Business Schools must understand how they can contribute to the wellbeing of society, adopting an active stance, writes Loïck Roche, Director and Dean at Grenoble École de Management
On 11 December 2017, the then French Minister of Environmental Transitions and Solidarity, Nicolas Hulot, announced in a speech, at the Medef Employer Federation in Paris: ‘We [the French Government] are going to help companies evolve in terms of their social objectives, which can no longer be limited to earning profits without regard for working women and men, and without consideration for environmental consequences.’
His proposed French Pacte Law (action plan for business growth and transformation) was put forward, with the goal of helping to ‘reintegrate morality in capitalism’.
To ensure financial objectives better support the greater good, the law will re-write two 200-year-old articles in the French Civil Code (articles 1832 and 1833, see box overleaf).
The articles redefine a company’s role as simply creating profit for shareholders. The proposed modifications will integrate social and environmental considerations. At the time of AMBITION going to press, the law was to be voted on in autumn 2018 and its primary actions could come into effect as early as 2019.
But, taking this news out of the context of the French arena, and into the wider global economy, could this development suggest that the era of the Chicago School and one of its most noted economists Milton Friedman – who coined the phrase ‘money matters’ – is over?
A reason for existence
The step change outlined above looks set to take business thought back to 19th and 20th century business magnate Henry Ford’s fundamental advice: ‘Business must be run at a profit, else it will die. But when anyone tries to run a business solely for profit, then also the business must die, for it no longer has a reason for existence.’
This gives us, as Business School leaders, the opportunity to position social responsibility as the foundation for business.
The perspective that a company can no longer exist within a silo, but instead must be part of the whole, builds on the stakeholder theory developed by R Edward Freeman, an American philosopher and Professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
His theory suggests companies should not only consider their own interests but also the interests of all concerned parties (employees, customers, stakeholders, leaders, and so on). This helps to improve the wellbeing of society. Corporate social responsibility is an example that was born from the concrete application of this approach.
To implement these changes, and to ensure companies accept that they must go beyond their mission (to manufacture products or deliver services) and participate in a larger responsibility, Business Schools have a primary role to play as they train future managers and leaders and offer continuing education for working professionals who are ready to question their practices.
Beyond the ‘usual goals’ of the Business School
The first step in taking on this new role, is to go beyond a Business School’s usual goals (for example ‘training the leaders of tomorrow’ or ‘ranking in the top 10, 20 or 30’) in order to ask: ‘why train the leaders of tomorrow?’, ‘what do the leaders of tomorrow need to be able to do?’, and ‘why attempt to be in the top 10, 20 or 30 Business Schools?’
The second step is a result of this exploration: in addition to working through these questions with students, professionals and employers, Business Schools have to consider the bigger picture.
Much like what is expected of companies, Business Schools have to understand how they can contribute to the wellbeing of society. As a result, Schools are preparing and implementing a process of change to become ‘schools for business for society’.
It is a positive sign to see that what was once the perspective of a few has become a generally shared vision. While not all Business Schools are currently working in this way, they are all headed in the same direction and that’s a great result.
It might not seem like much, but there is an important difference between saying ‘we want to train the leaders of tomorrow,’ and ‘we want to train the leaders of tomorrow to do something special’.
It’s vital to understand that this concept of doing ‘first, for society’ is, in fact, quite complicated to implement because it’s a reversal of traditional values. For Business Schools, it means that if we only carry out our mission to offer training and support research we will miss our fundamental objective. And, if we miss this fundamental objective, we will still be doing something positive – but the current stakes are so much higher.
In addition to working with students and companies, Business Schools have to offer a vision and solutions for major global challenges (issues surrounding end of life, climate change, energy transition, immigration crises, terrorism, epidemics, corruption, child exploitation, human rights, women’s rights, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence).
The challenge for Business Schools
The mission is for Business Schools, and higher education in general, to continue working in their particular fields of expertise, while contributing to solving the world’s larger challenges. They have to go beyond their comfort zone; in other words, move beyond their limited focus on business, in order to understand and explore the complexities of the world.
It’s a change that will enable them to provide support in overcoming the major hurdles faced by society.
When Business Schools take the step to work on major societal problems, they open the door to risks and are forced to take sides. By this, I mean that Business Schools do not currently think (and this is a simple fact, not provocation). Their researchers and professors think, but the Schools themselves do not. They ‘describe’ and often they do so after the fact. This was illustrated by the 2008 financial crisis – no Business School anywhere in the world predicted or anticipated this crisis. In other words: Schools do not think, they do not take sides, they do not act.
For example, what does Harvard Business School think about problems impacting on society? Does Harvard voice an opinion, not on immigration, but on what we should do in concrete terms about immigration and immigrants? Going further, if a School’s opinion supports immigrants, does the School work actively to welcome them?
Another example that might offer better perspective is the case of US President Donald Trump. The researchers and professors at Harvard voiced many negative opinions before and after the election of Trump. But in concrete terms, what has Harvard done about it? Nothing.
If the School had an editorial policy, if it truly wanted to change the world, then Harvard wouldn’t simply denounce policy or take sides. The School would act in concrete terms. How? For example, by setting up locations in the US where people voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
That would be going beyond its comfort zone in Cambridge, Massachussets, and entering the playground where things are taking place. To understand societal changes, events and facts, it’s important for Business Schools to be ‘external’ and to maintain a certain impartiality. But if you want to change things – and to have an impact – you have to be where the action is. While Business Schools have been limited to describing and explaining, they now also have to (and I do mean ‘also’, not ‘instead’), state their aims, choose sides, communicate and convince.
They have to act, which is at the heart of being engaged and inciting change within the world. In this way, Schools can help federate the business world and public institutions in order to work together on important human values and the goal of companies: to perform and create profit for all concerned parties, thereby improving our shared social fabric and contributing to the common good.
Loïck Roche is Director and Dean at Grenoble École de Management (Grenoble Business School). Coming from a corporate background, he worked for 10 years in France and internationally as a consultant in the field of human resources.