Nurturing a better world through business education

With climate change and inequality among the growing threats to human wellbeing, business is under pressure to embrace the issues of people and planet in place of the primacy of profit maximisation; and so is business education.

As we show in this FT Responsible Business Education report, there are already many examples of business schools adapting to calls for reform from students, faculty, employers and communities alike.

The FT covers these issues in its business education reporting and is adapting the methodology of its business school rankings to increase scrutiny of — and credit for — activities around sustainability and social purpose.

But metrics have their limits. As the broader debate about businesses’ environmental, social and governance responsibilities has shown, some topics are difficult to quantify easily, comparably and comprehensively. The same applies within education, which has a pivotal role in training the next generation of managers and entrepreneurs.

That is why we launched our Responsible Business Education Awards last year, to ensure a wider variety of activities are analysed qualitatively to showcase, reward and incentivise individual examples of best practice. 

We are grateful to a distinguished panel of judges who have deep expertise and passion in the field, and are drawn from across the corporate world, non-profit organisations, academia and beyond.

An important conclusion from this second year of the awards is that the strength of the inaugural winners was not a one-off. We received another impressive list of submissions from around the world and identified plenty of strong projects for the shortlists and joint winners.

Good academic researchers may not always be the best candidates to disseminate or implement their ideas more widely

This year, we have modified our criteria. After focusing in 2022 on alumni “change-maker” entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs as the key “outputs” of business schools, for 2023 we shifted focus. We sought examples of practical work by students “learning while doing” during their courses in projects with third-party organisations. 

While the efforts made by individual winners deserve praise, their work also highlights the important role of mechanisms that link them to useful projects. ESMT in Berlin has a Responsible Leaders Fellowship, for example, allowing MBA and masters graduates to offer pro-bono support to organisations meeting social challenges in lower-income countries. 

For another winner, the Hult Prize was an important seedbed, in the form of a global contest that challenges university students to tackle social problems through business and provides funding to help them test their ideas.

Recognising the central role of what is taught in the classroom, our second award this year was for innovative approaches to pedagogy — with a specific focus on decision-making for sustainability or climate change adaptation.

A growing range of business schools provided a wealth of relevant teaching cases, which are influential because they reach large numbers of students. The judges concluded that some of the best materials went beyond traditional cases, providing online training, simulations, coaching, mentoring and even meditation.

A number were jointly written by multiple authors in different business schools and were made available without charge online, in a way that provided the greatest possible reach to their peers elsewhere.

The final award was for academic research with societal impact and evidence of uptake in practice. The better ones were typically written by multiple authors based in different institutions, faculties and countries, and published in a wide range of outlets.

Attributing causality is never easy. All too often, however, academics continue to define impact simply as the fact of publication in specialist journals, which provide rigorous peer review but have a narrow readership. The better ones at least seek or note reporting of their research in the media and practitioner outlets.

In contrast, the best entries described efforts by their authors to disseminate their ideas more broadly, engage in public debate and participate directly in decision making with public and private sector organisations. Their metrics of success were far more striking, in fields as diverse and significant as modern slavery and organ transplants.

Good academic researchers may not always be the best candidates to disseminate or implement their ideas more widely, and nor should the pressure to come up with practical applications be allowed to compromise their intellectual freedom.

Yet greater efforts are required by business schools to encourage them to focus on societal challenges, connect their ideas to action, and to overhaul incentives that are too geared to research disconnected from teaching or outcomes.

We welcome feedback on these awards, including ideas for improvement and suggestions on how to ensure that we receive a still deeper and wider variety of future submissions — notably from business schools beyond North America and western Europe.

Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor

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