Opinions - 04.07.2012 - 00:00 

Promoting sustainable action

Business schools must actively participate in the sustainable development of the economy and of society. As central social institutions, they are under an obligation to promote sustainable action, says Thomas Dyllick.


30 June 2012. Whereas the results of the intergovernmental negotiations at the UN Sustainability Summit in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20), which ended a week ago, were disappointing, economic events at the summit demonstrated a significantly higher degree of willingness and ability to engage in sustainable action.

An impressive number of programmes and measures were presented, which documented the wide range of entrepreneurial commitment. In contrast, it also became clear that many business schools are only just starting to treat the issue seriously. If, however, they want to provide companies and management with effective support in the mastery of their sustainability challenges and to make a contribution towards the sustainable development of the world, this calls for a fundamental rethinking of their mission.

Management education for the world
The 50+20 initiative presented the vision of “management education for the world” in Rio, which defines three roles for business schools: business schools must seriously reflect on how they can educate globally responsible managers, how they can align their research more strongly with social challenges and how they themselves can actively participate in the transformation of the economy and of society in the direction of sustainability.

The effectiveness of management education has been the subject of strong criticism in the last few years. The communication of knowledge predominates at the expense of action competencies, but also at the expense of reflected personalities. However, responsible executives must be able to understand themselves and others, be aware of different perspectives and cope with conflicts. We see important approaches to the education of globally responsible managers in transformative learning, which involves the human being as a whole – head, hand and heart, as it were – problem-oriented learning and reflected learning from one’s own practical experience.

We, the initiators of the 50+20 organisation, see a second role for business schools in their placing research at the service of the solution to practical sustainability problems in the economy and in society. Today, research addresses other academics rather than addressing practice. It is read by other academics. Its value is measured by how often it is quoted by other researchers, not by whether it is of any benefit to practitioners or social actors. If it is, this is a welcome side effect, not the declared aim of research.

Challenging present strategies
We see important approaches to how business schools can help social organisations to achieve sustainable development in developing sustainable solutions for the economy and for companies and in subjecting existing strategies to critical scrutiny. Besides the development of economic solutions to sustainability challenges, however, it is also a matter of developing integrated systems for performance and success measurement, of clarifying professional and ethical standards for sustainable economic activities and of supporting today’s executives in their personal development in the direction of responsibility and sustainability.

Business schools have to engage in active participation in the sustainable development of the economy and of society. As central social institutions, they are themselves obliged to make active contributions to sustainable change – an obligation which for Swiss universities is enshrined in the statute book. How can they do this? We see important approaches in a significant intensification of the change of roles between academia and practice in such a way that the borders become more permeable and cross-fertilisation becomes more frequent.

Setting an example of sustainable action
Also, business schools should ensure that academics exercise their responsibility as public intellectuals and systematically introduce their expertise into social and political opinion-forming and decision-making processes. And finally, business schools should themselves act as role models and set a practical example of what they communicate in teaching, research, executive education and public commitment, and in their own infrastructures and processes.

Competition between business schools has greatly increased in the last few years, fuelled by accreditations and rankings. Business schools have made an effort to be the best in the world. Now they will have to try to be the best for the world.

Photo: Photocase / Herr Specht

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