Business Schools Not Ready for Prime Time

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Jonas Haertle, head of secretary UN PRME, in a plenary session

Not Ready for Prime Time. Sustainability education in business schools is not ready for prime time.

For two days, university faculty, eco-conscientious business executives and NGOs from around the world rubbed elbows at the posh Windsor Park Hotel in Rio de Janeiro and mulled over the problem of introducing environmental and social sustainability education into the curricula of business schools worldwide.  The UN’s third Global Forum for Responsible Management Education (PRME) coincided with the larger Rio+20 Summit preparations happening at RioCentro on the other side of town.  During the event, organizers and participants acknowledged that corporations are already taking a leadership role in the field of sustainability and that business schools have been too slow to adapt to this change.  Over the course of the event, no consensus among the participants emerged as to why management education programs are not embracing sustainability education.  The event seemed to be a confused, albeit well-intentioned call to action, ending in the inspiring but non sequitur launch of he “50+20 Management Education for the World” side-project with its own emotionally evocative call to action.


The aggressively creative and amorphous 50+20 was billed as a collaborative initiative between GRLI, WBSCSB and RRME.  John Cimino, one of the principle founders of 50+20 and a professional opera performer, sang an operatic rendition of Robert William Service’s “The Call” at the start of the group’s launch.  Cimino, who is also CEO of Creative Leaps Inc, a consulting company that trains business leaders and politicians in deeply divided places, stressed that the group’s primary objective was to “broaden the scope of what management education really means.”  Cimino and 50+20 plan to use creative and performing arts to “promote learning as a transformative experience…to nurture the leader in the human being and the human being in the leader.”  While PRME and the UN’s Global Compact have produced documents and mission statements with “many virtures,” Cimino says that 50+20 has a plan for action that is “bolder and goes farther.”  He sees the new group’s role as a “kick in the pants.”  This kick start is something the process sorely needs, but moving poetry and slickly edited launch videos may not be enough.

Supply and Demand.

The problem of sustainability training in management education, whether it was apparent to the attendees or not, is a market problem: there is no market.  Over the course of two days of presentations and roundtable discussions, it became clear that there is neither enough demand among MBA students for sustainability training, nor is their sufficient interest in the topic among business school faculty to create and advertise a supply.

Some students, however, think the demand is there but unmet. Maria Picotez, a second-year MBA student at the University of Sao Paulo and event volunteer, expressed frustration at what she perceived as single-mindedness in her professors. “We come into the school with all these interests and goals of changing the world and our professors tell us, ‘no, that’s not important,’ and it’s like a big process of brainwashing students.”  Jean-Christophe Carteron, a director at Euromed Management, who advises business school admissions officers, expressed similar concerns, relating the results of a survey that polled the expectations of entering MBA students and the perception of student expectations by admissions boards.  “Overwhelmingly,” says Carteron, “students were interested in making a difference in the world and acting globally.”  Admissions officers, on the other hand perceived students’ interests in terms of financial gain in a short amount of time.

Many business professors do, however, understand the need for sustainability education.  “We’ve already got demand.  It’s out there. It’s nascent.  It’s about how we communicate supply,” says Dr. Ross McDonald from the University of Auckland.  McDonald feels that business schools need to clearly communicate to professors and students that they must incorporate sustainability into their work.  “The faculty certainly have to change and even if you have an old-school student, [the school needs to tell them], ‘Sorry mate, that’s not what an MBA is about.  You’re either going to have a very hard time or you’ll have to find a last-century business school.”

Professor Diana Liverman founder of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona and a guest-lecturer at Oxford University in England, admits that she couldn’t find any professors in the business school at Oxford to help her when she was charged by the school to set up a sustainability and environmental literacy program.  Instead, she had to hire John Elkington, a principle founder of the sustainability movement and prominent consultant along with other consultants to teach the series.  But while finding professors was difficult, finding students was even harder.  “Business school students just aren’t terribly interested in sitting in these classes,” says Liverman.  This experience was echoed by many other panelists who lamented the apathy exhibited by many management students toward sustainability topics.

A Need for Sustainability Training in the Marketplace

Business school curricula are sorely lacking in social and environmental sustainability training.  Consequently, B-schools churn out MBAs with no sense of scientific literacy and no concept of sustainability principles.  These freshly minted MBAs enter the marketplace with a tremendous gap in their education.  “Now I spend more and more of my time learning about the environment.  I never heard about these concepts at university,” said a young investment banker who presented at the conference.  In a global economy where natural resources are increasingly scarce, more fully accounted for and jealously guarded, companies and institutional investors are careful to access their risks deriving from natural resource scarcity and are more mindful of opportunities to convert scarcity into competitive advantage through efficiency gains.  For Erika Karp, a managing director at USB and head of Global Sector Research, an understanding of and accounting for sustainability is mandatory. “No MBA Degree should be granted without a full course on Corporate Sustainability or Sustainable Investing,” said Karp during an interview.

