The latest rankings exercise from Corporate Knights aims to show how far business schools are incorporating sustainability into their research and teaching. While the results show that progress is being made, there are also questions around how business schools engage with such exercises, and whether we're getting a truly global view of business school practice. In this piece, Annie Snelson-Powell questions what such rankings exercises really tell us about how future managers are being educated in sustainable business practice.
October 16th saw the publication of the 2017 Corporate Knights Better World MBA ranking. This exercise provides an annual assessment of sustainability at all full-time MBA programmes that choose to opt into the Corporate Knights process of evaluation, and also includes the top Financial Times (FT) Global MBA programmes.
These global business schools are evaluated via a methodology which involves three key criteria: the presence of core courses on sustainability in the MBA curriculum; school affiliation with related institutes and centres; and the faculty’s research as gauged by the volume of related publications and citations.
The Corporate Knights report reminds us that the role of business schools in educating future leaders is particularly crucial as it’s these new managers who will shape how all types of organisations address sustainability through their decisions and actions. The report suggests that both society and the business school sector may often fail to sufficiently recognise their responsibilities and opportunities offered by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
As scholars, we also question the actions and motivations of organisations in their approach to sustainability, including a critical concern for how business schools are addressing their responsibilities. We look to activities at the most prestigious business schools in particular, since their actions serve to define and redefine what an ideal business school should do and hence eventually influence behaviour in the sector overall. Our earlier research on UK business schools found that while some business schools were failing to implement sustainability, there were also examples of meaningful activity from many schools including the most prestigious.
These findings are echoed in this world-wide evaluation which shows that the six most highly ranked MBA programmes in the world all feature in the Better World MBA ranking this year. In fact, of the 40 MBA programmes included in the Corporate Knights' list, 18 are also rated as top FT MBAs. This link between prestige and sustainability is heartening and serves to indicate that we might expect an upward curve in the uptake of sustainability in the MBA as other business schools across the sector follow suit.
However, before we become too complacent about this important progress, questions remain. Is this uptake of sustainability also reflecting the expertise of the prestigious business schools in becoming ever-more savvy at performing well in the whole suite of games relating to accreditations, rankings and evaluation? Now that AMBA and other accreditation bodies stipulate that attention must be paid to sustainability, are these business schools merely delivering the minimum required to maintain their status and memberships? Is signalling an interest in sustainability another means to sway stakeholders without fulsomely addressing some of the profound and inherent tensions faced by business theories and practice, such as the pursuit of maximum short-term profit versus a longer term sustainable means of doing business that respects the environment and society?
Looking more carefully at the MBA curriculum itself, arguably the most direct of the Corporate Knights' measures of the education a future leader will receive, eight of the top 40 Better World MBAs had only one or no core dedicated course on sustainability. A previous post by our Sustainability & Management MSc students eloquently argues that this kind of education is a fundamental for all business students. Even at these exemplar “greenest” schools, which should provide the best sustainability education for future managers, there is clearly still more that can be achieved.
Furthermore, this list of the greenest schools is a stark reminder of the over-emphasis on Western perspectives when it comes to thinking about sustainability and management education in general. These rankings reveal that large geographic blind-spots remain in our assessment of sustainability in MBA programmes. Of the 40 featured in the Better World MBA list, 39 are from North America, Australia or Europe. That these regions alone can determine what an MBA for a better world should look like is doubtful. We should explore how business schools in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the world are viewing sustainability and seek to understand whether non-Western schools see any benefit in participating in this kind of assessment. While progress has been made, there is still work to do in establishing a truly global understanding of what constitutes an MBA for a better world.