Graduate Learning for Business and Sustainability

Article excerpt

The task for business schools is to engage young leaders and give them a long-term vision of success that includes social responsibility. - William Clay Ford, Chairman, Ford Motor Company, 1999

I hope that all involved in the education of today's business students will develop and implement sustainable development educational strategies. - David Blunkett, UK Secretary of State for Education and Employment, 1999

INTRODUCTION

In a survey of 481 environmental and other business people in North America and Europe, consultants Arthur D Little discovered that only 17 per cent of respondents thought their businesses were "well down the road" towards sustainable development (Arthur D Little, 2000). But 95 percent recognized that sustainable development was important to them. When asked "where will a company have to make the most changes in order to implement a sustainable development approach throughout its organization" 53 per cent cited aligning and motivating staff. In late 1998 opinion research company Environics International conducted a survey of 1158 sustainable development experts across mainly OECD countries embracing government, the corporate sector, voluntary organizations, institutions (including academia) and consultants. Among the 114 respondents "education and training" was cited more frequently (66 per cent) than any other factor as the element of corporate social responsibility most important in their organizations (Env ironics International, 1999). From these statistics we may conclude that there is a significant opportunity to connect business needs to educational offerings in the fields of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. It is not the purpose of this paper to reprise the literature on the concept of sustainability as it relates to business strategy and operations. Neither is it our intent to offer detailed prescriptions for courses aimed at delivering more sustainable practices by business. However, we will describe the current policy framework for sustainability in higher education and we will review briefly the current state of the art in graduate level business and sustainability programs, with particular emphasis on North American and European experience. We will also offer some observations on what we consider to be promising trends and opportunities for the future. In order to frame our analysis, we will offer three propositions based on our understanding of the current business context for sustainability.

First, we would assert that the concept of sustainability, whilst still ambiguous in the definitional sense (Leal Filho, 2000), does offer a compelling strategic paradigm for guiding business in contributing to society's desire for balanced progress toward economic prosperity, social justice and environmental quality (Elkington, 1998). Indeed if we accept that the journey toward sustainability in the holistic sense requires exploration and innovation as much as prescription and planning, then definitional ambiguity is no bad thing. It frees the creative potential of the human mind and maximizes the potential for deeper learning, whether in the classroom or in the executive boardroom. Thus the challenge of sustainability fits well with contemporary theory on organizational development and personal learning (Morgan, 1986; Argyris, 1990; Senge 1990) as well as with the fields of chaos theory (Levy 1994; Stacey, 1996) and systems thinking (Clayton and Radcliffe, 1996; Capra, 1996).

Second, we would assert that as an integrated part of business strategy, sustainability has the potential to help deliver superior business performance -- especially in a more complex and rapidly globalizing economy. In our view, the best future business leaders will be those who can handle the multi-dimensional challenge of sustainability and the inter-related expectations of a variety of stakeholders with legitimate interests and contributions to make. These future leaders will see complex expectations as sources of learning and competitive advantage (Freeman, 1984; Porter, 1990; Wheeler and Sillanpaa, 1998; Hart, 1997) rather than as threats to be overcome. …