In 1979, Pink Floyd’s epic rock anthem, “Another Brick in The Wall” prompted many discussions about the state of primary and secondary education. Similarly a transformation in management education today, which brings sustainability into full focus, is the subject of intense scrutiny. I had the opportunity to sit down with Professor Thomas Dyllick from the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, the premier management school of the German speaking world, to talk about the state of sustainability in management education – listen to the podcast at the bottom of the post.
Ups and downs in the sustainability agenda
As the engines of economic growth, private sector businesses play a central role in sustainable development. Whether one sees them as part of the problem or as part of the solution, businesses are central to sustainability and sustainability is an unavoidable facet of the new, emerging global economy. Business schools must therefore seriously consider how the concept of sustainable development is taught. Despite some praiseworthy efforts, there is still a need to fully establish sustainability as a central topic in management education.
To say that nothing has been done would be cynical understatement. In the late 80’s, a few years after Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and David Gilmour crooned about students transformed into bricks of conformity, groundbreaking initiatives began reshaping the relationship between business, environment and society. The economy is characterized by upturns and downturns and the same is true with regard to interest in sustainability at business schools. During the dot-com bubble, in the 1990’s for example, the topic receded into the background. Today, however, the sustainability movement is gathering momentum again.
Transformation from top-down and bottom-up
The fact that theories have been developed and professors educated in times when sustainability has not been on the top of the research and educational agenda does not really help the situation today. Much convincing needs to do be done. Since professors have a high degree of independence in their field of work and, at the same time, represent one of the most influential stakeholder groups influencing the university agenda, it will be a step by step approach to bring sustainability back into today’s teaching and research.
But a top-down approach will not be enough. To sit in a park singing songs from 1979 is surely a pleasant exercise in protesting but students must do more. As a university is not a hierarchical structure with a fully authorized managing board, there are multiple ways to take action and influence the agenda of a university. Students have the ability and the duty to ignite a bottom-up transformation through which sustainability will become a central topic in management education.
A benchmark for business schools
Today’s discussions are still marked by an affinity for specialization but emerging is the belief that sustainability cannot be its own specialized discipline alongside logistics and marketing. Instead, it is a fundamental layer of all management education disciplines. Dr Dyllick therefore urges business schools to implement sustainability as an integral part of today’s management education. The initiative 50plus20, which will be presented today and tomorrow at the PRIME Global Forum for responsible management education in Rio, is one example of such a starting point for an integrative perspective on management education.
At the end of the second part of “Another Brick in the Wall,” an angry teacher screams in a heavy Scots accent, “How can you have any pudding, if you don’t eat your meat?” Instead of trying to separate sustainability from the traditional meat of a management education curriculum, perhaps the two are best served together. As in the song, students must demand this change.
Listen to the Podcast with Thomas Dyllick to know more about the need of an educational change at management schools and his expectations for the Rio+20 conference.