While many business schools claim to be incorporating concepts of sustainability and responsibility within their teaching programmes, they are not always effective in doing so. In an era where failing to walk the talk carries reputational risks, Annie Snelson-Powell asks what determines whether or not business schools make good on their promises to deliver responsible management education?
A question increasingly asked by society and scholars alike is whether business schools are really doing enough to prepare future managers for the social and environmental challenges facing society today. Are they merely trumpeting empty rhetoric that seemingly supports these ideas, but delivering little in the way of change? It is a long-held concern that business schools are failing in delivering on their responsibilities in this regard. New challenges to business school legitimacy ensue with each corporate scandal, not least following the most recent financial crisis where critics suggested that self-serving, business school-educated managers put profits and self-interest ahead of longer-term responsibilities to their employees, stakeholders and the global economy.
Business schools have not ignored these concerns. They have in ever-increasing numbers pledged to address sustainability and social responsibility by committing to delivering responsible management education. As illustrated by the growing list of signatories to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME), hundreds of business schools publicly commit to this agenda. Management education, as envisioned by PRME, should be designed to equip future managers to do the right thing when they enter the world of business. Alongside the traditional corporate objectives, they should be ready to navigate matters of inclusion, sustainability and social responsibility.
However alongside this evident progress come questions over the genuineness of these public claims, given the complexity the associated change implies. Integrating sustainability and responsibility as core concepts in business schools involves reconciling an underlying tension. To engage with sustainability means thinking of corporate strategy in a way that balances financial concerns with social and environmental issues and impacts: an agenda seemingly at odds with the traditional theories taught in business schools which have historically promoted a profits-first ideology.
This setting provides the context for our research which sought to establish what happens next once commitments like PRME are made. We tried to identify those features of business schools which are significant in determining whether these promises end up in meaningful activity, or remain the kind of window-dressing that stakeholders are increasingly suspicious of.
We focused on UK business schools and carried out interviews with 68 Deans as well as studying data on rankings and financial performance. The analysis revealed that while the presence of sustainability/CSR expertise within the faculty was important, business schools do not require substantial financial resources if they are to make good on their commitment to incorporate sustainability into their teaching in a meaningful way. Since earlier work suggests that financial resources are a barrier, this is an intriguing and encouraging finding. It suggests business schools across the spectrum of financial means have the ability to meaningfully engage with sustainability through their teaching.
The study also looked at business school prestige and revealed a link between the more prestigious schools and successful implementation. Since the link was not due to financial resources, it may instead suggest that the enhanced expectation and scrutiny bestowed on those with high prestige creates an impetus to walk the talk. The implication of these findings provides grounds for hope, since the actions of the prestigious serve as an example to other business schools about how to behave. If prestigious business schools readily engage with sustainability, others may follow.
These findings are important for all business schools wishing to avoid the potential reputational risks associated with claims that do not tally with a fulsome engagement in practice. The insight that it is the expertise of faculty that is critical to efforts to implement sustainability, as opposed to substantial financial resources, means that all business schools are capable of mitigating these risks. This could be by considering how they prioritise specialist sustainability/CSR skills in their recruitment strategies or by developing more of this expertise in-house amongst existing faculty.
An Economist article featuring this research argued that the view of business school graduates as Gordon Gekkos is outdated. Certainly our findings support a more optimistic view of business schools, which are in many instances making progress in walking the talk on their sustainability commitments and approaching the agenda in a genuine way. Despite these initial advances, few schools are all the way there: sustainability and responsibility in management education is a continuing challenge, and much work remains to be done. However our research should serve as encouragement that by seeking to introduce sustainability into the skill-base of business school faculty, schools will be moving in the right direction and playing their part in the solution rather than the problem.
The findings of the study will also be presented at a University of Bath School of Management conference later this month organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Bath: ‘The contribution of business schools to inclusive development in Africa and Europe’.
Image by Nic Delves-Broughton