Operationalizing Societal Impact

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Monday, January 23, 2023
By Samantha Steidle, Dale A. Henderson
Photo by iStock/bestdesigns
Business schools are already powerful forces for good. But they can create more impact if they align and track their efforts across all initiatives.
  • AACSB’s 2020 standards call for business schools to commit to creating positive societal change, and major stakeholders want schools to address wicked problems.
  • While business schools are deeply involved in sustainability efforts, many of them fail to coordinate their activities and measure their outcomes.
  • The Societal Impact Canvas is a series of step-by-step fillable worksheets that allow schools to map out and communicate strategies for achieving impact.

When AACSB released its new accreditation standards in 2020, one of the most notable additions was the requirement for business schools to commit to making the world better through their strategic planning, curricula, and scholarship. The initiative received swift support from business deans across the globe, but many wondered how they could best operationalize the new standard.

While business schools undoubtedly were contributing to society before the 2020 standards were implemented, the majority of business schools were only providing line-item breakdowns on their societal impact efforts. We believe they can do a better job of creating impact if they align their efforts across all their activities. Such alignment will help them sharpen their focus, identify areas for improvement, and encourage them to be more intentional about meeting the spirit and intent of the 2020 AACSB standards.

At AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM) in 2022, a model was proposed that would enable schools to do just that. It was presented by Samantha Steidle, one of the authors of this article. Attendees provided feedback on ways to make the model more robust, and the result is the Societal Impact Canvas.

The Importance of Impact

Before exploring how the canvas works, let’s take a look at why it’s so critical for business schools today to focus on societal impact by addressing “wicked problems” such as poverty, hunger, climate change, and global health.

First, by seeking solutions to these problems, business schools have a major opportunity to demonstrate leadership to society at large, which the Global Business School Network points out in a 2019 report. In fact, the report goes on, these issues represent “a 12 trillion USD opportunity wrapped up in the biggest crisis facing our world.” Many business schools are already providing this leadership, as demonstrated by the number of them that have committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. AACSB does not require colleges to adopt the SDG goals, targets, or indicators, but the association recommends that schools use the SDG categories as a way to summarize their initiatives across all efforts.

Second, business schools need to align their initiatives with the priorities of their key stakeholders—and many of these stakeholders are deeply invested in the SDGs:

  • Corporations. A 2017 report from the Business & Sustainable Development Commission made the business case for companies and governments to align their strategies with the SDGs, and an increasing number of them are investing more resources in sustainability and ESG issues.
  • Major donors. Between 2016 and 2022, funders contributed more than 222 billion USD globally to organizations addressing the SDGs. Such individuals want to support schools that are making a quantifiable social impact.
  • Communities. The regions where schools are located benefit economically when business schools participate in sustainability-related activities.
  • Students. Students want to learn how to think globally and act locally as they pursue their careers.

Creating a System

We believe that, because it is so important for business schools to make a positive societal impact, it’s equally important for administrators to document their schools’ efforts. We created a tracking model by drawing on the strategies used to teach entrepreneurship, including the widely respected Business Model Canvas created by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur in 2010.

The Business Model Canvas is a one-page roadmap consisting of nine boxes that, taken together, show how an organization or individual “creates, delivers, and captures value.” These nine boxes represent the essential building blocks of a business: key partners, key activities, key resources, cost structure, value proposition, customer relationships, distribution channels, customer segments, and revenue streams.

We reasoned that an adapted version of this open-source canvas could help administrators operationalize Standard 9 because it would enable them to focus their often disparate efforts and create an intentional roadmap for capturing outcomes.

Our Societal Impact Canvas is a step-by-step roadmap designed to help business school deans, department heads, directors, and faculty map out and communicate a strategy for achieving impact. For each of its nine steps, outlined below, administrators can fill out one-page worksheets to help them organize their activities and determine what they should do next.

Societal Impact Canvas, which allows users to fill in nine boxes to outline their strategies for creating impact 

The Nine Steps

1. Articulate the school’s mission and societal impact vision. The vision statement should describe how the school aims to impact society, by what percentage, and by what date. This sets the tone for the college’s unique contribution as a force for good.

2. Establish a societal impact committee that will act as a coalition of champions. The team should consist of diverse business school faculty, including those most excited about societal impact. Committee members should consult with the dean to determine an action plan, a proposed timeline, and potential benchmarks.

