A better Business School for the world

At France’s Audencia Business School, having a positive impact on society and the planet lies at the heart of its strategy. David Woods-Hale spoke to Audencia’s Dean, Christophe Germain, to find out what this means in practice

In 2021, Audencia Business School in France launched its strategic plan. At the time, the School’s Dean, Christophe Germain, said the objective ‘wasn’t to become the best Business School in the world, but to be a better Business School for the world’. 

The plan, which is called ECOS 2025 in reference to the Greek word for ‘our Earth’, is organised around four main axes, with the overarching objective of having a positive impact on society and the planet. It includes the creation of Gaïa – Audencia’s School of Ecological and Social Transition. 

The strategic plan carries an ambitious global vision, strongly influenced by its values of environmental, economic and social responsibility. Audencia set itself the task of reinventing its very model: to develop more virtuous ‘citizens of the world’, who share humanistic values, with the conviction of sharing a common destiny. The plan is for alumni to use their hybrid skills and capacity to innovate in transforming both business and society, and by working towards the common good on a planetary scale.

This interview with Christophe Germain seeks to find out more about the facets of the fresh strategy, and his hopes for his Business School at a global level. 

What are the biggest challenges currently facing international Business Schools?

Schools’ biggest challenge is to train future managers for jobs which do not yet exist, and which will require skills from several fields of expertise. This is why, at Audencia, we have developed numerous hybrid programmes.

How did the Covid-19 pandemic change your School for the long term, and what have been the most important lessons? 

The main lesson learned from lockdown, since the start of the pandemic, is that students’ experience on campus is irreplaceable, in the same way that international study trips are the only way for students to experience intercultural immersion.

Given the growing climate emergency, do you think businesses– and by extension, Business Schools – have a role to play in helping communities to respond to, and recover from, natural disasters?

Yes, absolutely, because Business Schools train managers who, through the future decisions they make, will have an impact on major societal issues, including the ecological and climate emergency. It is the duty of Business Schools to ensure that these managers acquire the knowledge and skills that will enable them to grasp the complexity of these issues and act upon them.

You feel strongly that Business Schools should not just strive to be the best in the world – but be the best for the world. Why is this worldview so important in the business education landscape?   

A Business School must contribute to the common good, whether directly through its research, and work with companies, or indirectly via the training of future managers. Business Schools can influence institutional contingencies, change organisational practices and commit to sustainability, and in doing so, define new ways of leadership that integrate economic, social, and environmental dimensions. At Audencia, for example, we have identified the following three challenges that will guide our strategic achievements over the next five years:

• The creation and use of responsible information and technology.

• The development and adoption of managerial approaches that promote inclusive organisations and societies.

• The design and implementation of sustainable business models and growth (with a focus on carbon neutrality objectives).

What underpins Audencia’s objective to invent a new Business School model, involving training ‘citizens of the world’, sharing humanistic values, with the conviction of sharing a common destiny?

Audencia’s ambition is to accelerate the transformation of individuals, organisations and society for good, to contribute to the restoration of major balances (economic, social and environmental) which are essential to the preservation of our oikos (the Greek root of the ECOS prefix which is the name of Audencia’s 2025 strategic plan).  

Could you tell us more about Gaïa – the first School launched by a Business School that is entirely dedicated to training in positive impact managerial strategies and practices, in line with sustainable development objectives?

Audencia has defined four strategic axes. The first is the creation of Gaïa – a School dedicated to ecological and social transition. This is an internal, experiential, and immersive School. 

All Audencia’s students will be trained there using teaching methods tailored to each programme via extra courses, learning by doing, career advice, entrepreneurial projects, and research projects focused on tomorrow’s challenges, with a focus on sustainable development issues. 

Gaïa will rely on a large network of experts and partners (NGOs, private companies, trade unions and public organisations). It will house an incubator and will also provide free training. 

Your objective for 2025 is for all your students to have hybrid skills that meet the needs of the market. What do these skills comprise, and how will you work toward this goal? 

Our objective is to turn Homo Audenciens (Audencia’s students) into managers with three types of skills: societal, behavioural, and professional. 

To this end, a ‘KEYS’ (Know and Engage for Your Success and Society) passport will be implemented. The KEYS passport will be based on the unique ‘Competencies For Impact’ (C4I) skills reference framework, and will formalise all the steps for defining, developing and validating the student’s career path.

Each project within ECOS 2025 will be created to maximise the School’s contribution at a behavioural, professional, societal and environmental level. Why is this so important to the world of business education and beyond? 

Business Schools must be actors of the societal transitions that are unfolding. If they are not, they run the risk of becoming, like the statues on Easter Island, the remnants of an ancient world.

The School will readjust its academic and research activities so the societal impact of the research will be measured against several aspects. Could you share some more information about each of these aspects and the importance of impact-centric research?

There are three main aspects. 

1. The creation and use of responsible information and technology.

Nowadays, there is an abundance of information in networks and servers about individuals, businesses, and countries. At the same time, the fast development of artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data, 5G, and so on, have a huge potential to impact our lives. They open up unlimited opportunities but also expose us to threats. 

In terms of cybersecurity, it is key to ensure the ethical exploitation and safety of everyone’s data and the ethical sharing of the benefits among all interested parties. An ethical framework must be built around the development and the impacts of AI, and managing the inequalities it can produce, as well as mitigating against the potential harms posed by big data, 5G, the Blockchain, and fake news. 

All these elements, and others, will deeply impact our future, and we plan to address them by engaging in a scientific dialogue and training on these issues, while producing research and pedagogy across disciplines. 

