The challenges of tomorrow’s world today

CSR is crucial to an MBA if students are to be properly prepared for the future, says Matt Symonds

Ever since the world entered an economic meltdown, and the role played by a handful of individuals with the conspicuous letters MBA after their names was highlighted, the world’s business schools have been keen to promote ethics in business at any and every opportunity. Just look at the publicity engendered by the Harvard Business School student oath of 2009 for an example of this.

What a different world we inhabit today compared to a decade ago, when greed was still good. In 2002, when the Aspen Institute’s first Business & Society International MBA Case Competition took place, with the aim to promote and celebrate ethics in business, just three prominent American business schools took part: Columbia Business School, NYU Stern and Wharton. Nine years later contestants are queuing around the block. One of the few MBA case competitions to focus exclusively and explicitly on the role of business in society, it now boasts entries from 25 major schools from all over the world and a total prize fund of $40,000 (£26,666).

The Aspen Institute states its mission is to “foster values-based leadership and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues”. And to put these values into practice in the wider world, the competition challenges business school students to come up with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability initiatives for a major organisation.

As Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, puts it, “What current business students learn about the complex relationship of business and society facilitates the changes we need to grow and thrive. It demonstrates their school’s commitment to teaching thoughtful and long-term business strategies.”

Last year’s competition asked students to take on the role of consultants preparing a strategic sustainability plan for Indian steel giant the Tata Group. The winning team, from the Weatherhead School of Management in the US, took a highly practical approach, focusing on the concrete benefits of CSR. Their plan was to go above and beyond the expectations of industry bodies and the Government by instilling sustainability at the core of Tata’s business model. Their recommendation also prioritised sustainable acquisition and detailed a ‘sustainability fit’ action plan as well as strategies for maintaining those standards.

The result was a viable plan to reduce costs and raise brand awareness through sustainability initiatives over a 10-year period. Of course, the competition represents just part of an increasing awareness of the importance of CSR. As more and more businesses have bought into sustainability initiatives, major business schools have become more attracted to the Aspen competition.

The theme of global responsibility sits well with French business school entrant Audencia Nantes School of Management. “We place great emphasis on respectful actions and responsible management,” explains MBA programme director Valérie Claude-Gaudillat. “We believe firms can change the world for the better, as demonstrated by the launch of our institute for global responsibility, and a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund.”

The Aspen Institute has remained topical in its theme this year. Students were tasked with finding a sustainable way for a Chinese renewable energy company to expand its operations into the highly competitive US market.

Another of this year’s competitors, Spanish business school ESADE, is no stranger to social responsibility. Nuria Guilera, MBA marketing director at the school, insists, “We wanted to take part in the competition because CSR is incredibly important to ESADE. It may be a ‘hot topic’ now, but we have been teaching CSR as part of all of our courses since we were founded – it’s one of the school’s guiding principles.”

The Tuck School of Business is another contender with a longstanding commitment to teaching CSR. Patricia Palmiotto, director of the Allwin Initiative for Corporate Citizenship at the school, says, “Teaching corporate social responsibility in business schools enables MBAs to explore multiple scenarios from multiple companies and learn from their success and challenges. They are then prepared when they face these challenges as the business leaders of the future.”

The 25 schools that submitted case studies last month now hope their hard work will be rewarded with a place among the five most impressive entries, and the chance to fly to New York for final presentations of the projects on 15 April. Other CSR-centric case competitions have sprung up recently, including the Rotman School of Management CSR Case Competition in Toronto and the Columbia Business School CSR Case Competition.

But what still appears to set the Aspen Institute’s competition apart is that it employs a ‘hot house’ approach. With only three days from the topic being revealed to sending in a final entry, students face the kind of pressure they will encounter as they climb the corporate ladder.

“CSR and sustainable business practice is something that every MBA student needs to be able to address,” says Nuria Guilera, “so this is a very good opportunity for them to use the theory in a practical way.”

“Unless business schools address the complexity of competing business and societal needs, they are not preparing students for the challenges they will face as organisational leaders,” agrees Palmiotto.

“Tuck School of Business aims to prepare principled, responsible leaders, and the competition provides our students with the opportunity to wrestle with competing issues and interests.”

Palmiotto also contends that successful and admired business leaders have always considered ethical decision making as they balanced profitability, concern for community and response to environmental challenges. “I think this generation of MBAs realises that the issue to consider is not if business should be involved in social and environmental issues but how business can achieve this. The case competition gives the students a chance to explore a real challenge in depth.”

So now it’s a waiting game for the 25 teams. The $20,000 first prize may be alluring in itself, but the prestige of securing first place in an international CSR competition will no doubt help the career progression of the winners, and validate the ethical credentials of their business school.

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