Cultivating a better world through business education

With climate change and inequality among growing threats to human well-being, business is under pressure to embrace people and planet issues over the primacy of profit maximization; and so does business education.

As we show in this FT report on responsible business education, there are already many examples of business schools responding to calls for reform from students, teachers, employers and communities.

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

But the metric has its limitations. As the wider debate on environmental, social and corporate governance responsibilities has shown, some topics are difficult to quantify simply, comparably and comprehensively. The same applies to education, which plays a key role in training a new generation of managers and entrepreneurs.

That’s why we launched our Responsible Business Education Awards last year to ensure a qualitative analysis of a wider range of activities to showcase, reward and encourage individual examples of best practice.

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

An important takeaway 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 entries from around the world and identified a number of strong projects for the shortlist and joint winners.

This year we changed the criteria. After focusing in 2022 on alumni entrepreneurs who create change and intrapreneurs as key “outcomes” of business schools, for 2023 we have changed our focus. We sought examples of practical work by students who “learn while doing” during their courses in projects with third-party organizations.

While the efforts of individual honorees deserve praise, their work also highlights the important role of mechanisms that connect them to worthwhile projects. For example, ESMT in Berlin has a Responsible Leaders Fellowship that enables MBA and MSc graduates to offer pro-bono support to organizations facing social challenges in lower-income countries.

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

Recognizing the centrality of what is learned in the classroom, our second award this year was for innovative approaches to pedagogy — with a particular focus on decision-making for sustainability or climate change adaptation.

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

The figures were co-authored by multiple authors at different business schools and made available for free online, in a way that allowed the greatest possible reach to their colleagues elsewhere.

The final award was for academic research with social impact and evidence of uptake in practice. The better ones are usually written by multiple authors from different institutions, colleges and countries, and published in a wide range of editions.

Attributing causality is never easy. Too often, however, academics continue to define impact simply as the fact of publication in peer-reviewed journals, which provide rigorous peer review but have a narrow readership. The better ones at least seek or record coverage of their research in the media and practitioners.

In contrast, the best entries describe the efforts of their authors to disseminate their ideas more widely, engage in public discussions and directly participate in decision-making with public and private sector organizations. Their metrics of success have been far more striking, in areas 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, nor should the pressure to come up with practical applications be allowed to compromise their intellectual freedom.

However, business schools require greater efforts to encourage them to focus on societal challenges, connect their ideas to action, and rethink incentives that are too focused on research unrelated to teaching or outcomes.

We welcome feedback on these awards, including ideas for improvement and suggestions on how to ensure that we receive an even deeper and wider diversity of future entries – particularly from business schools outside of North America and Western Europe.

Andrew Jack is the global education editor for the FT

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