December 17, 2013, by ICCSR

Business Schools and Responsible and Sustainable Business

It is a truth universally acknowledged that after some news of business irresponsibility, call it Enron or the 2007 financial crisis, the question is asked, ‘but what did they (the perpetrators) learn at business school?’.

As our latest cohorts of students graduate, it remains a fair question.  If business schools claim that they prepare students for leading positions in business, should this include preparation for doing business responsibly?

In a 2003 survey of European Business School Deans, the most frequently cited drivers of responsible business education were ‘individual faculty members’ and ‘school leadership’.  This suggested that initiatives were contingent on the location of motivated faculty members not on School level policies and strategies, or clear external expectations.  When respondents were asked about drivers for future success of responsible business education, they indicated a need for greater institutional support.

In the case of Nottingham the establishment of the ICCSR enabled a team of academics to focus on both understanding this area, but also exploring the most effective ways to teach the subject.  Since then there has been a growth of institutionalisation.  The United Nations Principles of Responsible Management Education, for example, sets out principles to guide business schools, requires signatories to regularly report and provides developmental opportunities.  Moreover, the bodies that accredit business schools have built responsible and sustainable into their criteria for licensing schools.  Most recently a group of practitioners in the UK have established an Institute for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability with the aim of creating a recognised Professional for those operating in business.  This group is now grappling with the educational content and structure that will underpin the profession.

ICCSR research suggests that leading business schools have made greater efforts to add modules around ethics, responsibility and sustainability and, in many cases, to integrate these themes into the programme cores.   Nottingham University Business School, for example, requires all BA Management students to consider Sustainability in the context of their Entrepreneurship module and to take a Business Ethics module, and all MBAs to take a module on Sustainability.

At Nottingham’s graduation ceremonies last week there were 457 Undergraduates in Management who will have been required to take a core module in business ethics.  34 MSc students from the business school and other faculties who will have chosen to take an optional module in CSR or sustainability; 17 graduating with an MSc in CSR.  40 MBA students who have been required to take a module on sustainability, 5 graduating with an MBA in CSR.  The numbers are strong, but what impact on business practice?

The sceptics might suggest, as Milton Friedman did of corporate social responsibility in general, that this is ‘mere window-dressing’.   Certainly there is a risk that Deans can be seen to be ‘doing the right thing’ whilst simultaneously maintaining programmes built around the business models most associated with irresponsibility.

In fairness, however, despite our best efforts there are limits to the impacts of business schools.

First, a one, two or three year period in any business school is hardly the sole means of education and socialisation for business leaders.  They will have had a dozen or more years of schooling and in the case of MBAs, three or four years studying other university subjects (engineering appears to be a common first degree for financial modellers).  Moreover, their later experience of working in companies powerfully shapes managerial behaviour reflecting their organisational folkways and incentive structures.

Secondly, it is quite a challenge to teach students about responsible and sustainable business so as to shape their behaviour a decade or so after graduation!  At Nottingham University Business School, we have tried to complement the usual fare of theoretical frameworks, evidence of business and society relationships, and management tools, with experiential and reflective learning.  This is designed to enable the students to form more memorable learning insights than they achieve through reading and ‘chalk and talk’.

As we say farewell to the Classes of 2013 we hope they leave their time at the ICCSR and Business School with an appreciation of the complex and contested issues associated with the relationship between business and society.  We wish them every success and hope that they wield their success responsibly.


Professor Jeremy Moon & the team at the ICCSR
Nottingham University Business School

Posted in Academic ACTIVITYEVENTS at the ICCSRTHEMES in Better Business