Sustainability Is Essential in Business Education

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Tuesday, May 10, 2022
By Kosheek Sewchurran
Photo by iStock/metamorworks
Business schools must help leaders imagine creative solutions to inequality, underemployment, climate change, and declining levels of wellness and safety.
  • Business schools tend to “tack on” sustainability-focused education in their programs, rather than integrate sustainability in ways likely to lead to fundamental change.
  • Business schools must help business leaders develop self-awareness and practical wisdom—or phronesis—that they can draw from to deal strategically with social problems.
  • We must teach executives to view sustainability not as the occasional act of corporate social responsibility, but as an ongoing search for creative solutions.

Sustainability is currently a hot topic in management education, but business schools are struggling to integrate and expand sustainability-related content within their curricula. This criticism is part of a larger debate on the relevance and impact of management education and MBA programs.

Business schools around the world are scrambling to respond proactively to this debate. But for the most part, they are not going beyond “tacking on” pedagogical approaches to meet new world challenges. This usually involves implementing frameworks around shared value, inclusive innovation, social entrepreneurship, innovative finance, and impact.

While these initiatives expand the scope of education, they aren’t designed to bring about a fundamental shift in orientation for participants. They therefore don’t go far enough to address emergent global issues. Instead of weaving initiatives into the traditional learning models of MBA programs, schools are spreading these frameworks on top of their programs, like icing on a cake.

The “sweetness” of this approach cannot last long enough to promote meaningful change—it just won’t cut it. Schools must follow a more integrated recipe to foster sustainability education, if they and their graduates are to devise and deploy authentic solutions that meet our real-world problems.

Being Best for the World

In their 2013 book Management Education for the World, Katrin Muff and her co-authors spell out a vision for business schools serving people and the planet. The authors argue that the current driving ethos in business schools is to focus more on being the “best in the world” than on being “best for the world.” The underlying problem is that specific drivers in business education—such as accreditation, publishing criteria, and rankings—do not do enough to encourage business schools to embrace a sustainability orientation in the core of their programs.

Not surprisingly, business schools that use these drivers to shape their programs (which is to say, most of them) treat sustainability as a straightforward transfer of knowledge to current and future managers. But knowledge alone is not enough when we seek wisdom—pedagogy is everything. We need to find ways to encourage executives to gain genuine self-insight into how they are contributing to solving the world’s sustainability challenges and how their own search for goodness can be interwoven with wider sustainability concerns. We need to help executives forge original, personal, and authentic relationships with the challenges they encounter.

After all, wisdom comes from dealing with the particularities of lived experiences. Making such experiences harmonize with theory is possible with well-designed pedagogy. And this allows individuals to evolve their values and beliefs and inspires them to build lives of excellence and worth.

We need to find ways to encourage executives to gain genuine self-insight into how their own search for goodness can be interwoven with wider sustainability concerns.

This is the objective of a program at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business in South Africa. In the Executive MBA program, participants are constantly drawn into practice of what Aristotle called phronesis. A phronesis development program is a kind of philosophical habituation process. It is designed to make participants more comfortable trusting their practical wisdom as they consider the particulars of their experiences, clarify vague emotions in order to define what they value, articulate what is purposeful, and identify what constitutes excellence to them. As they use this practice to guide good judgment, they can establish a conscious, habitual sense of authenticity in their lives and work.

The program incorporates many forms of self-reflection to encourage leadership development as a process that unfolds from within. We hope that, as a result, students will leave the program with greater clarity about their specific values, as well as the areas they need to strengthen to achieve excellence in their lives. Participants not only engage with program content; they also reflect on how the content relates to them. They connect it with their search for meaningful lives as they address organizational and societal challenges that need creative resolutions.

Such a transformative approach enables executives to recognize, review, and modify the assumptions that underpin their expectations and worldviews. This process thus influences their ability to navigate opposing worldviews with more effective, and more sustainable, choices and actions. 

Integrative Thinking Is Key for Sustainability

When faced with dilemmas or challenges, most human beings base their choices on familiar options and data that is easy to find. Given this tendency, we must use innovative pedagogy to attune business executives to this reflex reaction and help them to resist the pressure to make unsustainable choices just because those choices are familiar. Rather, we must encourage them to draw from their own life experiences and strive to create new options.

Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, calls this process integrative thinking. It also offers a great starting point for reimagining business school education. By immersing themselves in this process, executives can arrive at new options—or “inspired choices,” as Martin calls them.

In other words, we should stop promoting “business as usual” in our programs. Otherwise, we will only continue to produce “life as usual” in a world that needs creativity more than ever before.

This idea is starting to be mirrored in management and organization research, as scholars work more explicitly with the real-life tensions, paradoxes, and messiness that make up our world. But while it is useful for scholars to engage in these ideas, it is more fundamental that managers and leaders do so as well. The world needs more self-aware business leaders who have the capacity and willingness to imagine new solutions.

Sustainability simply cannot be achieved with options that are currently available. Sustainability requires creativity and new options.

Where We Can Make a Difference

On the African continent, sustainability is at the core of several serious challenges. It is critical that executives take a medium- to long-term view if they are to deal strategically and sustainably with growing levels of inequality, increasing ecological degradation, worsening underemployment, and declining levels of wellness and safety. Unfortunately, Africa’s leaders still lack an understanding of how specific initiatives translate into action.

That’s where business schools can make a tremendous difference. It’s also the area where they most need to improve. As educators, we have a knowledge gap in the ways we encourage business leaders to keep their sense of inquiry alive and establish original personal relationships with challenges and opportunities.

Business schools must shift their teaching toward an integrative, systems-based approach that encourages students to see sustainability as an ongoing search for creative solutions.

To transform organizations, business schools must shift their teaching away from focusing solely on outcomes and emphasizing the perpetual “transmission” of knowledge. Rather, schools must shift toward a more integrative, systems-based approach that encourages students to see sustainability as not just a matter of triple-bottom-line reporting or occasional acts of corporate social responsibility, but as an ongoing search for creative solutions. We must encourage students to appreciate and engage sustainability as a rich process that is integral to their careers and organizations.

With Challenges Come Opportunities

Based on her historical analysis of technological revolutions, scholar Carlota Perez likens our current global age to the 1930s. Just as it did then, society now is experiencing rapid deskilling of workers, feeble wealth creation, heightening social unrest, economic migrations, a sense of collective hopelessness, and a worldwide rise of populist messianic leaders with growing followings. The evolving COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these conditions.

But even with this set of interwoven challenges, Perez says that we also are living in a time of great opportunity, one that comes about only once or twice a century. Her studies show that we are at an appropriate historic junction for shaping the future, as we explore the potential solutions arising from the information and communication technology revolution. We also can see promise in the beginnings of newer revolutions ahead, driven by everything from biotechnology to nanotechnology.

The critical concern is this: Will we use these opportunities wisely? Whether we answer this question affirmatively depends on how well we educate the next generation of business leaders to make sustainability an ongoing mission in their personal and professional lives.

Kosheek Sewchurran
Associate Professor and Director of the Executive MBA program, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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