The Sustainable Future of Management Education

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Thursday, August 3, 2017
By Giselle Weybrecht
New generations of graduates need the confidence to meet our ever-growing sustainability challenges, which are also increasingly businesses challenges.

Business schools around the world are already discussing, planning, and exploring what their school will look like in the future, rethinking parts of their curriculum, research agendas, and student experiences. In an increasingly changing world, what students need now and in the future will continue to shift. But many of the changes being made in schools could be seen as low risk, perhaps just tweaks to how things have always been done. Are schools pushing their programs far enough? Are they being as innovative as the very businesses they study during their degrees and focus on in their research?

If you were to take away any course requirements, including those imposed by the industry, your school, and yourself, how would you redesign the business school? What would you add, what would you take away, what would you make less important, and what would you highlight more? How would you create new generations of graduates, and faculty, with the confidence needed to meet our ever-growing sustainability challenges, which are also increasingly businesses challenges?

These are questions I explore in my book The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. It is based on 100 ideas, published over 100 days, of what the future business school (undergraduate through executive education) could, or perhaps should, look like. Some of the ideas would be easy to put in place today, while others would require a complete shift in how we see business education. So what might this future look like?

The Students: At the core, beyond teaching business fundamentals, business schools should be developing leaders who have a better understanding of the world in which they do business and who are therefore capable of making better decisions—for business, for the planet, and for society. Schools will be expected to take this responsibility more seriously moving forward, incorporating sustainability across all elements of the student life cycle, from their communications about the program to their interaction with the campus to their curriculum and extracurricular activities and finally to their recruiting and alumni relations. A wider range of experiences will be put in place to help them develop as leaders. This will result in a much more diverse student body in terms of the experiences they bring, connections they want to make, careers they want to build, and impacts they want to have in the world.  

The Skills: In the future, business schools will shift to put a much stronger emphasis on the “soft” skills to prepare their graduates to be better day-to-day managers and worthier team members and to be more effective communicators, listeners, and problem-solvers, so they are further able to engage and inspire those around them. Graduates will push boundaries and propose and explore solutions across disciplines and cultures. They will learn how to balance life and work and their time and energy, learn from their mistakes, and continue to develop throughout their careers. Negotiation classes will shift to focus on consensus building, facilitation, and mediation. Collaboration will be taught on par with competition. Most of all, students will regularly challenge daily assumptions that guide the way businesses are run while also proposing alternative viewpoints and potentially developing new, more effective models.

The Curriculum: Business degrees will provide a range of contexts within which to learn and apply lessons learned, ensuring that graduates don’t just graduate with the theoretical knowledge they need but that they have the ability to apply it across a range of situations. Rather than focusing on cases and writings from the past, students will be involved in shaping the present and future, including their role in that future and how to get there. One of the examples in the book explores the idea of a special interdisciplinary course at the very beginning of the week involving both students and faculty from across the business school and beyond that would look at current events and explore what they mean for business, how business should/could respond, and potential opportunities and/or risks both now and in the future.

The Classroom: When it comes to sustainability, it isn’t just about what is being taught but how that information is being delivered. It is about the context and environment for learning and development. Spaces, schedules, techniques, and methods will all adapt to ensure maximum impact for each student. The classroom of the future will transform. Institutions will have special flagship or pop-up spaces in the center of the community or in other communities around the world, both permanent and temporary, that will invite students, faculty, and the public to interact and collaborate. Students will be taken outside the walls of the campus to learn at various locations around the city, and the world, in order to put lessons into a larger context.

The Program: Business schools will be much more flexible in the kinds of programs they offer in terms of how they are delivered, where they are being taught, and by whom and even how they are developed in the first place. They will respond quicker to the needs of the wider business community and change in response to these needs. Rather than a degree taken all at once, a program could be part of a life-long experience, with special courses available for students to return to campus if they retire, want to become an independent consultant, seek a career change later in life, or aspire to start working again after having a family. The programs may change altogether, moving away from a series of courses focused on particular disciplines to an assortment of experiences involving interdisciplinary skills that students must complete in order to graduate.  

The School: Academic institutions will explore sustainability within their own operations, both environmentally and socially, in more comprehensive and strategic ways. They will push the boundaries of what is possible, and businesses and other organizations will follow their lead. Schools will tap into their own leading research to create the “ideal” workplace, a laboratory that engages active shareholders, creates a closed-loop campus, and reports transparently on their successes and shortcomings. The walls between academia and operations will blur, and the two will collaborate for the benefit of all.

The System: Business schools are affected by a larger system that can sometimes do more to reinforce the status quo than to support and encourage innovation and change. Teaching will become of equal importance to research, and research itself will become more relevant, more focused, and more accessible to those who need it most. Schools will be ranked based on their value to society as well as to business; will be determined by peers, stakeholders, and students themselves; and will be based not just on numbers but on impact and abilities. Recruiters will play a more active role as education partners, rather than focusing just on hiring.  

The Community: Business schools will be a much more integral part of their surrounding community. Students and staff will work on projects that strengthen local organizations, government, and businesses. At the same time, multiple opportunities will exist for organizations and individuals from the community to participate in projects, businesses, research, and other activities happening with the business school, turning it into a hub of multidisciplinary, sustainable business thinking and acting.

The Bigger Picture: The business degree will reflect more closely the realities of business today and tomorrow by putting a major focus on the bigger picture, on all that business impacts and all that impacts business, in both positive and less favorable ways. Students will learn about different stakeholders and how to collaborate. They will engage in projects that help move social and environmental goals forward during their programs and afterward as part of the alumni network. Research agendas will align with international and national priorities both at a government and business level. Current focus areas, such as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, will shape the direction of assignments, courses, readings, consulting projects, research, and collaborations, making schools—and their students and staff—key partners in reaching these crucial goals.

The future very much rests on how current and future leaders are being prepared, both inside and outside of the classroom, by business programs. This goes beyond what is stated in learning goals and curriculum reviews. It is about what kind of graduates are actually being sent out into the world. The skills they gain, and their ability to use those skills, is what will truly move us forward or hold us back.

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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