A Road Map to Sustainability

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Monday, August 30, 2021
By Manuela Brusoni
Photo by iStock/honglouwawa
Business schools can align their initiatives with the Sustainable Development Goals—but they must choose the ones that suit their missions.

Private companies were the first movers in the field of sustainability. As customers called for sustainable development, companies began introducing key performance indicators and reporting systems designed to show how sustainability has created value for business and for society as a whole. Today, financial institutions consult the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which evaluates the financial performance of global companies that follow sustainable principles, while policymakers use the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a template for creating a better future for everyone.

Organizations related to the field of management education also are emphasizing sustainability issues. These include accrediting bodies that have begun to evaluate schools of management based on how well they tie their sustainability efforts to their missions, as well as rankings outlets that also are taking these criteria into account. For instance, Times Higher Education’s Impact Rankings measure universities directly on their compliance with the SDGs, and the Princeton Review’s Green Colleges Ranking surveys administrators about their sustainability practices.

While schools of management entered the sustainability arena relatively late, many are now trying to become first movers on achieving the SDGs, often by mapping their initiatives to the various goals. But it is essential for each school to determine which standards it should use for guidance and which for compliance. That is, a school should identify which SDGs align most closely with its mission so it can prioritize those goals and use them to guide its operations. The school should comply with the other goals where possible, but not make them the focus of its programs and initiatives.

It’s also important for academic leaders to ask what they hope to gain by adhering to the SDGs. Do they want a tool they can use to market the school, or a road map that helps them plot their strategic orientation? Ultimately, schools must use the SDGs as a way to explore their own identities.

One School’s Journey

At SDA Bocconi in Milan, Italy, we recently mapped the school’s activities to the SDGs. We considered our association memberships; partner institutions; and all faculty publications, whether they were articles or technical reports. We came up with a very complete list. For virtually every SDG, we found that the school of management was engaged in some activity that related to the goal.

We realized that, while we do not have the skills and knowledge to be leaders in each of the SDGs, we can comply with all of them. For instance, we do not have the ability to actively lead efforts in SDG 13, taking urgent action to combat climate change, but we can still comply with it—for example, by constructing a new green campus. We believe that we can have a role in every SDG, even if the impact we bring is minor.

At the same time, we realized that we needed to determine which SDGs are most suited to our mission and focus on them. This will allow us to act as leaders who set examples of best practice for the rest of our community. Therefore, we started reflecting on our identity and legacy, particularly at the crossroads of our domestic and international positioning.

Our circular approach to sustainability consists of three pillars—education, research, and operations and governance—and they all reinforce each other.

We recognized that SDA Bocconi’s orientation to ethics, responsibility, and sustainability is built on the fundamentals of Italian management theory. This represents both a cultural legacy and a cultural identity. We want to respond thoughtfully to the corporations and other institutions that seek our perspective on issues of ethics and responsibility, while also offering a forum to a wider audience. In addition, we want to keep faculty intellectually satisfied by offering them opportunities to teach and conduct research through real-world projects.

Therefore, we have devised a circular approach to sustainability, which we call Sustainability Flow. It consists of three pillars—education, research, and operations and governance—and they all reinforce each other.

The First Pillar: Education

We incorporated ethics, sustainability, and responsible leadership into our curriculum in two ways: We defined specific courses on ethics and sustainability, whether they were required or electives; and we integrated these topics longitudinally across all programs.

Integrating sustainability into the program is a means of fostering critical thinking skills in students. Our goal is not to develop a set of moral standards for them to follow. Rather, we want to teach them a method of moral reasoning by exposing them to complex real-life problems that have no straightforward answers.

We have provided students with a framework that they can use to maximize their own potential. We call this the SDA Bocconi Learning Environment. It supplies students with information regarding resources, clubs, and networks that will help them develop a deeper understanding of ethics and sustainability. This framework encourages traditional students and executive education participants to take advantage of the SDA Bocconi learning opportunities from the very beginning of their academic careers.

The Second Pillar: Research

Faculty members can work with our Research Labs to link their academic scholarship to actionable solutions with social impact. This impact is heightened when staff at the labs help scholars disseminate their research through media, web, and social channels.

Some of our labs focus on the business world, some on public administration, and one on healthcare. Specialized labs are built around topics such as sustainable development in Africa, commercial excellence, corporate governance, digital enterprises, and real estate.

Faculty members can work with our Research Labs to link their academic scholarship to actionable solutions with social impact and disseminate their research through social channels.

Every Research Lab tracks information from its foundational partners, as well as the production of relevant research from both inside and outside the school; it also tracks how research is being disseminated. For instance, the Sustainability Lab monitors intellectual contributions devised by faculty, as well as research projects commissioned by external partners.

The labs also analyze which intellectual contributions of faculty members incorporate the SDGs. Over the past five years, the share of SDG-related publications has increased from 76 percent in 2015 to 92 percent in 2019. Moreover, we have seen a rise in commissioned research reports that relate to sustainability and the SDGs. These have included discussions about urban waste management and the sustainable supply chains for coffee, palm oil, and packaging.

The Third Pillar: Operations and Governance

At SDA Bocconi, we have adopted a “Go Green” approach to creating a culture of sustainability. We encourage everyone in the school community to conserve resources in offices and classrooms, recycle and reduce waste, plan green events, and leave their cars at home.

We also have created a new sustainable campus, designed in accordance with biocompatibility and eco-sustainability criteria. The structure was designed to reduce noise pollution, prevent waste, and exploit sunlight to the maximum degree.

Leading the Way

These three pillars are augmented by a fourth one: academic leadership. This pillar supports us as we make an impact on our internal and external communities. By our leadership, we hope to strengthen public engagement with the SDGs; facilitate cross-sectoral dialogue and action related to the goals; play a lead role in developing policy and advocating for sustainable development; and demonstrate the importance of the university sector in achieving the SDGs.

In order to take on a leadership role, we needed to first explore how business executives in our region perceive sustainability and management education. The SDA Bocconi Accreditation Team worked with ASFOR (the Italian Association for Management Education) on a survey that was directed to people studying to become part of the Italian managerial class. The survey involved 27 Italian schools offering a total of 47 graduate and postgraduate programs. Just over 400 people participated, half of them post-experience students. The alumni stressed their interest in sustainability and SDG-related themes. They also said they supported strong experiential learning processes and rigorous research methodologies directed at sustainability.

We are pleased that so many respondents show an interest in this issue, and we remain convinced that we should build the context and conditions for creating a circular sustainability in a structured and systematic way. We would urge other schools to follow the same road map—to find where the SDGs can have the most impact and concentrate on becoming leaders in those areas.

In this effort, schools will find they are greatly aided by the very process of pursuing accreditation, which calls for them to highlight continuity, track their progress, and disseminate research. If business schools integrate sustainability into their teaching, research, and operations, they will become external leaders. They will model sustainability behaviors for other members of their communities—and ultimately, they will have a positive impact on society as a whole.

Manuela Brusoni
Director of Accreditation, Associate Professor of Practice, SDA Bocconi School of Management
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