No Easy Task

It’s no easy task to create a market when there is no demand for a product, but there is a need for business professionals who understand the social and environmental issues.  The corporate world has already recognized this need and is demanding more from young professionals, entering the workplace.  There is diminishing patience on the part of executives for analysts and other young business professionals who do not have a firm grasp of sustainability concepts. “Any analyst that is not focusing on issues of social and environmental sustainability should be fired,” said Erika Karp at a panel for an event during the UN Global Compact’s Corporate Sustainability Forum.  But businesses can also do more to drive this much needed change.  When asked what corporate boards were doing to promote sustainability education, Karp bluntly replied, “nothing. And they should be doing more.”  Professor Gordon Lucyk, a former commodities trader now at MacEwan University’s School of Business in Canada advocated the “power of the pen…If alumni and corporate donor institutions act together and stop giving…and somehow communicate why, they could have a tremendous impact.”

While sustainability focused MBA programs at Presdio and Bainbridge Institute do well in preparing graduates for environmental and social sustainability challenges, this sort of training is not being promoted at the vast majority of business schools, and the  principles are not being integrated into curricula across subject areas. Demand for sustainability training from MBA students has not reached a critical mass that would induce a major curriculum shifts in management education programs.  Neither are there enough business school faculty interested in the issue to create and package a product that would attract ecologically and socially-conscientious students who might not have considered business school as a way to change the world for the better. Yet demand for the sustainability-savvy MBA is growing among investment houses and corporations eager to understand risks to supply chains and shore-up licenses to operate in diverse communities around the world.  Some in attendance complained the UN PRME event combined the corporate world’s unfortunate affinity for buzz-words with the UN’s aversion to concretely delineated plans of action.  However, the event importantly demonstrated a growing acceptance among business schools of the need to integrate sustainability training into their curricula, if for no other reason than to meet demand among the corporations that hire their students.

Sunmin Kim and Tim Lehmann contributed reporting from Rio.

6 thoughts on “Business Schools Not Ready for Prime Time

  1. While I agree that there is a supply and demand problem, I think the way into a career in sustainability is to first understand business. As a Brand Marketer for the first 8 years of my career I was able to learn the basic business skills and competencies needed to be successful in my current role leading sustainable brand marketing across the enterprise. If you are a student interested in sustainable business go and work for a company that reflects your values, but in a more traditional entry-level function like Marketing, Finance or Sales. This will allow you to gain the necessary experience, connections, influence and credibility to ensure your values are represented in the way the company conducts its business .

  2. “Neither are there enough business school faculty interested in the issue to create and package a product that would attract ecologically and socially-conscientious students who might not have considered business school as a way to change the world for the better.”

    Excellent point ! This is exactly what should be required as part of any business school’s curriculum.

  3. Michael’s article addresses an important topic for all generations, but in particular those who will inherit our earth. Universities have an obligation to prepare the future leaders of our world by placing a significant focus on sustainability. This means providing and requiring students engage in volunteer activities, in particular those that address and build an awareness of the social justice issues facing the poorest of the poor. Visionary leaders throughout the world have already defined sustainability in the poorest areas of the world. Check out this link
    Management theory is just theory until students have the opportunity to put into practice the designing, developing and managing sustainable initiatives and working with the poor who will benefit from the creativity of the student team.
    The US, as the largest, throw away population, has responsibility for leading the sustainability band wagon through education and public policy.
    Thanks, Michael for keeping this on the radar.

  4. Not enough market for sustainability? That statement seems very out of touch, as does the linear teachings of the curriculum. I think consumers WANT sustainability, but they also want affordability and ease. If the later are not paired with the former there is little market. I agree that there is a major snarl in the supply and demand chain and from my perspective it has a lot more to do with communicating consumer demands vs focusing on an old school business model.

  5. Michael, I attended the PRME forum in Rio and share your frustration with the lack of tangible commitments and action plans. Personally, I do not expect mainstream business schools to throw away their business model overnight. As long as students are competing to get in our programs and firms competing to lure out graduates with lofty salaries, there will be little incentives (or a business case) for radical change.
    What remains though is the moral imperative. There are things that we should do (or not do) not because they make business sense but because they are morally compelling.
    What we know also is that organizations cannot be moral agents. Only human persons can. The implication is that it rests with each of us to figure out the good from wrong and align our behavior accordingly
    It follows from this principle that the lack of grand plans cannot excuse us, personally, from undertaking what is right.
    As far as I am concerned, I left Rio fully pumped up and committed to do my own little bit. I will put a good deal of my energy to promote sustainability in my school and will begin with sustainable entrepreneurship which falls within the scope of my role as founder and academic director of Essec Ventures.
    I am fully aware that this is a tiny drop into an ocean but, as the French saying goes, small streams make big rivers.
    Let’s stop complaining about other peoples’ inaction and roll up our sleeves.
    Thank you Michael for throwing the gauntlet and for enabling this reaction,
    Hamid Bouchikhi

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