Think globally, act now

The great and the good of world business, finance, and politics met this week in the small Swiss resort of Davos, pledging to enact change and make a real difference to how the world works. But what is so different this time? Simon Linacre reports on his first visit to the World Economic Forum, and how business schools can play a pivotal role in changing the system.


It was 50 years ago when Dr. Klaus Schwab first invited business leaders to the small mountain retreat known as Davos, and since then it has grown into THE conference at which to see and be seen. Just over 3,000 lucky individuals are invited, with even fewer gaining the “access all areas” accreditation that gets you into sessions with the likes of Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, or Prince Charles. The whole performance is surreal, with limousines whisking delegates the shortest of distances through the traffic-clogged streets, and slightly bewildered-looking skiers and snowboarders look on.

From start to finish, there was a noticeable tension in the air. Security is high level, with airport-standard checks at hotels and conference centers and armed guards at every turn. There is also conflict around the critical issue of climate change – while President Trump declares the issue to be exaggerated, a huge sign has been carved into the snow for all those arriving by helicopter and train to see: ‘ACT ON CLIMATE’:

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Photo by Simon Linacre

There also seems to be a conflict in how to deal with climate change and other major issues facing business and management today, and these can be broadly put into two camps. One believes that compromise is the answer, and big business seems to have largely chosen this path in Davos, with everyone seeking to state their environmental credentials or how they are pursuing one of the key phrases of the event, ‘stakeholder capitalism’. An approach first espoused by Dr. Straub fully 50 years earlier at the inaugural event.

The other camp believes that the answer can only depend on change. And not just change, but radical change. An example of this was the launch of the Positive Impact Rating (PIR) in Davos, which is an attempt to rate business schools for students and by students. Over 3,000 of them were surveyed – the results can be seen at www.PositiveImpactRating.org – where 30 business schools were rated as either ‘progressing’ (Level 3) or ‘transforming’ (Level 4) in terms of societal responsibility and impact.  Many of the business school deans and business leaders present were in favor of such an approach, believing that if business schools are to have any credibility in a society where sustainable development goals (SDGs), climate change, and social responsibility play an increasingly important role, the time to change and act is now. PIR is part of a wave of organizations such as Corporate Knights, the UN Global Compact and PRME that recognize and promote progressive business and education practices that are now becoming mainstream.

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This approach is not without its critics, with some existing rating providers and business school leaders cautioning against too much change lest consistency and quality be ignored completely. These voices seem increasingly isolated and anachronistic, however, and there was a feeling that with a deadline of 2030 being set as the deadline for turning things around, business schools have to decide now whether they choose the path of compromise or change. If they are to remain relevant, it seems the latter has to be the right direction to take.

GBSN: Measuring the Impact of Business Schools

Business schools and the MBAs they teach have been reinvented on a regular basis almost since they began life early in the 20th century. However, Simon Linacre suggests that as the Global Business School Network meets for its annual conference in Lisbon this week, calls for a new approach might just be followed through


Another day, another business school conference. As a veteran of at least a dozen or so such events, then it is hard not to be a little cynical when reading about the conference theme set out on the website. Business schools need to change? Check. New programs being promoted? Check. Social running club at 7am on the first morning? Oh, that’s actually quite different.

The Global Business School Network (GBSN) is quite different. With a mission to “partner with business schools, industry, foundations, and aid agencies to improve access to quality, locally relevant management education for the developing world”, it’s focus is very much on a sustainable future rather than on shiny new MBAs for the privileged few who can afford them. As such, the theme of ‘Measuring the Impact of Business Schools’ is more than simply an on-trend marketing slogan, but rather a statement of purpose.

But despite its undoubted sincerity, can such an objective be achieved? The reason it just might is that it is very much aligned with a changing mood in business education. A recent report in The Economist referred to the development of a ‘New Capitalism’, where greed is no longer good and sustainability the imperative rather than simply growth. Evidence can be seen not just in the numerous business school deans being quoted in the piece, but in wider moves such as the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent pivot to adopt the Happiness Index as a metric for national development. The times they are a-changin’, as someone once said.

Ultimately, such changes may be as much to do with the bottom line rather than more altruistic motives. Recruitment in the US to MBAs is down, with students apparently becoming more demanding when it comes to what is being taught, with a focus on sustainability and wider impact at the top of the list. The mantra ‘doing well by doing good’ is not a new one, but perhaps we are entering an era where that shifts from just another strapline to becoming a true aphorism for change.

Cabells is supporting the GBSN event by hosting a session on research Impact for the Developing World. There are no preconceived ideas or solutions, just that the existing notions of impact are changing, and that each school needs to be laser-focused on investing in impact in the most relevant way for its own mission and purpose. Whatever business schools can therefore learn about measuring their impact will mean that the conference’s theme actually means something for once.