Friday, October 23, 2009

How to integrate responsible business into the MBA

This week saw the release of the Aspen Institute's biennial 'alternative ranking' of business schools. Rather than the usual focus of b-school rankings on criteria like how much MBA students manage to increase their salaries by, what proportion of students get employed after graduating, or how well networked the student body is internationally, the Aspen institute looks at how well the school does in integrating social, ethical and environmental issues across its MBA curriculum and faculty research. "Our mission" they say, "is to spotlight innovative full-time MBA programs that are integrating issues of social and environmental stewardship into curricula and research."

The list of top schools includes a lot of the world's leading business schools - names such as Yale, Stanford, Michigan, and Berkeley consistently feature in the top 10. But there, right at the top, in number one spot, is our own school, the Schulich School of Business at York University. For two professors who spend day-in, day-out working on responsible business issues, this is a source of some pride for us. So we hope you'll forgive us if for a moment we bask in the reflected glory of our school's achievement, and take the afternoon off to sink a glass of celebratory champagne.

But we're not writing this blog just to boast. Well maybe we are. But what we've noticed since we've been here, and especailly in the last few days, is that along with the congratulatory messages, we've also received a lot of requests from faculty at other schools to provide insight into Schulich's secrets of success. After all the school has not been out of the top 5 since the Aspen ranking was launched in 2001. This may be our first time at no.1, but Schulich has been ranked no.3 for the last two cycles, taking us back to 2005 (before that, the ranking only grouped top schools but did not give specific placings).

So as far as we're concerned, being at the top also means we have a certain responsibility to help disseminate good practice. The Aspen Institute has traced a strong trend towards increasing integration of responsible business in business schools over the years, and part of the reason for celebrating good performance is is that it prompts others to respond and emulate these successes. B-School deans in general respond pretty well to the incentives offered by rankings, so they can be quite a force for change in the sector.

So what then accounts for Schulich's success? As relative newcomers to teh school (we joined Schulich in Jan 2007), we can't say we have all of the answers. Nor, certainly, can we claim all the credit. As it goes, we can't even claim much of the credit, which is a point we'll explain a little more in a minute. But we do have a pretty good view of what's going on here and what seems to be working (and what isn't). We've also benefited from working at other top schools in the area, especially the University of Nottingham, which is no.1 in the UK. So, here goes for a very unscientific analysis of the top 5 critical success factors for bringing responsible business into the MBA curriculum and research:

1. Start early and take the long view
Schulich started on this path way back, long before most other business schools even thought about social, ethical and environenmental issues as relevant for mainstream business education. By the time we arrived, the school was already well advanced; responsible business was widely embraced across the school, not just by a few dedicated faculty. This takes time to achieve. Success won't come overnight, however much money and other resources you throw at it.

2. Create a virtuous cycle
Related to the above is the very real fact that success in this arena breeds success. Schools that are high in the ranking attract students committed to responsible business who then demand even more courses and events - and even better ones - which keeps us constantly on our toes. Success in the Aspen rankings also attracts faculty who work on responsible business issues, who then go on to produce yet more research papers, and introduce even more specialized courses related to their own particular area. We now have almost 40 faculty members that spent at least some of their time on responsible business issues. Features like this introduce a 'built to last' competence in the area

3. Don't build a CSR ghetto
Most schools now have a centre or unit for CSR or something like that. This is great. But it can also pose a danger to real integration across the school. Sometimes it can be just a little too much fun to play in your own sand pit, and not get out there and build up competence across the entire faculty. Success in this field requires a huge team effort, not just one or two stars. At Schulich, the current ranking reflects some 162 separate MBA courses and 54 research papers during a two year period. Crane and Matten have been busy, but not that busy. So centres are good, but they have to work in a way that inspires and galvanises the school, and doesn't simply take over the CSR agenda.

4. Encourage innovation
OK, so it sounds obvious, but lots of schools are not too innovative when it comes down to it, and various systems and turf wars over the MBA curriculum can stymie real change. Faculty and students involved in responsible business are often very ambitious and entrepreneurial ... and typically have something of a mission behind them too. So they need to feel that they can start new courses and projects rathe than having to fight with administrators all the time just to get started. Give em enough room and they'll start swinging some cats for sure.

5. Gain commitment from the top
Anyone who's been involved in this field knows how important it is for senior management to be leading the agenda - this is as true for business schools as it is for businesses. At Schulich we've been lucky enough to have a Dean that is as committed to this stuff as we are. Never a speech goes by that he doesn't mention the importance of the triple bottom line and a multiple stakeholder orientation. It's an important part of the school's positioning. If you don't have that kind of support, it's going to be a whole lot tougher to get any real traction across the faculty.

We can think of a whole lot of other factors that can play a role in achieving success, but these 5 at least capture some of what we regard as the main reasons, at least here at Schulich. Of course, it helps to have resources, to be a relatively large school, and to have some decent management systems in place, too. But those can be good things to have whatever it is you want to achieve as a school. Integrating responsible business in the b-school represents a unique set of challenges. We're not saying we've got there yet; there's still a long way to go before even the schools at the top of list really get responsibility at the very heart of the MBA. But we'll worry about that next week. For now, it's time for that champagne....

1 comment:

  1. Definitely an important topic these days and one that all MBA programs should take seriously. Great list of success factors by the way!


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