How We Talk About Responsible Management Education

How We Talk About Responsible Management Education

Teaching responsible management requires more than adding "sustainability" or "ethics" to a course title. Sustainability, ethics, and corporate social responsibility relate to everything that is taught and should be taught in a business degree. 

As businesses dive deeper into the risks and opportunities that sustainability presents, business schools are following suit with a range of new courses, programs, and activities. However, adding the words “sustainability,” “ethics,” or “responsible” to the beginning of a course title doesn’t necessarily make it so.

So what is responsible management really? According to the Financial Times, it is about “making business decisions that, next to the interests of the shareholders, also takes into account all the other stakeholders, such as workers, clients, suppliers, the environment, the community and future generations.” But isn’t that simply the definition of good management?

One of the challenges, perhaps the biggest challenge in embedding this idea of responsible management into business education, is the language itself. Terms used include “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), “ethics,” “responsible management,” and “sustainability,” to name but a few. One has only to sit in a room with a handful of faculty and students to see that everyone uses different words and associates different meanings to these words. Some give them positive connotations, some negative, some see it as their responsibility to act on the various individual risks and opportunities the different issues present, and some pass the responsibility onto someone else. The scale of what is truly considered “responsible” varies considerably, especially across cultures and industries. It isn’t black or white but rather a sort of rainbow that goes far beyond the color green.

Yet the broadness of these terms is beneficial in that they provide a common language, a point from which we can meet, work together, and move forward. It provides an open platform to begin discussions, and schools have been free to explore the topic in a variety of ways, without the regulations and guidelines that business has tried to develop and follow. However, this flexibility is perhaps also the reason sustainability has not yet taken the place it should have always had within management education. Here are four key reasons:

1.  These words are used—often wrongly—interchangeably. When I ask faculty how they cover sustainability topics within their courses or research, they often tell me that “all of that” is covered in the ethics class and I should speak to the person responsible. Ethics and sustainability are two different things. Yes, in many ways they are linked; they both relate to business, to strong businesses, but teaching students about ethics is not teaching them about sustainability, and vice versa. When you also consider that many also view volunteering and community engagement as part of ethics and sustainability, this turns into a confusing and complicated mix of terms.

2.  These words each mean everything and nothing at the same time. On their own, none of the terms mentioned above really mean anything. If you ask students, and faculty, if they think ethics is important, most will say yes (doesn’t everyone want world peace, after all?). But what exactly is ethics and how does it relate to business? What do they think ethics means? The same applies to sustainability. Are you speaking about environmental, social, or economic sustainability? Are you referring to efficiency within the supply chain, transparency in marketing, impact investing or giving money to charity, volunteering in the community, or even printing on both sides of the paper? Sustainability means little if it isn’t taught linked to the tools and frameworks students are learning, and then put into a context they can use, regardless of which career they choose.

3.  Adding the word to an initiative doesn't make it so. The term sustainability can, and is, being added to a broad range of activities. But it needs to go beyond learning objectives and words in a document. If the content isn’t there—the impact, the value creation—then it is a missed opportunity. Ultimately, the reality is that everything you do as an educational institution is fundamentally linked to these terms. Therefore the focus should be more on embedding sustainability and ethics across the discussions in meaningful ways, rather than a token gesture.

4.  These words separate out rather than connect. A conference on finance is of interest to students studying finance, but add the word sustainable to the beginning, or social, or environmental, and you may lose the majority of those finance students. Being interested in sustainability seems often to be seen as a choice, as an option in the same way as you choose to go into consulting versus finance, or study marketing versus human resources. Initiatives with the words linked to them often separate themselves—and the people involved in them—out from the rest of the organization.

So how can we start translating this language into action?

  • Choose which words you will use as a team or school and define them and ensure your community understands your approach to them. Break down these terms and focus in on the specific parts of these topics you are exploring. Just because you are focused on one, it doesn’t mean you are active in all. Each of these terms represents a range of issues and skills that are important and are all part of a quality educational programme.
  • Don't use the terms to separate out initiatives. Use them to make connections across disciplines, across faculties, across industries, across issues, and across students and staff.
  • Be consistent. A class about ethics can have limited impact if the school itself is not practicing what it teaches. Combine your sustainability strategy and your core strategy into one. Without this, one could very well undermine the other.
  • Go deeper. It isn’t enough to just have initiatives with ethics and responsible management language in the descriptions. Strengthen and build on them to explore how you can increase your impact.

Sustainability, ethics, and corporate social responsibility relate to everything that is taught and should be taught in a business degree. Perhaps it is time to stop referring to “all of this” as responsible management and just focus on quality education and what is now, increasingly, considered good management.

Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker on sustainability. Her most recent book is The Future MBA: 100 Ideas for Making Sustainability the Business of Business Education. Follow her on Twitter @gweybrecht.