We Must ‘Establish Urgency as Reality’

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Wednesday, January 31, 2024
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/Autthapol Champathong
HEC Paris has revamped its Master in Management, integrating ESG topics throughout its curriculum to train leaders to address daunting societal issues.
  • Rapid changes driven by mounting environmental crises, emerging artificial intelligence technology, calls for diversity, and a collective quest for purpose are compelling business schools to rethink their role in society.
  • In response, HEC Paris has doubled the hours it dedicates to environmental, social, and governance themes in its Master in Management’s required courses and now bases 35 percent of the program’s electives on ESG issues.
  • The MiM program begins with a Pre-Master year that includes a 30-hour course in planetary boundaries, a 30-hour volunteer commitment, and a three-week internship. 


Given how quickly the world is changing, few would argue that traditional business education should cleave too tightly to traditional content and pedagogical approaches. But many business schools now are grappling with exactly how they should transform their curricula and redefine the value they add to society.

At HEC Paris, faculty and administrators have responded to global ecological, social, and technological shifts with a major overhaul of the Master in Management (MiM) program—the school debuted the redesigned version of the program in September 2023. The MiM curriculum now integrates significantly more content related to global environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues, says Yann Algan, associate dean of pre-experience programs.

The redesign brings degree’s content “up to date with the most recent scientific developments, particularly in ESG topics, where research has advanced very rapidly over the last three years,” Algan explains. “The main factor is to establish urgency as a reality: the urgency of overcoming planetary boundaries, and at the same time, the quest for meaning, inclusion, diversity, and the fast-moving artificial intelligence revolution.” 

Making the ESG Transition

The MiM’s overhaul was accomplished over two years by close to 15 faculty and staff—who included a core team of five people, as well as operational teams from each department. Many of the curricular changes were further supported by HEC Paris’ Society and Organizations Institute, which funded new courses, new teaching formats, and dedicated doctoral study. The program also draws on research from the Hi! PARIS center (a collaboration of HEC Paris and the Institut Polytechnique de Paris) and HEC’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Center.

The new components of the MiM are intended to help students develop: 

  • A greater awareness and understanding of the impact of issues such as limited planetary resources, mounting geopolitical conflict, swift societal changes, and rapid technological advancement.
  • A multidisciplinary expertise that incorporates the behavioral, social, and data sciences and supports a deep appreciation of how organizations impact their stakeholders and society.
  • An ability to apply entrepreneurial skills to develop responsible, sustainable, good-faith solutions to current and future global challenges.

The degree includes two main components: the Pre-Master year, which exposes students to multidisciplinary perspectives on global challenges and emphasizes community engagement; and the Master’s Cycle, which includes an expanded porfolio of ESG-related core courses and electives. In addition, students are encouraged to pursue study in an another field or complete global study abroad mid-way through the program.

The Pre-Master Year

This phase of the program introduces students to social science and includes what the school calls its “parcours d’engagement,” or “engagement pathway.” The Pre-Master year is made up of three foundational “bricks”:

A group experience and coursework. The first brick is the purpose and sustainability seminar, a group experience that kicks off the year. Lasting three and a half days, the seminar takes place in Chamonix, an area near the French Alps in the southeastern part of the country. Chamonix was chosen because it provided students with “an open horizon, the ability to observe the impact of global warming,” and an opportunity to work in a “green environment.” In this setting, they participate in activities such as hiking, climbing, and practicing first aid, as well as interact with scientists, professionals, sportsmen, and craftsmen. They are encouraged to “question the notions of work, meaning, mutual aid, and leadership” against a backdrop of environmental concerns, says Algan.

After returning to campus from Chamonix, students attend a series of three short conferences, each lasting an hour and a half. Delivered over three days, these conferences cover systems analysis methods, geopolitical challenges related to international migration, and global water cycles and conservation. As students learn more about systems analysis, they learn to take into account factors such as biodiversity and societal well-being, as well as dimensions of economics, law, finance, and supply chains.

Finally, students complete a 30-hour course on planetary issues led by François Gemenne, an expert in climate governance and lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gemenne joined HEC Paris’ faculty last year.

The Pre-Master year is meant to strengthen students’ commitment to preserving natural resources and ecosystems, promoting social cohesion, and upholding the responsibility of business to society.

Civic engagement. For the second brick, students complete at least 30 hours of community service. Over three weeks, students participate in on-the-ground community initiatives such as environmental cleanups, food distribution, and youth support (such as tutoring). These experiences are meant to expose students to different causes, as well as to issues of social division and diversity.

