How can business schools respond to student engagement?

How can business schools (CE) respond to growing challenges such as those seen this year during commencement speeches at AgroParisTech, Polytechnique, Sciences Po or even HEC Paris?

In an interconnected world, weakened by inequalities, dominated by a neoliberal ideology, would these schools have lost their “reason for being” at the exact moment when companies create “social missions”? How, then, can they contribute to changing the process of reproduction and improvement of existing systems centered on consumption and endless profit to move towards greater respect for all men and women?

It is clear that “adding” courses on ethics, responsible behavior, green finance, etc., as important as they are, does not seem to be enough to contain the many scandals and “ethical excesses” that still unfold in organizations. The crisis is institutional and systemic. It is denounced by many researchers, the most striking example being the (open) letter of resignation from Laurent Lieven who left the faculty of management sciences at UCLouvain last September, clearly explaining the collective denial and inertia of schools/universities in the face of the “dangers” of the current model.

birth trauma

Business schools were born to respond to the need expressed by companies to train their executives in the needs of trading in a world that during the 20th century becameand twentieth century, (neo)liberal and globalized. Harvard-inspired teaching methods and integration into industrial networks that demand efficiency have strongly shaped its operation. With that in mind, the operational character of the classes focused on the search for solutions to meet the demand for a standardized, decontextualized, even depoliticized action to be easily applicable.

In a recent collective work, we expose the paradoxes that business schools are confronted with today. We have selected three that seem urgent to resolve:

I am… therefore I am: while the economic, social and biological environment signals its limits to human activity and demands new understandings, we witness the veneration – even the deification – of managerial individuals who feel (all) powerful.

Uncertainty removed: Although the universe is unstable, unpredictable and uncertain, there is still a preference for linear models and deductive approaches. Quantification gives the illusion of knowledge, understanding and control and therefore of risk minimization; forgetting that even indicators are political. Standardized knowledge does not support uncertainty.

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The simplistic path to complexity: while many authors evoke the need for a global vision, learning remains mostly compartmentalized within the framework of different disciplines, in a utilitarian and immediatist logic of knowledge. Future workers are specialized, modeled “à la carte”, and little confronted with the globality of the studied problems. For example, whoever is in charge of a marketing problem may neglect pollution issues, as these do not always fit into their missions and, at best, the responsibility falls on another actor with other criteria.

Rethinking business schools

To get out of these paradoxes, it seems at least necessary to rethink the strategic positioning choices of business schools: why do they educate and what contributions do they bring to their stakeholders and to society as a whole? For this, three paths seem relevant to us:

It is, above all, about placing respect for the living and the redefinition of the common good at the center of economic and managerial reflection. This will call into question certain evidences that are active in the management world (for example, cost is a specific and objective reality, shareholders are the owners of the company, needs are hierarchical according to Maslow’s pyramid, we cannot manage something that cannot be measured , etc.). This presupposes, therefore, promoting multiple thinking through a transdisciplinary and transtheoretical approach (another way of conceiving “departments”, courses, privileging clinical approaches, etc.).

It is, then, a matter of carrying out a critical work on the dominant knowledge. A rupture with the evidence of neocapitalism (competition, competition, specialization, individualism, offensive) and a sharper attention to understanding the problems pointed out by the actors seems necessary. This can be done with a systematic consideration of the three-dimensional character (environmental, social and psychological) of action contexts. For example, issues of dismissal, relocation, choice of materials, etc. would be analyzed – and therefore resolved – differently. Maybe start by opening a real debate about the management gurus in the same courses.

Finally, individual awareness continues to be essential: The model of the winner, the leader, the entrepreneur who manages to save “his skin” in a society that incriminates “losers” must be fundamentally questioned in pedagogy; it would therefore be useful to re-elaborate the conditions of “excellence” (Awards, competitions, quantitative evaluation systems, QCM, etc.).

In short, schools must therefore support a movement towards a new “managerial world” that is responsible and aware of the finiteness of resources. The structural changes of CEs (from providing ready-to-implement solutions to guides for complex and contextualized thinking) can contribute to the emergence of new economies where people, living organisms and the Earth will again be powerfully united.

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