How would you describe the work of business schools? Most people go straight to the teaching. Business schools teach business and management through a wide range of degree programs and executive education, helping learners to build and navigate careers as managers. Those more familiar with the industry add that business schools conduct objective and rigorous research to inform practicing managers and policy makers, as well as support teaching. In short, business schools develop skills, insights, and opportunities for organizations and the people who manage them.
Of course, this work has private benefit to learners and companies. But there also is a public benefit. By improving organizational performance and educating citizens about business and management, business schools contribute to economic and social development. We believe the connection between what business schools do and the progress we make in society is strong; and that is why the responsibility of business schools has been hotly debated over the years. Indeed, our belief in the strength of this connection is why we put so much effort into improving and expanding management education. If we can raise the standards of quality for business schools, continuously align what they teach to the needs of business and society, assist them to share ideas and practices about research and teaching, and improve access to quality management education, the whole world would be better off.
But what if I told you that this framework is incomplete and we have been underestimating the social impact of business schools as a consequence. In fact, there is a third part to the work of business schools and it has been growing. It has a more direct impact and happens when students, faculty, and staff work together with and for their communities. It often focuses on a specific problem, involves a shared purpose or objective, and serves as a catalyst for innovation and improvement. Let’s call this work engagement.
There are at least three types of business school activities that fall into this category of work. First, through projects and competitions involving business school learners (students and scholars) schools directly address problems and opportunities that are relevant to business and society. This might be a straight business innovation challenge. Or it might involve students at Universitas Gadjah Mada contributing to village development projects in East Indonesia or project teams at Strathmore University Business School developing renewable energy solutions in Kenya. Or it might be something like Oxford Saïd’s Map the System, which is a global competition that challenges and supports students to understand problems in a wider context by “exploring, probing, and researching all the connecting elements and factors around it.”
Second, through entrepreneurship initiatives business schools are directly catalyzing innovation and new business creation—making jobs and not just filling them. In MIT Sloan’s REAP program partner regions form multi-disciplinary teams to work on action-learning activities to enhance their innovation ecosystems. The Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut offers the Global Scaleup Program and numerous schools are engaging in serious social innovation initiatives. We could go on, as business schools have significantly expanded their work in entrepreneurship.
Third, through capacity building projects business schools have been expanding and improving management education worldwide. Some have built campuses to serve developing regions or programs to serve indigenous, or refugees, or other marginalized communities. Others have reached out online to provide open access to education or research. Still others have been committed to the professional development of new faculty and administrative leaders or providing consultative advance through platforms such as accreditation.
While these kinds of activities are not new, they have been growing. One reason is that the future of business schools is experiential — and experiences are created through engagement. As content becomes more open and accessible, it is through experiences that universities and business schools will continue to create value. It is the way established business schools will differentiate themselves from other providers of education. It is how business schools will thrive in the changing environment of higher education.
The focus of engagement activities has been shifting too. Increasingly, experiential activities are addressing social problems as much as business ones. Because of this shift business schools are having a more direct impact on communities and people, and are changing the worldview about the role and purpose of business.
Teaching, research, and engagement are now like three legs of a stool. It has always been hard to imagine proper teaching without quality research. Now it is hard to imagine proper teaching without an array of meaningful field experiences from which to learn. And it is hard to think that students and scholars will create much value for society in engagement activities without effective teaching and research. Finally, in the accelerating world of business, it is getting harder to believe useful research can be generated by scholars who do not engage in activities that provide access to relevant problems and data.
The engagement work of business schools is what drives the Global Business School Network. So I am happy to say that we are growing too. For 17 years we have been involved with capacity building for the developing world, working with business schools (as well as companies, governments, and NGOs) to improve access to quality management education. Now we are connecting schools in ways that amplify the economic and social benefits of their engagement activities, such as student projects, case competitions, and entrepreneurship initiatives. By working together through GBSN the collective impact of our partner schools is greater than the sum of their individual contributions. We invite you to learn more about the Global Business School Network and the difference our member schools are making at our Annual Conference, 6-8 November, in Lisbon.
Dan LeClair is the Chief Executive Officer at the Global Business School Network. Widely recognized as a thought leader in management education, Dan is the author of over 80 research reports, articles, and blogs, and has delivered more than 170 presentations in 30 countries.