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Alumni Debate: Discussing the classroom and work experiences in management for a sustainable future

A deep reflection on management for a sustainable future is critical as a new generation is entering a turbulent world of work with an ever-increasing need for sustainability-oriented decision-makers. The higher education system should spearhead this reflection, as it prepares students to become managers and leaders of tomorrow.  At the same time, universities and business schools undoubtedly should engage with different stakeholders that can inform and support higher education institutions to better equip young people to meet the needs of sustainability in their day-to-day work environment.

We wanted to reach out to young professionals in order to understand their needs and learn about their views on the role of higher education in bridging the gap between sustainable and current management practices: Have they benefited from what they learned at university? What would they have wanted to hear in the classroom about management and sustainability? When pursuing their career, what do they miss in current management practices? Is their organization able to deal with global sustainability challenges?

To find answers to these questions, on 28th March 2019, oikos organized an alumni debate that was attended by our former members onsite in Geneva as well as online. After leaving universities or Business Schools, oikos alumni start their careers in various fields and carry along with their oikos experience. They work for international organizations, start-ups or SMEs, multinational corporations, in government or for NGOs. The alumni debate gathered participants from Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, Georgia, India, Netherlands, and Switzerland. The informal setting provided a safe space for the professionals shaping today’s world of work to share experiences and learn from each other.

The unique mixture of people allowed for an enriching debate. The alumni expressed their views on sustainability in management and tried to pinpoint the strengths and shortcomings of management education. We started with each alumni presenting their organization/company and sharing their stance on the subject. They talked about how and to what extent their company was considering sustainability in its actions and management practices and answered sharp critical questions posed by fellow attendees.

oikos alumni almost unanimously expressed that their knowledge on sustainability came from their own curiosity, through engagements with oikos or talks with like-minded people who further inspired them to deepen their understanding of the subject. Despite their diverse educational backgrounds, participants from Switzerland to India seemed to agree that, during their education, they had learned only key sustainability concepts, like the triple bottom line.

Some of the alumni also shared that making a decision on a right bachelors or masters program was challenging for them. An even bigger challenge, however, came when they needed to make a decision aligning their values with their job. The key questions our members asked themselves was: “Should I work for a traditional multinational company and try to bring the change towards sustainability from within or should I work for/create a start-up with sustainability at the core of its business model?”

According to the alumni, some of the things they would have appreciated to learn more about during their studies are: how to bring the change in companies, campaign within an organization, create a convincing storyline and pitch concrete actions to stakeholders (e.g top management).

There is an unsurprising expectation that the relationship between the classroom and the world of work has to be symbiotic, since the two domains influence and shape each other. There has, however, always been certain divergence, as the education system does not always meet the demands of the time. In recent years, the divergence might be best exemplified by the lack of leaders who are ready to respond to the sustainability challenges in the real work environment. Different initiatives, therefore, were brought forward to overcome the discrepancy.

The fact that the World Economic Forum (WEF) has developed the World Economic Forum’s System Initiative on Shaping the Future of Education, Gender and Work perfectly shows there is a need of developing interactions between the education and the business world. WEF ‘seeks to ensure that talent is developed and deployed for maximum benefit to the economy and society […] by driving action, especially through collaboration between business, government, civil society, and the education and training sector, at the global, industry and regional level’.

Recently, at the WEF 2019 at Davos, the United Nations Global Compact presented a report on ‘Business School Rankings for the 21st Century’, where they laid out concrete recommendations for international accreditation and ranking systems to evolve and help align business school education with the needs of our century. Currently, several initiatives try to improve existing or create potential new rankings.

In 2007, the UNGC launched an initiative to specifically tackle the topic of responsible management in the higher education system: the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME). PRME aims to raise the prominence of sustainability across the globe and enable business students to deliver change.

In parallel, the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI) aims to integrate ‘responsible leadership and practice in organizations and societies worldwide’. It has developed the 50+20 movement which ‘seeks to learn of new ways and opportunities for management education to transform and reinvent itself by asking critical questions about the state of the world, the emerging societal issues, the dominant economic logic, the purpose of business, the crucial role of leadership, and the challenges facing management education’.

These initiatives show that the world of work and education are getting close to each other. In this process, the experience of bewilderment of current or former students with their education has to be considered as well. oikos and organizations like ours ensure that the voice of the student is heard even when they leave the walls of their home universities.  Now, we believe, it is out turn to lead, discuss, find and implement solutions that could bridge the gap between sustainability and management.