Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012, Rio-Brazil

“In the past business schools have been too concerned about being the best in the world. Now they need to aspire to be the best for the world” (statement from the Principles of Responsible Management Education’s Rio Declaration, one of the outcomes of the 3rd Global Forum).

In this effort to re-orient business schools’ curricula, the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME), an academically-minded offshoot of the UN Global Compact created in 2007, holds a Global Forum every two years. Before 2007, management education was a critically missing piece in conversations about sustainable and socially responsible business practices. Since then, PRME has been a platform for academic institutions to engage with each other and the private sector in order to advance the common agenda of fostering responsible business practices.

The outcome goals of the 3rd Global Forum were 1) to generate a concrete plan of action to better management education through initiatives and collaborations and 2) to put together a statement to be submitted to the Global Compact, who then incorporates it into their recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals.

The goals led to  three major themes of discussion. The first was responsibility and capabilities of business schools. The role of management education in addressing societal sustainability challenges was discussed in great depth. The second theme included the sharing of best practices and the challenges of implementing responsible management education. Finally, the last theme addressed the need for a learning and sharing platform for institutions to share these best practices and challenges.

A plan of action

Perhaps the opening comment by Claus Pederson, Head of Sustainable Development of Novozyme, on the lack of action in academia triggered a sense of urgency in the crowd of management education academics and professionals. The second day of the Forum resulted in launches of several issue-specific initiatives and documents that can be viewed collectively here. These documents range from practical to inspirational guides, as well as one that includes MBA students’ perspectives. An initiative of note is the 50+20: Management Education for the World (which launched with a video and an unexpected opera performance!).

Another Forum action and outcome was PRME’s Strategic Outcomes Document, (summary here, titled The Rio Declaration on the Contribution of Higher Education Institutions and Management Schools to The Future We Want: A Roadmap for Management Education to 2020) to be submitted to the UN as part of the Global Compact outcome document created June 18th. Some key takeaways of this document are:

  • Reassess and redefine the purpose of management education.
  • Seek coherence, so that sustainable development becomes the core of management education, instead of being confined to niche programs in schools.
  • Engage colleagues and leaders in order to reach to all students.
  • Be a leader, through the creation of a leadership group that creates accountability and transparency.

Where are the top-tier business schools?

Despite the productive event, there was a noticeable absence of top-ranking mainstream American business schools in PRME (with the exception of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business). The same is true among European top-ranked business schools; only ESADE, a business school in Spain, was represented with a faculty member. The lack of mainstream participation at multi-national and diverse events such as the Global Forum raises concern for top-tier business schools and the future of incorporating PRME goals into worldwide management education on a wide scale.

One of the results of the first day plenary sessions was the acknowledgement of the diverse roles and models that business schools must embrace. For example, as Walter Bates, Director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, mentioned, “a business school has to be relevant to its community.” In a continent like Africa, business schools have to address the pressing need to develop responsible business practices and leadership models relevant for its unique challenges. For example, University of Cape Town’s GSB has a program in development finance that teaches its students to address issues such as foreign direct investments, social inequalities, and transparency that are more relevant to African business students than those on other continents’. Customizing education to be relevant to local situations allows for opportunities for new solutions that may not emerge in mainstream business schools in the US and Europe.

Mainstream business schools have consistently followed a model that has proven to be highly successful. However, a proven track record doesn’t always guarantee long-term success. Just like non top-tier and nontraditional business schools strive to learn from the top-tier schools, there are plenty lessons to be learned vice versa. Solutions developed by community-relevant business education is why a global platform for best practices sharing amongst business schools is needed and was called for by the Forum. Only through participation in these global engagements, however, can this learning and sharing be achieved.

The action steps until the next Global Forum in two years then, are large: re-orient management in a major way through coherence, engagement and leadership. It’s a big task, but this Forum’s participants left optimistic that business education is changing for the better. Let’s hope that top-tier business schools aren’t left behind.