8 Ways Business Schools Can Boost Their Impact

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Wednesday, August 30, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/Mehmet Hilmi Barcin
A look at new practices and formal frameworks that are helping business schools become true forces for good in the world.
  • More faculty are calling for schools to incentivize socially relevant scholarship that is linked to their respective strengths.
  • Some schools are communicating their commitment to impact in very public ways, such as by making their campuses carbon-neutral and qualifying for special third-party designations.
  • Whether they’re assigning sustainability-themed simulations or embedding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in their initiatives, business schools are increasingly prioritizing societal impact as a core part of their missions.  


As editors at AACSB Insights, we have front-row seats to the evolution now underway in business education. Among the many stories we receive, we see an ongoing trend as business schools shift away from preparing graduates only to build profitable businesses. Instead, schools are training leaders to focus on “people, planet, and profit”—or, as some are now referring to the triple bottom line, “people, planet, and prosperity.”

In case you missed them, below we highlight articles from our archives that offer eight ideas business schools can use to amplify their societal impact. Together, these ideas provide a window into how schools are increasingly placing impact at the center of their missions.

1. Prioritize Research With Impact

Business schools can generate more socially relevant scholarship by focusing on a few challenges related to institutional strengths, write Johan Roos and Lee Waller, both of Hult International Business School. By targeting just a few areas, schools will be more likely to build momentum and maximize their impact.

Roos and Waller also advise business schools to work closely with corporate partners to find ways to “ground research in real organizational problems,” not just fill gaps in academic literature. In addition, if business schools want to serve their communities and shape business practices, they should “reward faculty for impact,” not just effort.

“We find it is both painful and wasteful that so few practitioners care about the insights generated by so many competent business school colleagues around the world,” Roos and Waller write. “We are convinced that the schools that make the kind of transformation we outline … are bound to be more successful in our increasingly competitive market.”

Read more in their April 2019 article, “5 Transitions for Business School Research.”  Bonus reading:Rethinking the Research Model” by Stefan Stremersch, Russell S. Winer, and Nuno Camacho (June 2021), and “A New Future for Research” by Angus Laing, Ansgar Richter, Katy Mason, and Wilfred Mijnhardt.

2. Shape Globalization for Good

Globalization has “helped lift a billion people out of poverty,” but it has taken a negative turn, argues David Bach, formerly of Yale School of Management and now dean of innovation and programs at IMD. In the last decade, forces of globalization have widened economic disparities, increased political tensions, and contributed to a worsening environmental crisis.

More citizens who live in the leading global economies now oppose free trade agreements and support prioritizing the interests of their own countries over the interests of others. Business schools, says Bach, “have a special responsibility to step up” to support cross-cultural collaboration and foster deeper global connections that will help reestablish globalization as a positive force in the world.

Business schools have a responsibility to foster deeper global connections that will help reestablish globalization as a positive force in the world.

Read Bach’s presentation of the historical trends that brought the world to where it is today, and his suggestions for moving forward, in his August 2019 article, “The World That We Created.” Bonus reading:Why the World Needs Systemic Change” by GJ van der Zanden (October 2022).

3. Teach Purpose-Driven Leadership

Pervasive positive change in the world will require an army of responsible and purpose-driven leaders. By designing their curricula to reliably produce these leaders, business schools can be the primary source of this talent.

POLIMI Graduate School of Management has developed its New Generation MBA with this objective in mind. The school designed its MBA to combine teaching students core business principles with instilling in students a sense of social purpose, explains dean Federico Frattini. The curriculum exposes students to issues related to sustainability, impact, and humanistic and life skills. “We want them to be able to design career paths that are meaningful to them” he notes, as they “pursue the goal of making a positive impact on society.”

Read more of Frattini’s May 2022 article “Teaching Leadership for the Future.” Bonus reading: “A Powerful Framework to Spark Student Engagement” by Eric Liguori (February 2023) and “Teaching Students to Lead With Their Consciences” by G. Richard Shell (August 2021).

4. Become a Net-Zero Campus

In January 2020, Rick Cotton and Simon Pek shared how the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria launched several initiatives to offset its carbon emissions. These initiatives included opening its Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation and forming a carbon neutrality committee.

The school also held campaigns that encouraged the members of its community to adopt more sustainable behaviors such as using reusable water bottles, biking to work, and reducing the use of single-use plastics. In 2018, the school held its first annual Carbon Neutrality Plus Competition, now in its fifth year. For the competition, students evaluate carbon-offsetting companies and collectively choose one for the school to support.

“Now that we’ve achieved carbon neutrality, our next goal is to collaborate with other schools, whether to help them create their own competitions or establish behavioral change challenges,” the authors write.

Read more about the school’s journey to net-zero status in “Getting Charged Up About Carbon Neutrality.” Bonus reading: What Business Schools Can Do About Climate Change” by Giselle Weybrecht (February 2020).

