The Socially Responsible Business School: Corporate Compromise or Competitive Advantage?

David Oglethorpe

Professor David Oglethorpe is Dean of Sheffield University Management School in the UK and has a long-term involvement in sustainability and related issues.

David Oglethorpe argues that business schools need to embrace social responsibility more enthusiastically than they have done so far.

Last year’s EFMD publication Securing the Future of Management Education by Thomas, Lee, Thomas and Wilson made plain that business and management education needed a paradigm shift.

The publication drew together a narrative that implied business and management schools were complicit in the financial crisis of 2007-2008 through the delivery over many years of financially motivated, risk-driven business education and through the promotion of what the book called “casino capitalism”, lacking an ethical and moral compass.

This had to change, the authors said, requiring the development of students who were not just hired hands but had higher aims that reflect the EFMD 2012 manifesto prerequisite that “issues of ethics, moral responsibility and sustainability should be embedded in the core curricula of management education as well as in the broader practices of schools”.

The notable addition of commentary required around ethics, social responsibility and sustainability in each dimension of self-improvement and a distinct chapter requirement for EQUIS accreditation documentation also reflects this.

However, the notion of social responsibility (as a catchall phrase for ethical, moral and sustainable dimensions) as a virtue in both business and business schools still tends to polarise.

On the one hand, it is seen as something additional that “we must do” to ensure acceptability, respectability and market resilience – a corporate compromise, if you like.

On the other, it is seen as something that has become an integral means of doing business, something that inherently adds value, enables product differentiation, improves productivity and creates competitive advantage.

This was reflected in the 2013 ABIS/EFMD survey into the extent to which issues relating to environment, society, governance and economy (ESGE) have become a priority for management education.

One would expect that the “compromise” position may be occupied by those who accept that the issues have become more important but who are relatively passive in their engagement with them.

Equally, those who see these issues as delivering competitive advantage might be expected to have integrated them as key messages within their mission statements.

The survey suggested that 82% of business school deans agree that such issues had moved to the mainstream in management research and education but only 42% of deans thought that business schools were “close enough to the corporate ESGE agenda to formulate an appropriate response”.

For faculty members, the figures were lower but again very much reflected a split vote (61% and 37% respectively). The proportion of faculty who thought that the ESGE agenda was fully integrated into their institution’s mission, values and sense of purpose, was 52%, clearly, an evenly balanced dichotomy.

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