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No more business as usual: in ‘The Great Reset’ business schools must lead the way

Business schools have a major role to play in what the World Economic Forum calls “The Great Reset” as the world adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic. To contribute to their full potential, business schools must change. So too must universities and the businesses that support and engage with them.

Much of the focus on universities during the pandemic has understandably been on the crucial work of developing vaccines and medical equipment, and on fields such as epidemiology. Business schools can valuably contribute to these efforts too. For example, with their expertise in managing supply chains, operations and logistics they can advise on the massive challenge of manufacturing and distributing billions of vaccines, and scrutinising the integrity and ethics of vaccine testing and rollout.

Beyond these immediate challenges, business schools can help businesses redefine their purpose in the post-pandemic world. That starts with re-examining dated models, many of which have been driven since the 1970s by the mantra of maximising shareholder value.

Read more: It's a myth that companies must put shareholders first – coronavirus is a chance to make it stop

Business schools possess expertise in fields as diverse as assessing and managing risk in highly uncertain circumstances, and in rebuilding trust with stakeholders that might have been adversely affected by the health crisis. Business schools can draw on their expertise in change management, organisational development, human resources and information systems to help sustain different patterns of organisation and work, including more decentralised decision-making and working from home.

Business schools must change

The mission of business schools has evolved. Today their horizons have expanded towards improving well-being in society. Their stakeholders extend beyond students and businesses to include governments and not-for-profits.

Read more: What are we teaching in business schools? The royal commission's challenge to amoral theory

Business schools were already under pressure to respond to the pace of change in technology, competition and social expectations. COVID-19 has provided impetus to rise to the call for business to lead social change.

The World Economic Forum is calling for a new form of capitalism, one that puts people and planet first, to rebuild the world after COVID-19.

The key to meeting lofty stakeholder expectations is significant change management. Business schools need to become fully and authentically committed to resolving problems affecting not just business, but humanity as a whole. Central to their agendas should be applying all their knowledge and skills to dealing with wicked problems such as climate change, ethics and fairness, and disruption by digital technologies and artificial intelligence.

Read more: Vital Signs: a 3-point plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050

Business schools are now moving to focus on societal impact through closer research engagement with industry and society. Increasing philanthropic, government and student demand is driving this shift.

The University of Queensland Business School, for example, has established research hubs in trust, ethics and governance, and in business sustainability. Imperial College Business School has a program on the economics and finance of climate change.

Such changes are not assisted when the metrics of success in business schools continue to focus on ranking systems largely driven by graduate salaries, with a 40% weighting in the FT Global MBA rankings, for example. Corporate social responsibility and ethics have a 3% weighting.

Vitally important will be the ways business schools encourage the innovation and entrepreneurship that will create the new businesses and jobs to replace those lost during the pandemic. As well as stimulating and guiding start-ups, business schools can advise existing businesses on how to adjust to the new realities. Their expertise in governance, leadership and strategy can help businesses build the diverse capabilities they need to thrive in turbulent and ambiguous environments.

Read more: Brands backing Black Lives Matter: it might be a marketing ploy, but it also shows leadership

Stakeholders also need to change

Business schools attract large numbers of students. They have continued to do so in many universities throughout the epidemic. This means they commonly account for a large share of university fee income.

For business schools to contribute to The Great Reset, they need more than juste retour, or simply getting back from university budgets the income they attract. They need full recognition and support for the role they can play in creating the new and emerging world. Universities have to move beyond seeing business schools as cash cows to being jewels in their crown.

Research funders should consider how business school perspectives add value to research projects in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. From the economics and operations of drug development and new energy sources, to business approaches to diversity and equality, to the marketing of the arts, business schools have much to offer.

COVID-19 represents a tipping point for business schools to use their expertise to reset, reinvent and relaunch their role in promoting ethical and sustainable business practices. As well as being valuable sources of short-term advice, business leaders should use their links with business schools to discuss, reflect upon and adjust their long-term vision and strategy. There is much benefit for business, for example, in learning along with business schools about how responses to the COVID-19 crisis can be applied to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Business schools are testing sites for the creation of more ethical, dynamic and trustworthy leaders who in turn can influence broader societal issues.

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