Do Educational Institutions have a Social Responsibility? By Dr Shashank Shah

One of the foremost priorities of management education is balancing the teaching of latest tools and techniques, with an exposure to an understanding of the social implications of various business theories, models and frameworks; and importantly the true purpose and objective of management as a profession. This can also be referred to as ‘Social Responsibility of Management Education’.

While many agree to this viewpoint, there are instances where this approach is used merely as a fashionable window dressing. I believe that the need to expose management students to this worldview is not because the corporate world is undergoing turmoil in recent times, but because the original purpose of business education, or for that matter any education in the West or the East, was to mould responsible corporate citizens, who through their profession, would play a constructive role in societal, national and global development. Given its scope, business education has the power to play a significant role in this regard.

Thought Leaders and World Institutions show the Way

In the article on ‘Creating Shared Value’, Professor Michael Porter from Harvard Business School highlighted the need for business schools to move beyond the training of management students in techniques of money-making and profit-maximization, to a more purpose-oriented business profession. They observed:

“Most business schools still teach the narrow view of capitalism, even though more and more of their graduates hunger for a greater sense of purpose and a growing number are drawn to social entrepreneurship… Business school curricula will need to broaden in a number of areas. For example, the efficient use and stewardship of all forms of resources will define the next-generation thinking on value chains. Customer behaviour and marketing courses will have to move beyond persuasion and demand creation to the study of deeper human needs and how to serve nontraditional customer groups… Business and government courses will examine the economic impact of societal factors on enterprises, moving beyond the effects of regulation and macroeconomics. And finance will need to rethink how capital markets can actually support true value creation in companies—their fundamental purpose—not just benefit financial market participants.”

An interesting initiative to create awareness towards a greater sense of purpose and societal sensitivity in management students, and to gain their lifelong commitment towards it, was the creation of a ‘Hippocratic Oath for Managers’, which would serve as a professional credo for MBA graduates. Professor Rakesh Khurana, Dean, Harvard College, and Professor Nitin Nohria, Dean, Harvard Business School, suggested that like the Hippocratic Oath for doctors or the oaths that attorneys take to be admitted to the bar, a management oath would outline values and ideals to which managers should commit themselves.

Many business schools such as Columbia Business School, Telfer School of Management among many others have embarked on a similar initiative. Interestingly, the initiative moved far beyond the campuses of a few premier business schools in the USA and was driven by a coalition of MBA students, graduates and advisors, including nearly 6,000 student and alumni signers from over 500 MBA programmes around the world, thereby highlighting the resonance generated by such an idea. It probably reflects a broader change in the priorities of the younger generation, with implications not just for business education but for the field of management as a whole.

In a quick repartee to this initiative, the Economist reported, ‘It was ridiculous that students who spent over US$ 100,000 on two years of study in an effort to get very rich were now keen to rebrand themselves as virtuous. Such naivety, if that is what it is, will not survive long beyond the university’s walls. But, the students may just be putting their marketing lessons into practice. They are entering the worst job market for graduating MBAs in decades. Many see non-profit and government jobs as their best bet. So embracing the ‘values agenda’ could prove useful.’  However, as Khurana and Nohria stated, I believe that the popularity of the oath might also reflect a broader change in the priorities of the younger generation, with huge implications not just for business education but for the field of management. Further, being virtuous and being rich is not a disjoint set of activities. Just because $100,000 have been spent for receiving management education in premier institutions, students need not adopt illegitimate means to recover their ‘investment’, as considered by some. I believe that virtue and success are closely inter-related, and business leaders who have followed the path of values have created successful and lasting business legacies in their lifetime. There are examples to support this belief both in India and overseas. Besides, there are many alumni from Ivy League business schools whose social business ventures have contributed to social welfare in good measure. The point of contention is not whether executive behaviour would change or not after taking such an oath. The issue I would like to emphasise is that the awareness that is created by such initiatives, about the larger purpose and objective of business management as a field of human activity, and of business managers as responsible professionals, is of much greater importance.