Entry-level internships. The third and final brick is a three-week work placement, in which students work in entry-level positions in industry, agriculture, mass markets, services, or personal assistance. These placements meet three criteria: They must take place within an organization, they must be subordinate roles requiring no educational qualifications and having no managerial responsibilities, and they must immerse each student in a team.

During their internships, students work as storekeepers, maintenance workers, and farm hands. Participating companies have included multinational retailer and wholesaler Carrefour (where students have worked in markets), postal service company La Poste (sorting centers), and Schneider-Electric (factories). 

The job placements are intended to help students “develop a concrete and holistic knowledge” of the various facets of a company, including its size, range of tasks, professional roles, hierarchy, and culture. By gaining such firsthand experience of a company and its teams, Algan explains, students “nurture relational intelligence and empathy” and “discover what gives or hinders the meaning of individual and collective activity within companies.” 

During their Pre-Master year, students also complete classes across a range of disciplines, including law, economics, accounting, and data analysis. They must take at least one elective course on the future of democracies, geopolitics, the AI revolution, or human behaviors and psychology.

To further round out their educational journeys, MiM students are encouraged, although not required, to take a “gap year” before beginning the next phase of the program. During the gap year, they might choose to work in an internship; pursue additional degree-based study at another school in France in another discipline, such as philosophy, sociology, economics, or math; or complete a single-semester international exchange at a university elsewhere in the world.

In its entirety, the Pre-Master year is intended to expose students to a range of disciplines and engage them in community-based experiential learning. Each experience is designed to strengthen students’ commitment to preserving natural resources and ecosystems, promoting social cohesion, and upholding the responsibility of business to society, says Algan. “The idea is to bind the class together, while getting everyone thinking about the foundations of a professional career path.”

The Master’s Cycle

The second year of the program (not counting a gap year) begins with courses on management science and data science and provides students with opportunities to hone their skills in teamwork, negotiation, and leadership. During the Master’s Cycle, students complete the degree’s core courses, as well as a course on entrepreneurship that introduces management concepts and develops solution-focused mindsets.

Each core course addresses ESG perspectives. For example, the accounting course covers both the material and immaterial costs of business decisions; the supply chain management course evaluates how to minimize a company’s carbon footprint; and the economics course presents instruments designed to support the world’s transition to renewable energy and to account for planetary boundaries.

Each core course addresses ESG perspectives. For example, accounting covers the material and immaterial costs of business decisions, and supply chain management evaluates how to minimize a company’s carbon footprint.

At this point, students can customize their programs according to their areas of specialization, choosing from more than 100 electives in areas such as entrepreneurship, climate, AI and technology, and political law and society. With its increased focus on ESG issues, the school has created 20 new elective courses on topics such as ethics in business, human rights in human resource management, agroecology, energy policies, and sustainable development decision-making.

With these additions, 35 percent of the school’s electives are now dedicated to ESG issues, and the school plans to increase that percentage over time. At the end of the program, students must complete either a research paper or business project related to their chosen speciality.

Future-Focused Impact

Through its redesigned MiM, HEC Paris intends to provide companies with business leaders who can create solutions and “drive major transformations at full speed,” says Algan. “Companies may have the financial resources, but they need pilots who can act quickly.”

HEC Paris will continue to analyze its course syllabi for ESG-related content to look for additional opportunities to emphasize these topics. In addition, over the next few years, the school will be working with its alumni network to track the performance of its graduates and measure the relevance of its new curriculum to today’s challenges.

The program’s benchmarks for success will match those of employers, Algan explains, in the form of the nonfinancial positive impact they make. Such impact could range from making effective changes in governance and investments in environmental restoration to promoting initiatives that lead to increased inclusivity and improved community well-being. 

In the end, the school wants all MiM students to graduate with a sense of purpose and an intention to effect positive change through the roles they play in their organizations. “If we are serious about analyzing and tackling the evolution of ecosystems,” says Algan in a school statement, “we need to fundamentally rethink the paradigms in terms of accounting, supply chains, finance, economics, marketing, and strategy rather than presenting the issues as a marginal problem.”

With so many changes on the horizon, stakeholders increasingly expect business schools to train leaders who are aware of their responsibility to develop society and build the economy in ways that are sustainable for the planet, he emphasizes. “These rapid changes require us to rethink the role of the company in society, and the purpose of everyone’s work.”

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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