In addition to the multilateral agencies, non-governmental orga­nisations and non-profits at this month’s Rio+20 summit, another cohort of professionals – business education professors – will be attending. Their purpose at the sustainability conference is to launch a report arguing that it is time for business schools to hit the reset button. And it is a view shared by others.

Scrutiny of MBA teaching comes at a time when seismic shifts are taking place in the global economy as well as a questioning of the fundamental tenets of capitalism by everyone from environmentalists to economists. Yet 50+20, an initiative that is exploring ways in which management education might reinvent itself, argues that despite these changes, business and management education still function “in line with an agenda that was set during the 1950s”.

Bringing together business schools and companies, 50+20 has three organisations as founding members – the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), the World Business School Council for Sustainable Business (WBCSD) and the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI), a partnership of corporate and business school leaders.

The idea, says Mark Drewell, GRLI chief executive, is “a call to arms for a radical shift from the mainstream approach of business schools today”.

Of course, schools have not entirely ignored shifts in the global business zeitgeist, particularly when it comes to the changing relationship of business to the environment and society.

In some ways, the MBA curriculum is very different from how it looked a decade ago. Courses on environmental sustainability and social entrepreneurship have proliferated, as was tracked by the Aspen Institute Business & Society programme’s biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey until it was suspended this year.

Meanwhile, leading management thinkers have put forward alternative interpretations of how companies should approach their business strategies. Among them is Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter, who last year co-authored “Creating Shared Value”, which argues that if commercial activities benefit society, they can generate positive growth for everyone.

“Discussions that used to be difficult to have are now being had, and views that were once hard to express are now being expressed by mainstream thinkers,” says Ángel Cabrera, the former Thunderbird School of Global Management dean who chaired the taskforce that developed PRME.

Perhaps the most powerful driver of change in the MBA curriculum has been the student cohort, with many pushing for more discussions on the relationship of business to society and the environment. Pioneers among the academics have also promoted alternative topics, particularly relating to sustainability.

“But overall, progress has been incredibly slow,” says David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management in the UK.

“The kind of change the 50+20 report is talking about can’t happen through individual pockets of activity,” says Prof Grayson. “And my fear is that most faculty in most business schools won’t even have the debate.”

Obstacles to debate range from entrenched intellectual frameworks and systems of validation to standardised faculty career paths.

“The old ideas tend to be reinforced, because that’s the simplest way towards promotion and tenure,” says Judith Samuelson, director of the Aspen Institute’s Business & Society programme.

While students may have powerful voices, they are only on business school campuses for short periods of time. And the motivation for academics to rewrite their courses can be weak, particularly among those approaching the end of their careers.

Meanwhile, re-examining business practices in the light of social, environmental, geopolitical and economic shifts requires a multidisciplinary approach – something that is not always easy to find in an academic world dominated by specialists.

“If you want to bring about change in business schools, you need deans,” says Ms Samuelson. “But faculty own the curriculum so you have to go deep into the scholarship and leadership.”

While acknowledging that corporate responsibility and environmental sustainability topics have become more prominent in MBA classrooms, Peter Lacy, managing director for Asia-Pacific of sustainability services at Accenture, argues that most merely tinker at the edges of management thinking.

“There’s not much fundamental questioning of the traditional market mechanisms that underpin the MBA curriculum,” says Mr Lacy, who sits on the boards of Cranfield and Nottingham business schools and was founding executive director of the Academy of Business in Society.

A 2010 research paper – “MBA students’ perspective toward the economic crisis” – reveals some evidence that students tend to accept traditional business theories taught in schools. Most of the MBA students interviewed by Curtis Holland, the paper’s author, said the financial crisis had barely altered the way they saw their professional roles and the global macroeconomic system.

“The signal that comes through for business school students is that there is a certain business paradigm,” says Mr Lacy. “It’s all about how to execute within that accepted ideological boundary and doesn’t reflect the complexities business executives face.”

Ms Samuelson also believes that the way the MBA is taught leaves little room for discussion about alternative forms of capitalism. “As long as the models taught in the finance class, the purpose taught in corporate governance and law and the metrics applied throughout allow you to externalise cost and discount the future, the dominant message is that shareholder value in the short run trumps other considerations.”

The mission of 50+20 is to change all this. With input from a wide range of management education professionals, its forthcoming report, Mr Drewell explains, will highlight the role of business schools in developing globally responsible leaders, enabling businesses to serve the common good and contribute to the transformation of business and the economy.

It is an aspiration Ms Samuelson says all schools should share. “To help students to apply the critical thinking skills everyone says we need today, schools have to pick up the pace of change in how we teach the purpose of business,” she says.

The question is whether those who want to see a transformation in business education can find ways of removing the institutional and intellectual barriers that obstruct shifts in the status quo.

Prof Grayson warns that this will be tough. “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs,” he says. “And no one wants to break eggs, particularly if you’re one of the eggs.”

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