Research Highlight Responsible management education: Moving a cow out of a ditch

The need for managers and CEOs with social responsibility and values is at an all-time high with no signs of slowing down in the near future. Will addressing this issue at the grassroots level provide us with the desperately needed change? Ezequiel Reficco and his co-authors examine the impact of the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) in business schools.

Responsible Management Education

While the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been around for a much longer time, mention of Corporate Social Performance (CSP) has been increasing since the 1970s. The difference between the two, although subtle, is significant. A critical component of the CSP construct is ‘social responsiveness’, or the capacity of an organization to adapt its behaviour to social needs.

At this point, it is a no-brainer to stress the importance of going “beyond knowledge” in managerial education to encompass the development of socially desirable attitudes and values by educating students as stewards of society. It would be worthy to argue that civic behaviour can and should be developed in classes and beyond.

In a time where studies of social responsibility focus exclusively on private companies, there has emerged a new area of intellectual enquiry – Responsible Management Education – which looks at the extent to which business schools (B-schools) deliver in response to their stakeholders’ demands.

Principles of Responsible Management Education in B-Schools

Globally, the UN PRME agenda has been gaining increasing traction over the last few years. This is particularly evident and important in B-schools, since they churn out thousands of graduates every year who go on to lead and influence virtually every type of organization – with each and every one of them having the opportunity to impact what our future will, or will not, look like.

Another factor that has contributed strongly to PRME, especially in African B-schools, has been high-profile corruption scandals in both the public (the Gupta state capture) and private (McKinsey, Bain & Company and Steinhoff are three prominent and recent cases) sectors.

The higher the B-school in terms of prestige, the more they felt pressure from society to include responsible management in their education

These scandals have put pressure on business schools to go beyond technical education and internalize the values of ethical and sustainable development. It is also interesting to highlight from our research that the higher the B-school in terms of prestige, the more they felt pressure from society to include responsible management in their education.

However, the PRME commitments are not without challenges. It entails a fundamental rethinking of a B-school, going from “a training centre for functional specialists” to a place that “helps to improve organizations and companies in their functionality for society”. Have there been any effects of the PRME agenda in B-schools, and if yes, what exactly has changed?

Business schools and a new role

The key finding of the research is that in the last decade, B-schools have changed the way they perceive their self-assigned role in society towards a value-based education of leaders. Almost all the schools that were studied by Ezequiel Reficco and his fellow researchers reported internal changes that were a direct result of the new role they had adopted.

It is interesting to note that this new role was adopted due to a combination of two groups of factors: the first group of factors revolves around national debates (crisis in values, demands for ethical leadership, climate change crisis, corruption scandals) and the second set emanates directly from immediate stakeholders (student demand and pressure from companies for sustainability content).

It is hard not to look at this new role of B-schools as a victory

On a practical level, the implementation of this new role has different dimensions and depths. While changes in content and methodologies to include social values are the most common reform, there are also deeper changes in strategy and pedagogy as well as the schools’ administrative structures.

It is hard not to look at this new role of B-schools – and more importantly, the coming together of national debates with the local stakeholders’ insistence on creating a more holistic environment for future managers and CEOs – as a victory, albeit the first and a small one, for the PRME agenda.

Educating ‘About’ Sustainability vs Educating ‘For’ Sustainability

As serene and beautiful as it feels to imagine a world where people and organizations make the right choices not just for themselves but for the environment and humanity as a whole, currently we are a long way from that world. And in our world, rare is the noble initiative that will be accepted and followed honestly and selflessly.

Despite a strong incentive to issue clear signals in favour of sustainability to their stakeholders, some schools may decouple their espoused commitments from their practices. De-coupling is when B-schools don’t institute actual changes and include sustainability in organizational activities, but rather merely indicate that such change is taking place.

Anyone who has had even the slightest interaction with a B-school would know how concerned they are about the school’s ranking. It is a welcome sign that more and more rankings are considering sustainability and social responsibility as key criteria in their evaluation of a school – since schools would invest in such activities for their reputation. The same is true for accreditation bodies – most of the most recent revisions of standards and principles of accreditation agencies place much more focus on sustainability and impact.

How to move a cow out of a ditch

Jako Volschenk uses an anecdote from his youth to explain the push and pull factors that can move business schools towards positive societal impact. To move a cow from a ditch requires someone to push and someone to pull the cow.

While research shows that a new and more progressive generation of students represent a pull force on business schools, the PRME play a critical role in pushing schools towards constantly evolving needs and expectations. Progressive schools lead the way for others to follow.

For Ezequiel Reficco and his fellow researchers, it is imperative that B-schools instil a socially responsible mindset and thought process in students while they are in their studies. Current cohorts of students are the future leaders of business, and should be educated to be stewards of society, and not just future money-making machines. 

This article is based on a research paper presented at the The 2020 Business Association for Latin American Business Studies Annual Conference and currently under review. It was originally published by the Council on Business & Society.


Ezequiel Reficco - ESCP Business School Ezequiel Reficco Associate Professor at ESCP Business School (Madrid campus)
Carlos Andres Trujillo Carlos Andres Trujillo Professor at School of Management, Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia)
Maria Helena Jaen Maria Helena Jaen Honorary Professor at School of Management, Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia)
Jako Volschenk Jako Volschenk Senior lecturer in Strategy & Sustainability at Stellenbosch Business School (South Africa)
Azlan Amran Azlan Amran Associate Professor & Dean at Graduate School of Business, Universiti Sains Malaysia