Business learns the Body politic

Anita Roddick's business school is adding values to value for money, writes Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
Anita Roddick has never been one to shy away from controversy. So nobody could have been surprised when she said last week that she had been shocked by the huge gap between visionary business leadership and what was being taught in management schools.

The New Academy of Business, which The Body Shop chief executive announced that she was setting up last year, would seek to fill that gap by championing "values-aware management". There was a "burning priority" to incorporate the study of such issues as social justice, human rights and sprituality alongside the more regular management education fare of finance, marketing and the rest.

However, though much of this echoes the language Ms Roddick has been using, often to the bewilderment of City folk, for years the real challenge she is confronting is translating words into action.

At the formal launch she said she hoped the Academy would foster a vibrant learning community that would help put the best ideas and practices into action because it was not enough just to change attitudes or increase knowledge. If all management education does is stimulate lofty intellectualising it fails, she added.

Certainly there is every chance that the initiative will be bogged down in endless earnest debate. The Academy has already fostered a network of companies and public-sector bodies keen to establish best practice in the area of socially-responsible business. And from next March it will, with Bath University's management school, be running a master's degree in responsibility and business practice that will aim to debate issues rather than provide traditional teaching.

However, Ms Roddick and her colleagues in this venture, including David Mathew, director of the Academy, are confident that by building alliances they can build awareness of the thinking that they believe is essential.

As they acknowledge they are not alone in trying to encourage business leaders to look beyond the bottom line. Last month, for instance, the Tomorrow's Company project was given a boost by Kleinwort Benson Investment Management's launch of an investment fund that would track companies subscribing to the criteria set out for sustainable success. Even chartered accountants are now accepting that financial performance provides only part of the whole picture of a company's health.

There are also other organisations, such as the Forum for the Future, coming from the same sort of anti-establishment direction as themselves. But Mr Mathew insisted that the Academy and its spin-offs would not be in competition with them. Just as they would not be battling outright with traditional business schools, they would be seeking to complement other ventures as part of the effort to push their approach into the mainstream.

And in these aims they may be more successful than expected. Not so long ago concern about the environment was seen as a wishy-washy, marginal issue. But now that it has financial ramifications companies of all kinds are treating it seriously with many, including some whose environmental impact is not immediately obvious, publishing environmental reports alongside regular reports and accounts.

The key to spreading the word will be the management consultancy industry. Both Ms Roddick and Judi Marshall, who helped create the course at Bath, claim that consultants are in the vanguard of those expressing interest in the initiatives.

As a result companies of all kind can expect, in the coming months and years, to hear how such organisations as St Luke's, a young advertising agency, are taking their place beside the likes of Levi-Strauss, the jeans maker, Hewlett-Packard, the American electronics group, and Ben & Jerry's, the socially-aware ice-cream maker, as examples of good business practice.

Some, of course, will push this as the latest fad. But in truth it fits in with all the talk of learning organisations, knowledge workers and empowerment. As Ms Roddick notes, the rising power of the "vigilante consumer" means that even companies that are not instinctively minded to push back the barriers will find the approaches being suggested difficult to ignore entirely.

q New Academy of Business: 0181 563 8780