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Business schools get engaged with the SDGs

On Sept. 25, all 193 member states of the United Nations adopted a plan for a path to achieve a better future for all, to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and protect the planet. A set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 related targets were presented that address the most important economic, social, environmental and governance challenges and that will help guide national priorities over the next 15 years.

Unlike its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire at the end of 2015, the SDGs were developed through the largest global consultation process with a wide range of stakeholders, including business through the U.N. Global Compact as well as business schools through the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME). Although progress was made on the MDGs, which started in 2001, the SDGs represent a much more complete path forward and, despite the increased complexity of having 17 goals instead of just seven, look to enjoy a much larger acceptance and push for action, in particular by business.

Why should business schools care?

Although government plays a key role in advancing the goals, it is business that will be instrumental in the success of the individual targets through the way they operate, develop new business models, invest in communities, innovate and collaborate. For companies, successful implementation of the SDGs will strengthen the enabling environment for doing business, minimizing increasing risks while also providing a myriad of new opportunities.

As business takes these issues more seriously, business schools need to as well, to stay ahead of the game or risk being left even further behind.

As such, it is business schools that will play an even more crucial, perhaps currently undervalued, role in the successful implementation of the SDGs. Business schools should be seen as a key enabler for all the goals to transpire. The daily decisions made around the world that influence the goals directly or indirectly are made by business school alumni or teams they work with or are based on academic research. As business takes these issues more seriously, business schools need to as well, to stay ahead of the game or risk being left even further behind. Business schools should be aligning with global priorities; they no longer can afford to sit on the side and watch.

How can business schools engage?

First of all, the SDGs should not be seen as being separate from business. This isn’t about philanthropy, volunteering, development or problems happening somewhere else. All 17 Global Goals, as they are increasingly called, affect and are impacted by all aspects of traditional business currently taught and researched in business school all around the world.

As educators of today’s and tomorrow’s managers and leaders, it is important that all students know and understand the SDGs and their relevance to business, both in terms of risks and opportunities. Embedding these in useful and relevant ways across the core curriculum of any and all programs is important. Creating the next generation of responsible leaders is already increasingly part of most business schools’ mission statements and goals. This is how they actually can put that into practice.

Business school research capabilities are an underused resource by both the business and global community when it comes to advancing sustainability.

Business schools and, in particular, centers and faculty (as well as associated journals) should see the SDGs as an opportunity to align their research priorities in and around the goals. For the business sectors around the world that are increasingly committed to the goals, many are still coming to grasps with how they will engage and what they can do. The new goals help shift research in a direction that is more relevant to business and society today, a criticism of much of the research currently coming out of business schools. Business school research capabilities are an underused resource by both the business and global community when it comes to advancing sustainability.

The SDGs, with their long time frame and challenges for implementation, provide a range of new opportunities to develop and implement innovative partnerships with businesses of all sizes. This includes new programs, case studies, projects and events to name but a few. Schools can become a safe platform to bring together different players, have the important discussions and move issues forward.

The goals are yet another strong message for business schools to increase work across disciplines within the business school, and expand and collaborate deeper with other non-business disciplines. The world around business schools is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and so business schools need to be as well. No challenge, business or otherwise, can be solved with one kind of thinking alone.

Aligning academic institutions with the goals, ensuring that they are implemented on campus, is also important, as is looking beyond the campus at the community in which they are located and extending these efforts there.

Last but not least, business schools should engage faculty, staff and students in discussions happening with government, NGOs and business around SDG-related topics locally, nationally, regionally and internationally. AACSB provides a platform to have some of these discussions, as does PRME and the U.N. Global Compact.

What's next?

The specific indicators around the 17 goals are still being developed and will be finalized in March. The goals themselves will officially start Jan. 1 and will go until 2030. Seventeen goals and 169 targets may seem overwhelming, but real change is complex and multidimensional.

It is easy to be sceptical, but business schools have a responsibility to translate this important global plan into something that resonates with their community. The SDGs should become common language for all business school students. The impact business schools can have today and over the next 15 years, combined with the impact of the growing AACSB network of schools, is indeed a powerful force.

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