According to “Beyond Grey Pinstripes”, a biennial ranking of international business schools published by the Aspen Institute and the World Resources Institute, the number of schools requiring students to take courses in ethics, corporate responsibility, sustainability or business in society as part of their individual programmes rose from 34% in 2001 to 54% in 2005.
Indeed, the top ten schools worldwide each offer around 50 courses that have social and environmental content.
Reforms to business school education are hard to measure. The “Beyond Grey Pinstripes” survey for instance, covers just MBA programmes. Yet, one thing is clear. Future corporate managers will be expected to understand the important role of social and environmental concerns in business.
“An excellent manager is technically competent and critically reflective on his or her relationships,” says Nigel Roome, Daniel Janssen chair of corporate social responsibility, Solvay Business School, Belgium, and Rotterdam School of Management (Erasmus).
Roome believes that business schools should encourage students to reflect on the broader implications of their activities: “CSR requires students and managers to look at the systemic nature of their impacts on society.”
Catching up with business
Academics in the field believe that business schools should create graduates that are not just effective professionals, but are also practitioners that think about the broader implications of their actions and the actions of their business. But many schools fail to fulfil this role.
Students at top schools can still complete their degree without ever contemplating the notion of corporate social responsibility.
“The process of change in companies has to be mirrored in business schools,” observes Roome.
Many schools are yet to make corporate responsibility a strategic priority. Roome says this may be because of a lack of company demand: “Whilst companies make public commitments to CSR, they don’t always percolate down to recruitment.” But there are also internal obstacles to mainstreaming ethics into management education.
The great leap forward
Mainstreaming – shorthand for integrating corporate responsibility into core curricula – is the greatest challenge that business schools face.
It is seen as a three stage process: offering optional electives, then making modules compulsory and finally embedding corporate responsibility into core courses such as strategy, finance and accounting.
The process sounds simple enough, but in practice is hard to achieve. Most leading schools have completed the first stage. Some have reached the second. Few could claim to have made the final leap: embedding corporate responsibility into all aspects of management education.
“The embedding task is a huge one to get right,” says Craig Smith, senior fellow in marketing and ethics at London Business School.
“The challenge is to engage with individual faculty in key subject areas – to look at how CSR impacts on their subject area,” Smith says.
The relevance of CSR to core subjects is beyond doubt. In theory, topics such as socially responsible investment, cause-related marketing and ethical supply chain management could be covered in finance, marketing and operations. But presently they are not.
The success of mainstreaming depends on the openness and commitment to CSR of particular institutions, and the willingness and aptitude of individual professors and lecturers.
At London Business School, such aptitude is “fairly minimal”, says Smith candidly. The school, ranked by the Financial Times newspaper as the best in Europe, requires all MBA students to take a course in business ethics and responsibility. But Smith admits: “Coverage beyond this is patchy to non-existent … and we are not alone in that.”
A serious problem that schools face is opposition to corporate responsibility as a subject. CSR oversteps the functional boundaries of traditional management education. “There is an innate suspicion of any interdisciplinary areas,” explains Thomas Dunfee, professor in social responsibility in business at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania.
This problem is easier to overcome in the US, he says, where there is a strong tradition of dual disciplines and departments. At Wharton, business ethics is combined in one department with legal studies.
There is also the practical issue of how to handle the embedding process.
“Haphazard integration isn’t sufficient. It’s got to be systematic,” says Dunfee. “You don’t just tell faculty to go forth and talk about ethics. If you do, some students will go through without ever hearing it; others will hear it three times.”
Dunfee believes that for CSR education to become sustainable, it needs to be instituted – in specialist courses, departments and research centres.
Facing the challenge
There is no easy answer to the question of mainstreaming. But it is clear that the great leap forward, from specialist courses to total integration, will require schools and companies to take the initiative.
As Roome points out: “Business schools and companies have a significant way to go in establishing CSR as a strategic issue. Rather than being a problem, this is one of [our] greatest challenges. Demands on business, and therefore on business schools, will not go away, and to think so is a form of denial.”
A ‘triple-track’ approach to mainstreaming
1. CSR courses as optional modules (electives).
2. CSR courses as part of the core curriculum (compulsory modules).
3. CSR components embedded in other core courses – strategy, accounting, marketing, etc.
Corporate responsibility appears in several guises in business schools, but lacks a strong identity. The subject is best described as a “field of study”. It does not, strictly speaking, qualify as an academic discipline since it lacks a core theory and methodology.
It draws instead on other subjects – management, sociology, politics and legal studies – to consider the wider roles and responsibilities of business.US economist Howard Bowen, from the 1950s, is often credited as the father of CSR.
During the late 1980s – the so-called “decade of greed” – there was a 15% drop in the number of business-in-society and business ethics courses. But the 1980s also witnessed the publication of R E Freeman’s work on stakeholder theory (1984), which informs much of the current research on the interaction between business and society.
How to make the grade: the questions business schools must answer
EQUIS, the international accreditation agency, now requires business schools to demonstrate their commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Over the last year, the agency has developed a set of corporate responsibility criteria to be incorporated into all parts of its assessment processIn addition, a new chapter in the assessment process, “Contribution to the Community”, asks the following questions:
· Does the school partner actively with companies and organisations in promoting ethical behaviour and CSR?
· How are issues relating to ethical behaviour and CSR integrated into the school’s degree programmes, executive education activities and research?
· How does the school show practical concern for the environment in its operations?
This article was originally published in print and PDF in May 2006 by Ethical Corporation as part of a Special Report on Corporate Responsibility and Education.
The 2007 Special Report is being planned now by Ethical Corporation for publication in May 2007. To suggest coverage please contact email@example.com.