3. Choose a measurement framework. Several such frameworks exist, so each school can choose the one that suits its mission best. For this article, we use the SDGs as a helpful tool for categorization, but they are just one option. And, as we mentioned earlier, while AACSB recommends schools use the nomenclature of the SDGs, the association does not require schools to adopt the underlying goals and performance indicators reflected in the SDGs.

4. Inventory existing societal activities and impact. One useful tracking mechanism is Table 9-1 of AACSB’s Standard 9, which helps schools outline their strategies and outcomes related to each category of the SDGs. Administrators can note their progress as it relates to their curricula, scholarship, and internal and external activities.

5. Identify common themes. Once members of the team identify the most prevalent themes, they can create a chart to determine how well various SDG-related activities connect to the school’s mission—and how many resources the school has to support these activities on an ongoing basis.

6. Choose one or more focus areas. After determining where to concentrate their long-term efforts, team members can use the SDG Tracker to connect their activities, goals, and objectives to targets and indicators.

7. Establish a reporting system. For each SDG that the school commits to, the team should chart the school’s goals, activities, tactics, and measures of success.

8. Evaluate progress annually. This assessment should be embedded into existing annual processes.

9. Submit stakeholder stories annually. Committee members should collaborate with campus and community partners to share their successes at creating societal impact. They can tell these stories through videos, infographics, webinars, media reports, social media, and the school’s annual reports. These stories will energize stakeholders and open doors for engagement with potential donors.

Impact in Progress

At our school, Radford University’s Davis College of Business in Virginia, we plan to use the Societal Impact Canvas during our collegewide strategic planning process. Originally, Steidle leveraged a similar canvas in her Social Entrepreneurship course. Students used the canvas as a strategic model for tackling wicked problems identified through the SDGs.

The course was housed within the university’s interdisciplinary Venture Lab, which provides students with real-world experiences, mentorship, and networking opportunities, often related to the SDGs. The lab supports students free of charge as they formalize their business or social entrepreneurship efforts; Radford University takes no equity from their inventions.

In the Wicked Problems Minor, students examine and propose solutions for problems such as climate change, poverty, and world hunger.

Research has shown that multidisciplinary efforts and multistakeholder collaborations are effective ways to target some of the world’s greatest challenges. That’s one reason, even outside of the Venture Lab, Radford University is supporting cross-disciplinary efforts aimed at creating change. For instance, the Wicked Problems Minor is a collaboration between the department of political science and the department of philosophy and religious studies. It asks students to examine and propose solutions for problems such as climate change, poverty, and world hunger. Students across all disciplines, including business, present their ideas at the Wicked Festival, formally known as the Students Solving Persistent Public Problems Conference.

The university also supports faculty in their quest to make an impact on society. For instance, in the fall of 2022, it brought in author Paul Hanstedt to talk about his book Creating Wicked Students, which argues for designing courses that challenge students to solve the world’s challenges.

Many other schools also are finding ways to introduce societal impact to their students, with impressive results. As an example, in June 2020, the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford University in California organized Stanford Rebuild. The global innovation challenge invited inventors and entrepreneurs to develop solutions for the “wide range of challenges and opportunities society will face as it emerges from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Participants could submit ideas in four categories: reimagining organizations, reinforcing healthcare systems, revitalizing the workplace, and redesigning human well-being. More than 5,300 individuals and teams registered to participate. Ultimately, the competition received more than 5,000 proposals from 150 different countries in less than 60 days.

The Power of Working Together

As these examples show, increasing numbers of business schools are finding ways to incorporate societal impact into their curricula. At AACSB’s member schools, more than 10,000 full-time faculty are teaching upwards of 4 million students in more than 50 countries. Their influence could be phenomenal, but only if administrators take steps to operationalize the impact of their schools’ initiatives.

As AACSB’s chief accreditation officer Stephanie Bryant has said, “The power is not in one school, although one school can do good work. The power is in all of our schools working together.” She believes that interdisciplinary partnerships can be particularly valuable—for instance, business schools could partner with bioengineering departments to come up with solutions for logistical challenges.

Bryant adds, “Many business schools believed for a long time they could not contribute meaningfully to solving societal issues such as global hunger, access to clean water, and climate change. Not only can we play in that arena, we are going to play in that arena.”

Our hope is that our Societal Impact Canvas can help business schools organize their efforts so that they can become even more powerful forces for good.

Samantha Steidle
Entrepreneurship Instructor and the Director of the Venture Lab, Davis College of Business, Radford University
Dale A. Henderson
Professor of Management, Davis College of Business, Radford University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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