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Management Knowledge Leading Positive Change: Are We Ready to Tip?

The sign of a tipping point emerged for me at exactly 3:11 pm, October 25, 2006. It was the closing ceremony of the Global Forum "Business as an Agent of World Benefit: Management Knowledge Leading Positive Change," convened by the Academy of Management (AOM), Case Western Reserve University, and United Nations Global Compact. In a casual, I-forgot-one-more-thing-during-my-thank-you-speech, AOM's President Ken Smith returned to the microphone and announced a joint effort to create "world benefit" principles for management education and research. Suddenly, it seemed that "tipping" the whole system of management scholarship was a reality just around the corner.

Surly, a new set of principles may not seem like anything of import -- after all, they are just words on paper. Yet, principles of operations, of design, of awareness represent a qualitative shift, as they are the blueprint of a system, including its decisions and actions. (I was taken once by the example of a sustainable design professor who talked about the dramatic differences that emerge when one introduces a new principle to the design of simplest things. "Just imagine", he said, "what a backpack would look like, if you add to the long list of design principles - durability, spaciousness, comfort, etc - just one more - the least number of elements used.")

But back to the story.

The announcement came as the perfect culmination to four days of intense Appreciative Inquiry conversations and action planning aimed at connecting the seemingly parallel worlds of business and academia in an effort to advance the role of business in society. Parallel indeed: while the number of stories of innovative business practices grows by the hour, the number of business schools positioning sustainability at the core of its curriculum remains stalled, and the research in the domain remains even more marginal. This situation is rather puzzling in the face of the survey results presented at the Forum by Liz Maw, Executive Director of Net Impact, suggesting that 78% of MBA students are eager to see sustainability embedded into management classes.

Fortunately, there are a number of recent developments, many of which were showcased during the Forum, providing an array of avenues that promises to bridge the business-academia gap. To name just a few:

  • Practical pedagogical "content" focusing on business and society issues continues to mount, making it easier to introduce new concepts and “how-to” advice in classrooms, executive education seminars, and corporate discussions., run by Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, offers a wide array of cases, modules, teaching notes on sustainable business practices and new paradigms. The BAWB Innovation Bank at Case Western Reserve University profiles 100+ innovations with proven record of creating mutual benefit for business and society. The Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan approaches the business and world benefit agenda from the inside-out of organizations, offering downloadable course syllabi for courses such as “Positive Organizing and Human Flourishing” and “Managing Organizational Change” - complete with full lists of readings and more. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development offers a wide array of reports and cases (including great videos) that provide food for thought to any group, large or small. And for all of us trying to anchor ourselves to one simple issue, Google may offer a good start with its Global Warming Student Speakout initiative, launched October 17, 2006.
  • New research in the domain continues to grow, and so do the avenues for disseminating the research results. The Academy of Management (did I mentioned they are the most impactful management research organization in the U.S.?) has selected “Doing Well By Doing Good” as a theme of the upcoming 2007 conference, and membership is not required to respond to the call for submissions. As to the search for research outputs, appears to be the most robust search engine with 5,000+ publications referenced.
  • Curriculum re-vamping efforts offer much hope, along with practical tools for those interested in re-energizing management education from kindergarten to the PhD level and beyond. Net Impact's Curriculum Change initiative offers best practices and resources for starting change locally. While the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education offers resources for members only, its work is worth consideration for those schools interested in joining. Beyond Grey Pinstripes, on the contrary, is a completely free outlet, which ranks international MBA programs on four criteria relevant to integration of social and environmental issues.

But back to the tipping point. As Dr. David Cooperrider, the mind behind the idea of a forum connecting business pioneers with the best of management academia, addressed the fifteen+ action groups that emerged during the forum, he shared a story of his son discovering that the planet is losing an average of 40 species every day, and asking “Daddy, what am I supposed to do with that?” I think the answer to this question hides a key to creating a tipping point in management scholarship and education. As the cascade of academic projects and business initiatives aimed at elevating the role of business in society continues to gain strength, they merge together into a wave bringing about systemic shifts that define the true change.

So, what is our next step? Do we come together to co-create the umbrella of new universal principles that guide our goals and aspirations? Do we dare openly question academic performance educators, rankings, publishing principles, and beyond? Do we make decisions with a set of different criteria? Do we listen to businesses and their soon-to-be employees - and our students – as they ask for new visions in curriculum and research? I think we are about to find out.


Nadya Zhexembayeva heads up the World Inquiry, an action research project of the Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit (BAWB) at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. A global effort, the World Inquiry aims to discover and share new ways for business to live in mutual benefit with the earth's ecosystems and the world's societies. Nadya served as the host of the Virtual Conference that extended the BAWB Global Forum to additional 500+ participants from all over the world.

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