While the Oath at the Harvard Business School and other leading business schools in USA were among the first few institution-specific initiatives in this direction, the Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative proposed in 2007 as part of the United Nations Global Compact was among the first global multi-institution initiative. The main objective of the PRME has been to establish a process of continuous improvement among institutions of management education to develop a new generation of business leaders capable of managing the complex challenges faced by business and society in the 21st century. Any institution willing to integrate corporate responsibility and sustainability into management education and research in a gradual but systemic manner is welcome to join the initiative. By 2019, over 650 leading academic institutions from 85 countries including a third of the FT Top 100 business schools were signatories to the PRME initiative. Given their reach and international representation, this and such other initiatives could play an important role in re-defining and re-moulding the approach to management education across countries and continents. In my interaction with Jonas Haertle, former Head of the PRME in the UNGC Office at New York, he was highly positive about the reach and impact of this initiative.

Innovative Endeavours in India

Closer home in India, leading business schools have launched innovative initiatives for mid-career management executives. The Indian Institute of Management(IIM) Calcutta launched an executive training programme for CEOs and business leaders that draws upon a number of ancient Indian texts. These include the Bhagavad Gita, Ashoka’s inscriptions, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra, Kalidasa’s poetry and Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy, for equipping CEOs with social consciousness to successfully drive business ventures. The Bharathidasan Institute of Management, Trichy, tied up with Auroville, Puducherry, to offer a management development programme that draws upon Sri Aurobindo and his teachings to endow CEOs with a consciousness that transcends organizational, national and even human barriers. The IIM Kozhikode organized workshops called ‘Leadership Clinic’ led by its Director, Professor Debashis Chatterjee, that help senior managers, mostly high potentials future leaders, to delve into the power of the mind. The Indian School of Business Hyderabad conducted transformational leadership training that is a guided self-introspection programme relying heavily on Indian wisdom such as that contained in the Bhagavad Gita, and other Hindu and Buddhist literature. The programme is aimed at CEOs, managing directors and next generation of leaders in family-owned firms. Thus, premier management institutions have begun to focus on and contribute to executive education based on the finer values of life which have been highlighted in the ancient Indian scriptures for many millennia. On the other hand, Deemed Universities such as the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning established by Sri Sathya Sai Baba in Andhra Pradesh over three decades ago, is an example of niche yet successful higher educational institutions that integrate secular, social and spiritual insights towards providing a balanced curricular and co-curricular exposure to young minds.

Acknowledging the Real Achievers

There is also a need for such courses to form part of the regular management curriculum across B-schools in India and abroad, with culture-specific content. It is not necessary that the introduction of such courses would directly influence the behaviour and decision making of business students when they join corporations. I believe that these inputs would act like seeds sown in young minds, which given a fertile environment and the right opportunities, would sprout through their careers.

While there is a trend in business schools to invite speakers who have achieved great commercial success, they would do well by also inviting eminent individuals who have successfully contributed to societal development. When such leaders who have ‘walked the talk’ address young minds, it could have a positive impact on them, and inspire them to emulate their example. Issues relating to crisis management and managing dilemmas based on real-life situations and how they emerged victorious by finding win-win solutions in such situations would be most relevant in such sessions. In my book ‘Win-Win Corporations’ (published by Penguin Random House), I have emphasized and captured such win-win decisions by leading Indian corporations and their captains.

It is a practice at leading business schools, including Harvard, to felicitate outstanding and successful alumni during the annual graduation ceremony. Along with them, business schools could also acknowledge outstanding alumni that have substantially contributed to social and community wellbeing while achieving professional success. This would create positive aspirations in young students. I firmly believe that the dearth today is not of ideas and resources, but of role models. Business schools and institutions of higher learning need to redefine their existential role from churning out graduates with professional degrees to that of moulding individuals who would be change agents in society through their personal and professional example. Such catalysts would lead the way by defining success that balances commercial gains with a social conscience.

Dr Shashank Shah is a thought leader in the field of study at the cusp of corporate strategy and sustainability with over 100 national and international publications to his credit. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard Business School, Fellow and Project Director at Harvard University South Asia Institute, Visiting Scholar at Copenhagen Business School, Editor-in-Chief of Harvard University Postdoctoral Editors Association and Consulting Editor at The Business India Group. A recipient of the President of India and Governor’s Gold Medals for excellence in the MBA and M.Phil. programmes at Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, and of the AIMS International Outstanding Doctoral Management Student Award at IIM Ahmedabad, his highly acclaimed books‘Soulful Corporations’, ‘Win-Win Corporations’ and ‘The Tata Group’ were published in 2014, 2016 and 2018 by Springer and Penguin Random House.

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