For some people, business schools are not academic enough and for others too academic. Is our focus on knowledge advancement and generation, or is it on skills development? Are we here to develop and train the next generation of corporate leaders or are we focused on changing existing mind-sets?
Should we be researching best management practice (learning from what is happening) or encouraging ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking that radically turns the status quo on its head? Do we continue to teach the traditional subjects, given the tremendous shortage of management skills and capacity, or is the focus on the creation of an enabling environment by stressing leadership development? In any other case all capacity-building exercises are likely to happen in a vacuum.
As business schools question their raison d’être, we have discovered at Rhodes Business School that, unless one attempts to do this by thinking in an integrated fashion, any attempt to articulate a purpose is not likely to succeed.
Since 2004, we have attempted to give recognition to the responsible purpose of business by bringing environmental management courses into the mainstream MBA curriculum. Implicit in this was the recognition that organisations need to think about how they acquire, transform and exchange the products from and of natural capital in a way that the needs of future generations are not compromised.
Was this a seismic shift? At the time we thought it was. However, what was soon realised was that this approach could not be seen to be a ‘bolt-on’. It made no sense to continue to teach the traditional subjects of marketing and finance, strategy and people management in the normal way and then expose students to environmental management courses and expect them to make the links themselves.
The students began to question us, saying that it was all very well to expose them to climate change, but how does this impact on an entity’s marketing efforts? The planet is under threat, but how do we deal with poverty and skewed income distribution? How do we take advantage of these business opportunities in a way that benefits all stakeholders? How does one balance short-term financial expediency and long-term wealth gain?
These questions were indeed valid and necessary, but the more we thought about it, more often than not, the answers seemed to elude us.
In engaging with others within our own teaching faculty, we found that we ourselves were applying different interpretations of sustainability. In short, there were varying degrees of recognition given to what was seen to be obvious to some and less so to others.
A number of questions were also raised about the emphasis on the environment, which was perhaps prevailing over other equally important and significant issues, such as people as stakeholders in business.
As a result of these findings, in 2009 we embarked upon re-assessing the curriculum, which we discovered was a moving target. This gave rise to further questions.
Where does leadership fit? Should strategy be taught early on in the curriculum (a keystone subject) or at the end (a capstone subject)? How does one integrate sustainability into the functional subjects (like marketing for example), when sustainability itself is taught as a stand-alone subject? What are the necessary cross-functional subjects, like project management, sustainable supply-chain management and sustainability law? Where do they belong? While a number of academic colleagues were in all good faith trying to introduce sustainability into their subjects, the general consensus was that this was done in a manner that was too ad hoc and that it lacked the requisite degree of integration.
Standing back, we recognised that we needed to develop an integrated model to show how our philosophy was to be applied. Unbelievably it has taken us six years to realise that.
We acknowledge that the key notions underlying integrated thinking and integrated reporting and the articulation of a sustainable business model have had a profound impact on our thinking in this regard.
The model that we have developed is shown below in the figure. Already we see signs that an integrated approach is bearing dividends.
Integrated approach to management education
The model essentially highlights four Es, namely economy, ethics, ecology and equity. It does not attempt to raise the status of any of these dimensions above another. For instance, it acknowledges that without strong economies (financial sustainability), organisations will not survive. However, if this is pursued in a manner that is inequitable, compromises the environment or there is inadequate governance, success will not follow.
How does one make the necessary connection? The challenge and opportunity are to see how the respective dimensions are integrated with each of the other dimensions holistically.
For example, economy and equity require that we must be adept at core management practices – a customer-centric organisation, people-centred management and similar practices.
Economy and ethics require responsible leadership and governance that embrace meaningful stakeholder engagement.
Ethics and ecology usher in the notion that the business and moral case are not mutually exclusive and hence the focus is on how the business model works rather than how much money it makes.
Lastly ecology and equity show that leaders and managers view the world in a particular way. Opportunities to be sought are a positive sum game, and this requires profound thought leadership and research that articulates how all these components fit together.
The connection is shared values.
So as we begin our journey of integrated management education, it is our hope that business school graduates will develop the necessary integrated thinking that will embrace the four Es.
At Rhodes Business School our attempts to craft programmes and curricula; and our teaching, learning and research efforts, will all be approached by referring to this model of integrated thinking. For us, it is a bit of a ‘no-brainer’.