Five Steps for Achieving Impact

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023
By AACSB Staff
Photo by iStock/champja
Societal impact is a key tenet of AACSB accreditation, but some schools aren’t sure where to start. A new white paper provides timely guidance.
  • To successfully launch societal impact initiatives, business schools should first narrow their focus down to one or two areas, and then decide how to define and measure success.
  • Next, schools should find ways to address their chosen focus areas through their teaching, research, and external engagement activities.
  • Finally, schools should track the outcomes they’ve achieved and organize data to demonstrate the impact they’ve had on students, stakeholders, and society.

For many business schools, creating positive change in the world has become an essential part of their strategic missions. That’s especially true for schools seeking to earn or maintain AACSB accreditation, since the 2020 business accreditation standards set an expectation that schools will engage in activities designed for societal impact.

AACSB expands on this expectation in a recently released white paper, “Aligning With the AACSB 2020 Business Accreditation Standards.” In the paper, the association emphasizes that its “vision of societal impact is that business schools contribute their specialized expertise to help mitigate some of society’s most pressing economic, social, human, and environmental problems. Further, for impact that ultimately will lead to transformative change, the standards call for a multistakeholder approach that brings together parties with complementary skill sets to collectively address these deeply complex issues.”

But some institutions struggle with choosing their initiatives, setting their goals, and measuring their progress. Therefore, the new white paper offers AACSB members guidance on how they can align their initiatives with the 2020 standards.

The briefing includes templates designed to help administrators choose, organize, and track the success of their efforts. It also illustrates its major points through a sample report loosely based on an accredited school. But primarily, the white paper encourages administrators to follow five critical steps that will allow them to narrow their focus, outline their objectives, and chart their progress.

Step 1: Choose One or More Focus Areas

Schools should start by inventorying and building on activities that are currently in place, because these activities indicate that faculty and students already are committed to solving certain pressing issues. If schools skip this step, they might pour their efforts into new initiatives that aren’t aligned with the mission or the interests of stakeholders.

Schools should build on activities that are currently in place, because these activities indicate that faculty and students already are committed to solving certain pressing issues.

One key to success is creating coalitions of champions—administrators, faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders who are deeply interested in particular causes. These champions will provide leadership, energy, and structure as schools plan their initiatives.

Another key is for schools to determine the language they will use both on and off campus to talk about their efforts. For instance, if schools choose to follow the nomenclature of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they will be able to communicate easily with other schools, governmental organizations, and nonprofits that are already using those terms. While AACSB follows the nomenclature of the SDGs because it is familiar to so many people in the industry, the association allows member schools to choose any terminology that suits their missions.

Step 2: Identify the Desired Impact and Measures of Success

A starting point for creating meaningful measures of success is for a school to create an impact statement that outlines what it hopes to achieve and how it will determine if it has succeeded. A practical question to ask is, “If we want to achieve X, how will we know if we are successful?”

When creating metrics for determining societal impact, schools can use four criteria:

  • Accuracy. Can data be measured accurately?
  • Completeness. Can data be gathered without missing significant information?
  • Availability. Can data be gathered when it’s needed?
  • Comparability. Can data be collected consistently so outcomes can be compared over time?

While a school might have ambitious goals, AACSB recognizes that achieving true impact could take years—even decades. Therefore, the association encourages each school to develop an annual plan that connects to its broad strategic mission. This plan will capture the school’s short-term outputs, or what it might expect to achieve within a year. Successive reports, including those created as part of accreditation materials, will capture the medium-term outputs that have been accomplished over two to four years, and the long-term impact that the school has achieved over five or more years.

Step 3: Embed Focus Areas Throughout the School

Once a school has chosen its focus area, school leaders should determine how that focus can be woven into the school’s curriculum (as specified in Standard 4), approached in scholarship projects (Standard 8), and addressed in engagement activities (Standard 9).

Rather than launching a number of unconnected initiatives, the school should take a targeted approach. Otherwise, its efforts might be so fragmented that they fail to produce significant results. One way to make sure initiatives aren’t too broad is for administrators to routinely ask how each project should be implemented and how many people need to be involved.

Step 4: Create a Plan and a Tracking System

The next step is for school leaders to identify goals, determine measures of success, and create systems for tracking their progress. Because each school will create a societal impact plan that closely aligns with its mission, each plan will be highly distinctive and context-specific. But schools will want to specify goals and track their progress in three key areas:

Curriculum. How many students have taken courses related to the school’s societal impact focus area? How many students does the school hope to reach, and in what period of time? For example, a school might want to impact 10,000 students over 10 years. It should determine how many students take relevant courses every year, how close it has come to its goal so far, and what it needs to do to reach its target.

Because each school will create a societal impact plan that closely aligns with its mission, each plan will be highly distinctive.

Scholarship. Has faculty research on the topic been published in recognized journals? Have professors spoken on the topic at other organizations? If, for example, the school hopes its scholarship reaches 100,000 people in 10 years, it should track metrics such as journal readership and lecture attendance to determine the impact of research so far.

Engagement. Have local business leaders participated in school activities related to the societal impact initiative? Have governmental policies been amended due to faculty research? Have graduates taken what they’ve learned at the school and started similar initiatives at workplaces or postgraduate institutions? Have other universities used the school’s model to launch comparable programs?

Step 5: Assess Your Outcomes and Impact

The ultimate goal is for schools to organize all the information about their initiatives in preparation for their AACSB peer review visits. The most effective way for schools to track and demonstrate their impact is through Table 9-1 of AACSB’s accreditation standards. A template for Table 9-1 can be found in the appendix of AACSB’s white paper.

In the table, schools list each of the focus areas they have identified, as well as the strategies they have adopted. Then, they describe the outcomes they have achieved related to curriculum, scholarship, and external engagement. They also assess the impact they have achieved and the plans they have for the future.

Collective Impact

When a school narrows its focus, identifies the kind of impact it wants to have, integrates societal impact into all its activities, tracks its results, and assesses its outcomes, it can create initiatives that address some of the world’s greatest problems. The five steps might not always be simple, but the positive consequences could reverberate for years to come.

As AACSB’s white paper says, “The power of our collective efforts can change the world, one school and one initiative at a time.”

The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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