Business schools need to reconnect with society

For the global business school community the 21st century brought a period of introspection. As global sustainability concerns grew, critical debate about the purpose of business and its role in society could not be left without a response from the business and management education sector.

The financial crisis of 2008 as well as ongoing global social and environmental challenges brought a new impetus to the business education debate. Fingers were not just pointed at irresponsible managers. Questions were also asked about whether or not business and management schools could have provided the theoretical and mental models behind the business and investment thinking that caused the crisis.

In this context, business schools were also confronted with questions about their readiness to equip students for leadership in a world facing several economic, social and environmental challenges. Consequently, various internal and external stakeholders started to grapple with questions about the purpose of business schools and their relationship with business and society.

Role of accreditation

Although accreditation is not the only factor that determines what business schools believe, do and become, it is certainly an important shaper of the direction of travel in the face of 21st century management education imperatives.

This has especially become the case since the integration of a strong ethics, responsibility and sustainability (ERS) narrative in the prestigious European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) accreditation, as well as for business schools’ eligibility to Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation.

A recent study investigated the influence of accreditations on business schools’ ERS practices in the areas of governance and institutional strategies, programme and faculty development, and research.

Looking good vs being good

Business schools are under increasing pressure to respond to societal needs. This means they have to exhibit a true commitment to ethics, responsibility and sustainability at an organisational level or face the loss of legitimacy that they derive from society at large.

In this context, business schools are required to ‘walk the talk’. However, when schools address sustainability imperatives, they face limitations in terms of resources, autonomy and internal and external resistance. Complex governance structures combined with diverse coercive, formal and normative pressures often lead to only superficial changes.

Unclear decision-making processes, competing internal and external stakeholder interests, resource constraints and global competition have created an environment in which schools decouple their ERS talk from their actions through patterns of translation, editing and imitation.

This becomes evident when schools want to appear responsive to ERS demands from some of their stakeholders while avoiding being seen as over-compliant in order to remain credible with stakeholders that may value ERS less. The empirical study highlights gaps between what schools write in strategy documents, audit reports and other external communication documents compared to their actual ERS developments.

However, public, university-embedded business schools often appear to be more engaged and committed to responsible management education compared to private, stand-alone institutions. Despite these findings, the research also finds some evidence of change within business schools’ knowledge production, research and training as well as programme and faculty development.

Future directives: What does it take to walk the talk?

With a history of more than 100 years, business schools have been instrumental in shaping the economic and business paradigms of the past century and they will not escape the tumultuous processes occurring among various stakeholders involved in co-creating new directions for the future.

With so much of the system in a state of flux, attention and resources must be committed towards new ways of thinking and practice, being and doing, and a commitment to a period of trial and error in order to find directions for the future that are both prudent and practical.

The distinction between those that ‘walk the talk’ versus those that only engage in superficial changes is descriptive of the challenges and tensions inherent in adaptive change within institutions – namely, maintaining integrity whilst working simultaneously on both reputation and identity amidst the conflicting expectations of various stakeholders.

Accreditation such as EQUIS and AACSB International can play a key role in this development and are prominent examples. They have shown that accreditation systems are able to change, guide and drive business schools effectively in their challenge to become more ethical, responsible and sustainable.

The new ERS standards and criteria are also in line with accreditations’ mission to raise the standard of management education worldwide and to foster a sense of global responsibility in management education. With a substantial revision of all accreditation standards and the creation of a daring ERS standard, accreditations have sent a strong signal, highlighting the importance of responsible management education.

With this important change, accreditation processes not only contribute substantially to the future development of business schools, they also ensure their own legitimacy and mandate as influential change agents in the global management education arena.

With support from the European Foundation for Management Development, the AACSB and important organisations such as the Principles for Responsible Management Education and the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, business schools have advanced towards a more responsible management education model.

In order to continue along this path, business schools together with accreditation processes, rankings and other regulating bodies need to cooperate and further develop a responsible management education agenda.

A stronger sense of accountability will help the business school sector to evaluate those activities and measure the real relevance and impact they provide for society at large. This will require business schools to further reinvent themselves and find a common purpose for their existence, which includes a radical rethinking of management education paradigms.

Business schools are at a ‘tipping point’ and must reconnect with their primary responsibility of serving the needs of their societies. By moving towards more responsible management education, schools will have to consider a number of institutional changes that will eventually lead to a more ethical, responsible and sustainable management education:
  • • Business schools will have to embrace disruptive change as opposed to the incremental change we have largely seen in the past.

  • • Business schools need not only promote an ‘innovation culture’ in their knowledge production and dissemination, but must also implement this very culture in their own institutions and practices.

  • • Business schools should review their research practice to improve the relevance and impact of their academic as well as applied research. The ‘publish or perish’ culture encouraged by a solid focus on A-journals has only de-emphasised the linkage to practice and therefore contributed to a disconnect between academia and practice.

  • • Business schools must continue changing their curricula, which will require advanced teaching skills in critical and integrative thinking to help students become management innovators.
By changing their own paradigms, business schools will be able to promote more responsible management education, and by doing so, they can become an important interface between business, government and a society that is demanding change.

Mathias Falkenstein is a senior consultant in higher education development and a research member at the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath, United Kingdom. This blog is based on his DBA thesis and research.


That's one reason I like the MBA program at the University of the People; there is a strong focus on ethics and social responsibility.

Christopher MacHurambe on the University World News Facebook page