Educating our future business leaders: Beyond teaching as usual

Educating our future business leaders:  Beyond teaching as usual

Stefan Gröschl, Professor of Management at ESSEC Business School, draws upon his recently published article in The Journal of Business Ethics on developing tomorrow’s responsible leaders to propose a transformation of business schools’ curricula.  

Learning in Finland – and business as usual elsewhere 

This week Finland announced a major reform to its high school system abandoning disciplinary teaching and learning by 2020. In the future, Finnish students will study particular events and phenomena using a range of disciplinary knowledge simultaneously.  World War II will no longer just be discussed from a historical perspective, but students will also apply economic, political, geographical, philosophical and other lenses to explore this event. 

ESSEC Business School Professor Stefan Gröschl has recently published an article in the widely acclaimed Journal of Business Ethics proposing a similar teaching and learning approach complementing current business school education. Gröschl points out that there has been considerable criticism of business schools and the relevance of their curricula and teaching methods in preparing business leaders and decision-makers for the complex challenges that our planet has been facing for some time. Although attempts have been made by various schools to change educational models and approaches to better address the concerns of company leaders, business schools and the business community at large seem to continue to be driven by a doing business as usual paradigm that renders them sedentary bystanders of complex global socio-economic and environmental challenges.

Learning across, within, and beyond

Gröschl proposes a transdisciplinary teaching approach as a complementary educational perspective for preparing business school students in addressing these challenges and leading in a more responsible and sustainable way. The notion of transdisciplinarity proposes that there are many levels of reality across, within and beyond disciplines which are full of information essential for a comprehensive understanding or learning experience. The approach is inquiry-driven and presents a systemic/humanistic vision and form of awareness that challenge habitually dualistic – that is, the intellectual capacity to understand the “black and white” while missing out on the nuances between arguments – and simplistic thinking. Moreover, transdisciplinarity is based on a dialogical (i.e. learning through extended exchanges of different points of view and frames of reference) and translogical principle that extends classical and rigid logic and helps students to explore and unify concepts of a simultaneously complementary and contradictory nature (i.e. increasing economic growth by using fewer natural resources). 

A complex world requires courageous solutions

Talk to any business leader, manager or even employee today, and they will tell you that their environment is a complex one. Faced with a sheer mass of information, digital tools, multi-stakeholder project management, as well as complex hierarchical relationships across borders and cultures, they still have to provide effective decisions based not only on hard facts but also on ethics, values, instinct, politics and insight. Likewise, companies too face such complexity, not least in the domain of ethics and the decisions they implement that have an impact not only on business performance, but also society and the environment in the wider sense. For Gröschl, a key way to provide the capacity to effectively face this complexity is to confront students with different modes of thinking, imagining and feeling. This can help them to develop greater self-awareness, critical reflection and creativity, equipped with various frames of reference and with an openness toward, and confidence in, engaging in changes needed to address global challenges in a sustainable and responsible way.

It’s a long road, it’s a good cause

Gröschl highlights that there is still a long way to go for business schools to integrate transdisciplinary ideas and teaching modes. Transdisciplinary teaching methods complementing current business school curricula would mean accepting non-traditional business school academic profiles. Professors with liberal arts degrees and with backgrounds in philosophy, literature, and history could help bridge cultures of science and humanism while helping students to identify new ways of defining their own roles, purposes and missions and those of the organizations that they may lead in the future.  

Quite apart from the rather homogeneous student selection profiles, other factors such as professor tenure privileges and research agendas have also had implications on the static nature of business school education. Any move towards more transdisciplinary-oriented thinking amongst business school educators will depend on deans and business school leaders changing the structures and contexts in which business school educators work.  Other stakeholders that play a role in this process of change include accrediting bodies and disciplinary professional associations, which have often acted in a mutually reinforcing way, to maintain the status quo. Although not easy, they too, must undergo the tensions generated by transformation if they are to follow their core mission of being the guardians of quality education for millions of young people across the globe. Working hand-in-hand, as they do, with business schools to achieve this will only bring positive results.  

The shift is underway. ESSEC, for example, encourages creative learning experiences such as its iMagination Week that sees ESSEC students encountering practitioners and personalities from across the full spectrum of disciplines, professions, and cultures. But the road ahead poses something of a revolution for the tried and tested ways that have served – well enough – past business and management requirements but which now show proof of a certain breathlessness before the complexities of the 21st century. 



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