AACSB Blog

The Purpose Driven Business School


Posted February 01, 2013 by Dan LeClair - Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer - AACSB International

"Business schools have put performance over purpose," Dipak Jain announced at the CLADEA conference in Colombia in 2010. So moved by his words, I tweeted them, and in less than 140 characters the venerable dean reminded us of the remarkable progress that business schools have made in higher education—and urged us to think more deeply and clearly about the difference we make in society.

The time has arrived; business schools are striving to create a stronger sense of purpose and meaning within society, and seeking to make an impact rather than simply to be better, bigger, or more highly ranked. Here's why the shift from performance to purpose is starting to happen.

The world needs the positive difference that business schools can make. Today's global challenges—whether they are about economics, health, or environment—require the kind of innovation that comes from knowledgeable, capable business leaders, and effective organizations. From the c-suites of large multinationals, to micro enterprises in rural India, and government offices in Venezuela, quality management education can play a significant role in helping people lead, manage, and organize to address major challenges. Business schools are providing opportunities to view these challenges across borders and disciplines, resulting in new ideas and insights.

As the breath of societal challenges has expanded, so has the need for diversity amongst business schools, the deeper kind of diversity that is impossible to achieve when schools simply "settle for" being good rather than doing good. The needs of society are too many and too varied to believe only the "smartest guys in the room" should have access to quality management education. Management is a like golf—you don't have to be a professional to get better, or want to get better, at it. And you don't have to coach a Ryder Cup team to make a difference through the sport. Thinking more about purpose is creating new types of business schools and enabling existing schools to see beyond narrow definitions of quality, like those set by media rankings in particular, and to explore the range of potential impacts any school can make.

In the shift from performance to purpose, the business school community has a huge opportunity to change public perception about its work. For too long the world has thought of business schools as the place to go "for the money," whether you're a student, professor, or university president. While high-paying jobs and favorable financial results are not unexpected or unwelcome outcomes in today's environment, few management education professionals would define the primary purpose of their schools in such narrow terms.

To avoid coming across as too idealistic, the final point brings it home, right to the business of business schools. The environment of management education is changing more dramatically and quickly than ever before, elevating the case for strategic differentiation and the leadership necessary to achieve it. More than ever before, schools must clearly demonstrate value to the communities that support them.

In the new environment, purpose can be viewed as a way for schools to clarify and articulate the value they create for key stakeholders. Think about the positive change that could result in the minds and actions of stakeholders from a shift in vision from being the "pre-eminent global business school" to "having a profound impact on the way the world does business," as the London Business School did in 2011.1 Consider the potential to channel the enormous intellectual talent and energy in the LBS community into making a deep difference rather than being highly ranked.

In another example, imagine the power to shape management curricular and extra-curricular approaches when the university assumes "special responsibility for teaching the history and culture of black people" in its mission is to "develop men with disciplined minds" as in the case of Atlanta-based Morehouse College. 2 Indeed, many business school leaders have been calling for a stronger focus on values and purpose as a foundation for redesigning curricula.

As competition in higher education intensifies, business schools can learn from the experience of purpose-driven businesses. At the recent AACSB Deans Conference in San Antonio, Texas, USA, Kip Tindell, founder and CEO of the Container Store, shared the company's strong sense of purpose and how it has motivated and engaged team members—leading to productivity three times higher than industry norms, outweighing the costs of paying salaries twice the industry average. He also reinforced the commitment of its top executives, who accept significantly below average compensation because they believe in the purpose. Finally, he pointed out that when customers find out what the company stands for, they begin to act like employees.

Soon, it won't be enough to position your school as one of the best to succeed. It will be necessary to articulate a clear purpose and demonstrate impact in order to thrive—or, in some cases, survive.

1. Korn, M. "Dean in London Champions Innovation." The Wall Street Journal

2. Morehouse College. "About Morehouse." Morehouse.edu.

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