The world is changing so fast these days that business schools are struggling to steer a course in the shifting seas. Next month, deans and directors from around the world will come together in Berlin to discuss the huge upheavals they now face, and what sort of business education will be needed to address them.
The conference, run by the Association of MBAs (Amba), is ambitiously titled "Responsible Management for a World in Transition" and will cover climate change, emerging markets, geopolitical shifts, sustainability and changing demographics. But how easy will it be to make any sense of these vast themes in just three crowded days?
Jeanette Purcell, the chief executive of Amba, acknowledges it will be challenging. "But I think we've seen quite a lot in the recent past about who's to blame for things and why did they happen. This is a step forward and a chance for people to think more practically and constructively about the role of business schools in a wider society," she says. "However, we do have to be careful about how we go about this. There is always a danger of knee-jerk responses, or of just adding more content to the curriculum."
Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke, last year's Independent/ Amba MBA student of the year, will be speaking at the conference, acutely aware that she will be talking not just in the wake of the financial crisis but in the midst of a social and environmental one. "A key point I think is that we need to find a way to measure the triple bottom line. At the moment, there's no consistency. We need to look at the metrics and think about how you measure environmental and social factors."
Nefesh-Clarke, who took her MBA at ESCP Europe, in Paris, and who has since launched the networking and fund-raising site Women's Worldwide Web, is convinced of the importance of this. "The environment can't wait, the world food security problem can't wait. Not to do this is to really shirk our responsibilities. This is not wishy-washy 'save-the-world' stuff. We can't any longer have just a narrow focus on financial returns."
Another speaker, Oliver Rapf, the head of climate business engagement for WWF, the environmental organisation, will tell the conference it is no longer enough to bolt on issues of sustainability to existing business school courses. Questions of environmental impact and social responsibility must migrate to the core of business education. He plans to introduce delegates to a number of examples of good business practice, including Tetra Pak, the Swedish packaging company, which "is well on track" towards carbon reduction and the use of sustainable resources. "I want people to understand how they can integrate these things into mainstream business thinking," he says
Matthew Gitsham, director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability, will be chairing a session on how international organisations can deal with transition. "These issues chime closely with work we have been doing for a long time at Ashridge," he says.
"Geopolitics, emerging markets and climate change have all shot up the agenda in the last five years, but the financial collapse made it difficult to focus on anything else for a time. However, my sense is we've turned a corner and can now turn back to thinking about other things."
But research done by Ashridge offers business schools a sobering wake-up call about how well they are coping with today's challenges. Two years ago, the school worked with the UN on a global survey of chief executives and senior managers. Three quarters of respondents said they needed new skills to deal with new challenges such as the low-carbon economy, resource scarcity, and doing business in emerging markets. But fewer than 8 per cent believed either their own organisations or business schools were effectively developing those skills.
High among the things wanted by senior managers was the ability to understand changing business contexts, including the risks and opportunities offered by social, environmental and demographic changes. They also wanted to be able to respond effectively to this information, possibly through developing their skills in horizon scanning, scenario building and risk management.
In addition, they felt they needed to improve their ability to handle complexity and ambiguity by improving their flexibility, creative problem solving, ability to learn from mistakes and their ability to balance short- and long-term considerations.
"I think all business schools are going to need to look at what outcomes they are getting from their programmes, and what outcomes they want to get," says Gitsham. "For some schools, it may just mean a tweak here and there, but for others it might mean root-and-branch change."
Ideas of responsible management are certainly things that no business school can now ignore. Amba is a strategic partner of the UN's Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), and has invited PRME to participate in the 2010 review of its MBA accreditation criteria. The initiative is designed to help develop managers who are as interested in purpose, vision, partnership and dialogue as in the financial bottom line.
"At Cranfield, we were very early adopters of PRME, and we have established a PRME task force to which all senior faculty members belong," says Professor Frank Horwitz, director of the Cranfield School of Management. As a result, the school is able to look closely at where and how social, environmental and ethical concerns can be built into all its courses, although Horwitz says you always have to make clear that you are not trying to impose a particular ideology.
"More than ever before, people are asking what is it that business schools wish to achieve," he says.
"We are having to think about what kind of graduate we develop and what should be the attributes of future chief executive officers and managers."
Questions he thinks business schools need to ask themselves are "How far do they need to go with curriculum change?" and "How can they make any changes truly effective?". He says: "I think we are no longer debating the principles behind these changes, but how we can actually make them work."
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