importance of integrating sustainability into business and management curricula. Since business schools train many of the future leaders and managers of corporations and organisations in all sectors, be it for-profit or not-for-profit, governmental or non-governmental organisations, small or large, domestic or international, they have an undeniable underpinning role in how future leaders and managers will behave – they can shape their worldviews. Responsible management and leadership education and learning are vitally important, given that leadership is inseparable from a firm’s capacity to contribute to attaining the SDGs. Business schools must promote optimum environments for their development, in the most direct or proximal context. Schools need to act as forces for good by developing the sustainability literacy of the leaders and managers they train. At the same time, they must be aware of the implicit messages they send about sustainability through their institutional environment, values and curricula.

Moving on from our education focus, we then address how business schools can modify their research priorities and broaden the scope of required outputs necessary to achieve their sustainability ambition by embracing a research impact agenda. Generating and communicating research impact is critical for academics and business schools to deliver on the SDGs. We emphasise impact as referring to the outcomes and effects that follow the use, implementation, adoption or adaptation of academic research by those outside academia (sometimes referred to as ‘societal impact’). There is work to be done within business schools to raise awareness, and to develop knowledge, capability, literacy and disposition to undertake this often time-consuming yet highly rewarding work. We recommend engagement-driven or co-production models to enhance the chances of research impact generation.

Schools need to act as forces for good by developing the sustainability literacy of the leaders and managers they train.

This leads us to consider how schools are run, and we place attention on accreditations, rankings and business school governance. Given the importance business schools bestow on accreditations, we highlight that these bodies can play a significant role in influencing schools’ adoption and genuine adherence to the SDGs. For instance, EQUIS signals that the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) should be embedded in business school policies and operations, teaching and research, as one of the criteria for accreditation (EFMD, 2022). This suggests that if schools want such a desirable accreditation, as it affects their reputation, they need to attend seriously to such matters.

One of the key aspects of governance and sustainability is whether schools have a holistic understanding of their activities. Are they organised so that they make things happen? Ad hoc changes and initiatives, while commendable and often motivating, may not lead to a transformational change. We suggest that the transition towards embedding the SDGs in all aspects of business schools’ ‘life’ will require a great deal of effort, breaking paradigms and creating new ones, as well as taking new actions and developing new structures, systems and processes. This notably means paying attention to equality/equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Our point of departure here is that business schools that value and respect difference, promote gender, racial and other forms of equality and equity, and demonstrate inclusive practices in their offices, classrooms and public spaces are actively engaged in achieving the SDGs. We point out some of the key challenges, provide an overview of current business school responses in principle and practice and highlight some positive examples. The work ahead is hard, but it must be tackled for business schools to become beacons of sustainability and homes to sustain and engage workforces, student cohorts and alumni.

Pursuing a digital transformation

We started writing this book when we were all experiencing lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a means of concluding the book, we provide reflections emanating from our experiences at this time. A key area of our contemplation was naturally, given the change to our roles, the acceleration of online teaching and the use of technology in all aspects of education. What this has meant for the management education sector, and business schools in particular, is an acknowledgement that the digital universe business schools currently operate in is here to stay, in one form or another. Online learning or e-learning plays, and will continue to play, a decisive role in supporting and engaging teaching and learning activities. As business schools continue their transformation, they need to rethink and plan how they may approach digital transformation for the longer term. For the sustainable business school, the key to evolving is seeing the future as an opportunity to reassess their overall approach to online learning and how technology may be employed to reinvent teaching, learning, assessment and certification. The pandemic emphasised the value of digital tools for inclusiveness, whereby students of the future will have access to multiple pathways to learn the same content. Collaboration is an underlying theme throughout the book, and we see the sustainable business school as embracing digitalisation to leverage collaboration. However, it is not without its challenges which we also highlight. In further reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic, we note how this has brought about a ‘new normal’, with some positive but also some negative outcomes. We highlight the good and provide some suggestions for managing the bad. However, we hope that any notion of a ‘new normal’ will be one where sustainability is accepted as the norm and a common point of reference for business schools, and not something to be debated or criticised as being ‘idealistic’.

In conclusion, business schools need to be ruthless in the fight against the rhetoric that ecological and social sustainability comes at the detriment of economic sustainability or that economic sustainability should be of primary concern. Achieving the SDGs is not just a ‘nice thing to do’; it is a sine qua non. We hope that this stance is evident in the book and that the pillars of sustainability, which we discuss throughout, will provide some guidelines on how schools might increase their relevance as they develop a responsible and sustainable agenda.

How to develop a sustainable business school

Véronique Ambrosini is Professor of Management at Monash University, Australia.

Gavin Jack is Professor of Management at Monash University, Australia.

Lisa Thomas is Professor of Strategy, Kedge Business School, France.

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