2. The definition and adoption of managerial approaches that promote inclusive organisations and societies.

Gender and racial inequality, social exclusion, and other impediments to a fair and equal society, are still present. Businesses need to evolve and consider the wider needs of societies. They must promote the interests not just of their shareholders but also of those of surrounding communities, employees, and stakeholders. 

Our research is strongly focused on these aspects and not only identifies the problems of inequality, exclusion or optimisation functions that are not sustainable, but also proposes solutions for inclusion, equality, and sustainable business models. Our research also aims to promote business structures and entities that share benefits more equally, and have clear objectives consistent with wellbeing, sustainable business and key performance indicators.

3. The design and implementation of sustainable business models and developments (in line with carbon-neutral objectives).

Here, we move from the strategic to the more operational aspects of business and the impact it has on society and the environment. To address the major challenges, we will produce work on the sustainable use of resources, neutral carbon footprint, general waste management, plastic pollution, hospital waste management, water waste management, sustainable supply chains, farming, and so on.

The gap between academic research and real-life solutions has narrowed in recent years, and top journals require research that addresses practical problems and most effectively helps policy makers and decisions makers. At the same time, they wish to have an impact on a wider audience and require information that can be easily understood and disseminated via both social and traditional media. 

At Audencia, we promote scientific dialogue in the context of research and support communication for the science community. We also wish to have our say in the wider dialogue with: 

A) the business community, via our chairs and the practical output they deliver based on scientific research results, as well as those involved in professional bodies, roundtables, joint projects, business audits, etc. 

B) society, by producing relevant research that has a direct and indirect impact, participating in task forces, public projects, and consortiums for the common good, producing reports for policy makers and organisations, observing, and working on societal issues including poverty, financial illiteracy, microfinance, gender inequality, corporate social responsibility, and so on. We also aim to promote and disseminate our research in formats that are accessible to the general public.  

Can you share any examples of the real-world impact that the Business School’s recent research output has had?

We are implementing a research project that aims to drive a paradigm shift on data protection and enable citizens to participate acively in their own security, privacy, and personal data protection, whatever their gender, age, or technology skills. 

The research outputs will be tested and validated through real-world large-scale user cases, involving 6,500 European citizens. It will involve three apps, for e-learning, e-voting, and e-health, that are also linked to potential future pandemic risks.

In 2020, Audencia launched a Multi-Capital Performance Chair. The Chair is creating a new accounting model which considers financial but also social and environmental capitals. 

The Chair has also produced reports that are being tested in SMEs, and participates in a European Task Force project to prepare for enhanced reporting that goes beyond purely financial terms.  

A research project on Social Impact Bonds (SIB) was converted into a think tank report, and the author of the report was part of the SIBs launch alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and the Minister of Economy. An online event for practitioners was also created with the French Agency for Environmental Protection (ADEME). Audencia acted as an expert interface between project leaders and ADEME, allowing for the launch of a dozen SIBs focusing on environmental protection and the circular economy.

Another example is a research project promoting efficient and circular water use in European Process Industries, fostering resource efficiency awareness and delivering integrated solutions for industrial applications to reduce waste to zero and overall water footprint. The results are being tested in six case studies involving eight industrial actors, six EU countries and one associated country.

Are there any other areas within the new strategy pertinent to the development of more responsible technologies, a more inclusive society, and more sustainable business models, about which you are particularly enthusiastic? 

We are actively working towards a more inclusive society. To this end we have launched two social outreach programmes that will help young high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to become Audencia students.

Considering the importance of lifelong learning, what is your strategy for enabling continuing learning among your alumni networks? 

A project called Token is being launched to allow each of the School’s stakeholders to recognise the value of their contribution. Based on the Blockchain technology, this virtual device allows alumni, in return for their impactful actions, exclusive access to Audencia’s training programmes. 

What do you think sustainable leadership looks like?

Sustainable leadership is leadership that fully recognises its responsibility to society and the common good. Leaders with a sustainable mindset will be key to helping solve the societal and environmental challenges that the world is increasingly facing.  

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business, Business Schools, and the economy?

Yes, absolutely. Who could claim today to have predicted, anticipated, and been prepared for the current global pandemic? As the writer Albert Camus said, it is the lack of modesty of men which is to blame. Modesty invites us to show moderation, restraint, and humility in our assessment of ourselves in relation to the world. And it has been forgotten. The current crisis is first and foremost a crisis of equilibrium, which affects the way in which spaces, objects, living beings, people and so on, coexist in the world. 

For the ecological equilibrium to be maintained, the transition to clean energy needs to be accelerated and our natural environment needs to be protected. The balance between local and global dimensions also needs to be addressed, as it is essential to reconcile the distribution of wealth between countries. The balance between timelines also needs to be addressed; we must not sacrifice the future on the altar of impatience and short-term interests. 

Finally, the balance between the economy and society is fundamental because the development of the former (normally) feeds the latter, and the solidity of the latter is indispensable to the former, all of which must contribute to the harmonious development of society. The list is long but getting all these balances right is essential. This is the major challenge facing humanity  and it must be approached with determination and optimism. 

Audencia, through its new ECOS 2025 strategic plan, is committed to being a major actor in the transition towards these changes for the common good of society.

Christophe Germain is General Director of Audencia, and General Director of Shenzhen Audencia Business School in China. Since 2019, he has also held the position of Vice President of Business Schools at the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles. Christophe has been Professor of Management Control at Audencia for 19 years, and has also held the positions of Deputy Director of the Grande Ecole Programme (2002-2007), Academic Director (2007-2015), before becoming interim General Director of the School in 2016.  

This article originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

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