Changing the mindset on sustainability

Business Impact: Changing the mindset on sustainability
Business Impact: Changing the mindset on sustainability

The distinction between legitimacy and legality, the UN’s SDGs as a code of ethics, knowledge transfer and walking the talk on sustainability – all of these ideas were discussed at a recent African & Middle Eastern Capacity Building Workshop attended by business school practitioners where the need to change mindset was a common thread. This is true not just for those working and studying at business schools, but also for the wider society, particularly in the way business schools are perceived by others.

Teaching the SDGs in totality

Ali Awni, a professor of practice and director at The John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy, Civic Engagement and Responsible Business at the American University in Cairo (AUC), outlined the value of positioning the UN SDGs as an all-encompassing set of principles to follow.

“A school has to stress that the SDGs are taught in totality. You have to look at the SDGs as a code of ethics – you cannot really divide it and say I'm going to do one and ignore 10. You have to have a minimum acceptability performance across them all.”

Awni also pointed to India’s new National Education Policy as an example of what needs to change in business education. The policy talks, in his words, of the need to

“reorient the education system from one focused on sorting top talent and identifying top talent students to one that is focused on human development that can improve learning for all.”

“Think about it,”

Education is about sorting the top talent. It's looking for the gold medallists. We're not trying to spread sports to every facet of society and there is never any mention of human development that can improve learning for all.

“Innovations do not serve the base of the pyramid, with few exceptions. We don't celebrate frugal innovation and grassroots innovation because they tend to be more pragmatic and open source. This makes development and sustainability horizontal and not vertical, which requires a realistic and multi-disciplinary approach.

“In my view, schools of business can play a major role in changing and creating the mindsets of graduates who can go out and change their communities. Once you have enough of a critical mass, then it becomes a culture and a movement.”

Disrupting conventional thinking

How can you foster the conditions in which movements spring? For Henley Business School Africa’s dean and director, Jon Foster-Pedley, it starts with challenging schools to go further in their actions on sustainability and disrupting conventional thinking.

“I want to think about the difference between legality and legitimacy,"

“Extinction Rebellion says that the science is clear. We're definitely heading towards catastrophic climate change, or feeling it already, and the government and wider society is mainly ignoring this. Therefore, we have to do something about it.

“Where should business schools sit here? Of course, being seen to be the provocateurs or activists is very uncomfortable. In fact, many people would say it's absolutely not what business schools would do, but I would question that now. 

“What sort of ethics do we need to deal with? Do you want to build a world where you know our children are, collectively, going to grow up in a boiling planet with fewer species and less opportunity?

“If we want to really engage with sustainability in business schools, we have to not just study and talk about this, we also have to integrate these thoughts like DNA into the heart of our activities and be prepared to challenge some of our most sacred thoughts.”

Foster-Pedley said. Ensuring students are

 “awake to what's happening”

Jane Usher, head of department at Milpark Business School, also questioned whether current approaches were sufficient, arguing that business schools must “walk the talk” on sustainability in their operations and that their faculty members should do the same.

“Business schools have a very important role to play in promoting awareness and finding innovative ways to enable their students to embrace specific aspects of sustainability. It is threaded throughout the curricula of our schools in South Africa, but I wonder if we are doing enough.”

Usher then outlined Milpark’s current teaching approach in this regard.

 “We have a module on business ethics and corporate governance and a module specifically on social responsibility and environmental management. All of our postgraduate and MBA students do these foundational modules and they underpin all the modules that come after that.

“We want to ensure that students have a theoretical understanding and are able to analyse corporate social responsibility issues. They also need to be able to understand that current forms of economic activity are either unsustainable or, at least, will be subject to a wider raft of ethical social environmental constraints in the future. They need to be forward-looking and they need to be awake to what's happening in their communities and localities.

“The most important element in this [social responsibility and environmental management] module is that students need to identify a charity within their community who is willing to work with them. Students learn what is happening and what is required from the charities and then find ways of assisting them to ensure that they are sustainable, that they can receive funding and that they can continue to have an impact within their local community… We've seen students who have graduated and still go back to the charity.”

Mutually beneficial collaborations

The importance of knowledge transfer for business schools in developing and furthering sustainability solutions was discussed by Helmi Hammami, a professor of finance and accounting at Rennes School of Business.

Hammami began by drawing on a Cambridge University definition that,

“knowledge transfer is a term used to encompass a very broad range of activities to support mutually beneficial collaborations between universities, businesses and the public sector.”

“We cannot do innovation by just sitting in our offices. Innovation is about knowledge transfer,”

“There is a myriad of channels [through which we can] share knowledge. First, we have our students – we train our students, they go for internships and then they are on the job market. These are very good ways to disseminate the knowledge that we create in schools/universities, training and workshops.

“Then you have research projects and publications that serve the community, businesses and society. Following this, you have consultancy, new business creation and community engagement.  These are channels we can transfer knowledge to outside the boundaries of our organisations. This is what we call the ‘knowledge triangle’ – a model that makes the links between research, higher education and business.”

Hammami, a senior advisor to the Rennes School of Business dean on knowledge transfer, ended by saying that the process is not without its challenges. Here, he returned to the central theme of the need to shift mindsets, albeit of those outside the business school sector in this instance.

“Business schools are not always seen as hubs of knowledge creation. There is a misperception about what such schools do, with narratives that they live in a bubble that is disconnected from the reality of society and business needs.”

Upcoming African & Middle Eastern Capacity Building Workshop


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