5. Share Stories of Impactful Leaders

Students can learn so much from trailblazing business leaders who have made impact an essential part of their success. That has been the driving force behind the career of Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the impact investment firm Acumen.

In her book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Novogratz shares not only her own story, but the stories of many other changemakers who have placed purpose and problem-solving over profits in their enterprises.

“Business schools have an opportunity to produce more people whose success is defined not by how rich they become but by how much dignity they enable others to gain.”

“In far too many schools, the tools of capitalism are taught in service of shareholders only,” Novogratz says. “Society needs new role models. Business schools have an opportunity to produce more people whose success is defined not by how rich they become but by how much dignity they enable others to gain.”

Read her thoughtful April 2021 Q&A in “A Different Definition of Success.” Bonus reading: “Radical Collaboration,” an interview with Jean Oelwang of Virgin Unite (August 2022), and “Developing Societal Impact Leaders,” an AACSB report (June 2022).

6. Gamify Impact

Case studies and news headlines already expose students to the ways that poor business decisions can have negative real-world impacts. But business simulations allow students to speed up the clock, so to speak—by making such decisions in virtual business scenarios, they can skip ahead to see the final, often disheartening, results.

That’s the goal behind Fishbanks, a simulation exercise that C.B. Bhattacharya, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, assigns to students each year. In the simulation, students form teams to build the most profitable fishing fleets. But year after year, the simulation ends the same way: The ocean runs out of fish, and everyone loses.

The simulation presents a version of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which farmers destroy their pasture by allowing their cattle to overgraze. “Society must educate individuals about the dangers [of irresponsible decision-making] in present-day, real-world terms,” says Bhattacharya. Instead of focusing on making businesses profitable, students first “need to focus on making businesses sustainable.”

Bhattacharya discusses the game in more detail in his February 2021 article “In Business, Sustainability Starts With Purpose.” Bonus reading:Training Leaders to Manage Societal Impact” by Ernie Cadotte and Bindu Agrawal (November 2022).

7. Set Formal Impact Objectives

Administrators who want to embed impact into their schools’ public identities could follow the lead of Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM). In 2021, the school was the first business school to become a société à mission, a status created by the French government in 2019 to highlight organizations that have set and met practical benchmarks for achieving positive societal and environmental impact. Since then, emlyon business school and TBS Education also have earned the distinction.

To earn société à mission status, organizations must demonstrate that they have clear sustainability plans. GEM calls its plan its Sustainability Manifesto. The plan is carried out by a 150-member committee divided into six subgroups focused on areas such as pedagogy and research, zero-waste efforts, and governance. To maintain the designation, GEM must undergo an audit by an independent third-party organization every two years.

The ongoing effort now “permeates our culture and our activities” in a way “that supersedes a lot of the divisions that we often see in institutions,” says Julie Perrin-Halot, GEM’s director of quality, strategic planning, and international development.

Read more in our August 2021 Q&A with Perrin-Halot, “Setting Objectives for Impact.” Bonus reading:A Path to Authenticity and Purpose” by Rumina Dhalla (September 2021) and “Measuring and Magnifying Impact” by Katrin Muff and Thomas Dyllick (September 2022).

8. Embed the SDGs

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a mainstay in the curricula of many business schools. But some schools have gone a step further to map their programs and initiatives more deliberately to the SDG framework.

This includes the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) at Erasmus University. In 2021, the school linked its ongoing “I Will” campaign, which encourages individuals to make individual commitments for impact, to the SDGs. RSM also created a video series, a case collection, and free online courses designed to help students expand their knowledge of SDGs and inspire them to create and scale solutions.

Business schools “can be a far greater force for positive change together than any of us can be alone.”

“We found that the idea of working toward the SDGs and viewing business as part of a broader global ecosystem resonated with members of our community,” explain Eva Rood, director of RSM’s Positive Change Initiative, and Erika Harriford-McLaren, the school’s corporate communications manager. They add that business schools “can be a far greater force for positive change together than any of us can be alone.”

Read more in their November 2021 article “Leveraging the SDGs for Societal Impact.” Bonus reading: The SDGs as ‘Necessary, Useful, and Beautiful’” by Richard Harvey Jonsen (October 2022), “Teaching the Essence of Responsible Leadership” by Susie Chant (June 2022), and “Mapping ESG Content and the SDGs to PhD Programs” by Jonathan A. Batten (October 2022).

Missions for the Moment

We know that the many approaches highlighted in the articles above are just the beginning. Business schools will continue to refine the ways they incorporate societal impact into their programs and operations.

As management education continues to evolve to meet the needs of the moment, we look forward to learning more about how business schools are amplifying their societal impact—and how they’re inspiring leaders and other organizations to do the same.

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