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Back to School for Business Education: The Responsible Management Curriculum Tree

Submitted by Dr. Alex Hope BSc (Hons) PhD MA AIEMA MCMI FHEA

This is the most recent article in our series "Education for a Sustainable Future". For more articles, go to http://www.csrwire.com/blog/series/86-education-for-a-sustainable-future/posts

The world is changing rapidly and new demands face business leaders to deal with the planet and environment more sustainably, to deal with the numerous societies their organisations operate in more equitably and with greater cultural understanding, and to be more open, transparent and responsible with respect to their stakeholders. Recent events such as the credit and banking crisis alongside a seemingly regular stream of corporate scandals have led to renewed debate as to the legitimate nature and purpose of business in society. However It is also important to recognise that business represents the predominant productive resource of the economy providing financial and human resources, infrastructure, innovation and technology: thus sustainable development cannot be achieved without the support of business. 

Many are now calling for a new approach from the people who manage and run businesses away from the profit orientated exploitative business practices of the past, towards a new model of ‘responsible management’. Accordingly, attention has turned to whether current management education is adequate to equip and develop future leaders with the requisite skills to meet changing business and societal demands. This, coupled with the fact that business school education continues to grow in popularity amongst both undergraduate and postgraduate students, has put pressure on higher education institutions to ensure that graduates leave with the skills, knowledge and values associated with responsible management.

As business re-examines its role in society, business schools must also examine their contribution and thus the range and depth of responsible management topics within the teaching curricula. Despite much research activity in topics such as business ethics and corporate social responsibility and increasing interest in responsible management education driven by initiatives such as the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education (UN PRME), holistic integration of such issues into undergraduate business school curricula remains rare. This is why many business schools are undertaking programmes to realign their curriculum, research and engagement activities around the core concept of responsible management and increase the range and depth of responsible management topics.

My own developing contribution to this agenda is the Responsible Management Curriculum Tree, a conceptual framework which seeks to set out a blueprint for business school curriculum design that integrates learning, teaching and assessment strategies that engage students of all disciplines with the PRME and responsible management agenda. The framework is built on the premise that sustainability and responsible management topics can function to build a bridge across disciplines and integrate the business curriculum as a whole by promoting holistic understanding and systemic thinking. The curriculum tree seeks to operationalise and embed the PRME and UN Global Compact principles into undergraduate business curricula as it is at this level that student numbers are increasing rapidly and thus a greater number of students may be reached than at postgraduate level.

The key to the framework is that it seeks to integrate with and complement existing curriculum structures that have evolved within business schools over many years. The analogy of the tree is useful and it provides multiple metaphor for explaining the relationships between business and society, whilst allowing for the articulation of core concepts and addressing discipline specific issues.

The Responsible Management Curriculum Tree (Authors own)

The framework is broken down into four main levels which represent elements of the tree: the Roots, Trunk, Branches and Leaves. The roots of the curriculum tree represent grounding, impact, history and connectivity. It is here that the role of business in society can be articulated and critiqued. Here the dominant shareholder value perspective held by many students arriving in the business school is challenged. They are exposed to a range of different perspectives and encouraged to think critically about the relationship between business and society. Here the prevailing context is why business exists, as well as why are the challenges that society faces relevant to business and the role of business in creating, but also solving these problems.

The Trunk represents core concepts, strength, dependability and theory. Here the principles and norms of business can be examined and critiqued. The focus is on what business does, how it operates, the functional hard and soft skills that managers and leaders require day to day. Students are challenged to articulate what responsible management looks like across a range of business and management job roles, functions and departments. For example, what is the role of the Human Resources Department of an organization from a responsible management perspective?

The branches of the tree allow for range and breadth, the exploration of multiple pathways, and discipline specific issues. Here the focus may be on how do, and how should business disciplines and functions deal with responsible management. For example, how are material sustainability risks identified, examined and addressed in business Strategy or Operations. Students are challenged to design strategic responses to a range of sustainability and societal challenges.

Finally the leaves of the tree represent innovation, new opportunity and future developments. Here the focus is on where are the opportunities for business and where will business sit in relation to society in the future. Students can be challenged to imagine new business models for sustainable development, responsible innovation pathways and social business.

I am not suggesting that this concept is perfect and can solve the problem of integrating sustainability issues into business school programs, and it represents a work in progress, however we desperately need innovative solutions and new approaches to inspire a new generation of business leaders to solve some of the problems that current and past generations have left for them. 

This is the most recent article in our series "Education for a Sustainable Future". For more articles, go to http://www.csrwire.com/blog/series/86-education-for-a-sustainable-future/posts

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