Three Ways to Drive Societal Impact

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Tuesday, February 7, 2023
By Alejandro Hernandez
Photo by iStock/konglinguang
Organizations that want to add value to society must make commitments, generate insights, and deliver rapid execution of initiatives.
  • As businesses are increasingly expected to solve some of the world’s pressing problems, business schools must commit to displaying societal leadership.
  • Business schools must survey stakeholders and review their own operations to develop insights into how they can make a positive societal impact.
  • Schools also must ensure that they are able to adapt quickly, executing new initiatives at the accelerating pace of change.

How does the private sector add value to society? What is the higher purpose of business? More business leaders are asking these questions as they recognize that profits and purpose are inextricably linked.

According to the 2022 report from the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in the private sector currently is higher than it is in government, media, and nonprofits. In fact, in our contemporary sociopolitical climate, people around the world expect business leaders to take action on social and environmental issues. This makes sense because business leaders are pragmatic by nature; they are driven to create solutions that solve problems. But these expectations mean that, as the Edelman report states, “societal leadership is now a core function of business.”

To live up to these expectations, business leaders will need to display what a recent McKinsey article calls “Strategic courage in an age of volatility.” And to succeed in today’s challenging environment, they will need to home in on three critical areas: commitment, insights, and execution.

Like corporate leaders, business school administrators have realized that we need to take the lead in solving societal issues—and that we need to focus on those same three areas. We are making a commitment to prepare students to respond to the heightened expectations that now surround business. We are developing superior insights by seeking out perspectives from a range of stakeholders, especially disruptors. And we are driving up-tempo execution by getting things done fast and well, based on an understanding that pace is valued over certainty.

By following the strategic leadership approach offered by McKinsey, business schools can reach our societal impact aspirations before the end of the decade. And by adopting the clear framework created by AACSB, we can demonstrate positive societal impact in ways that map to our respective missions.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Since most business schools have already taken the first step of committing to societal impact, we need to concentrate on the next steps of developing insights and improving execution.

Generating superior insights requires us to listen intently to a range of stakeholders. Paradoxically, any time an organization wants to develop a sharper focus, it first must open itself up to a wide range of perspectives. But when an organization understands and responds to its stakeholders—customers, employees, communities, and investors—it performs better on many dimensions, including the financial one.

The McKinsey article suggests that business leaders should ask a number of key questions to generate exceptional insights. Following are five mapped to how our schools can make a positive societal impact:

  • How well do we understand the attitudes that our students, faculty, and staff hold about pressing social and environmental issues? Can we detect changes in their sentiments about these issues in a timely manner?
  • Can we pick up on signals from those outside our institutions, including those who may hold constructive contrarian perspectives, so we can gain more diverse insights?
  • Can we gather actionable insights by leveraging our schools’ available digital capabilities, such as data collection and analysis?
  • Do we have visibility in our societal impact value chain, including our teaching expertise, our outreach connections, and our research pipelines? Do we understand the opportunities inherent in that value chain, and do we capitalize on them though intentional hiring and strategic investments?
  • Are we evaluating our curricula with the granularity we need to see societal impact opportunities and limitations that we might miss if we conduct only high-level reviews?

Work at the Pace of Change

Once we develop the proper insights, we must determine how to execute our ideas. But it is always a challenge to move from principle to practice. The pace of change is accelerating in contemporary society, especially when it comes to responding to societal and environmental issues. Any time we discuss preparing students to innovate and lead in today’s business world, we must consider how quickly new models, methods, and metrics are emerging.

The McKinsey article presents several strategic questions we can adapt to evaluate whether our schools can keep up with changes affecting the business world.

  • Can our organizations embrace emerging and sometimes competing societal impact frameworks? Or are we constrained by legacy models that may not capture the breadth and depth of the current business landscape?
  • Are the capabilities that enable our success—such as recruiting, advising, and counseling—robust enough for the heightened challenges of this decade? Will they enable us to embed societal and environmental initiatives into our curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular programs?
  • Are our digital platforms modern enough? Will our technology catalyze rather than limit the execution of our societal impact priorities?
  • Can we creatively flex our budgets so we can invest in societal impact priorities, even in uncertain times?
  • Have our schools adopted best practices that enable organizations to execute effectively? These might include disciplined initiative tracking processes and project post-mortems that mine lessons from past experiences.

Asking these questions requires us to examine many aspects of our schools’ operations as we identify our societal impact aspirations. But even as we engage in rapid adaptation, we must acknowledge it takes time for a focused societal impact agenda to take root. Students arrive at and depart from our institutions on a constant basis, which often leads us to think in terms of semesters or months. But each organizational social responsibility effort is often described as a journey, and some plans take years to deliver results. Stakeholders, including AACSB, expect us to make progress over time. What’s important is to get started and keep improving.

Take the First Steps

At Drake University’s Zimpleman College of Business in Des Moines, Iowa, we have created several new initiatives designed to give rise to superior insights and up-tempo execution. Three initial investments have propelled our journey:

An honor roll. In the fall of 2021, we launched the Dean’s Honor Roll for Social Impact. It recognizes students who perform and record at least 20 hours of individual community service and submit a reflection at the end of the semester.

An awards program. In 2022, we announced the inaugural winners of the Social Impact Research and Outreach Awards, which recognize faculty and staff who tackle critical societal issues through their scholarship and work in the community. The annual awards are valued at 1,000 USD each and go to individuals or teams who address a range of social and environmental topics.

A ratings system. This spring, we are supporting student leaders as they deploy the Positive Impact Rating survey at our school. Through this international initiative, designed to capture the voices of students, we will be able to assess the effectiveness of our societal impact programs. We also will gather input that helps us determine our focus areas as we move forward.

Our Time Is Now

A vast majority of companies and institutions have set 2030 as the year they want to hit their sustainability targets. That means this decade is our time. Here and now, business schools can help unleash the full power of the private sector, just when the world needs it most.

It will take a concerted effort among all stakeholders for business schools to determine what our next steps should be. But if we deliver on our commitments, generate superior insights, and engage in rapid execution, we can make a significant and positive impact in the world.

Alejandro Hernandez
Dean, Zimpleman College of Business, Drake University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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