Why a Business School Should Want to be a Force for Positive Change
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Actively engaging with the SDGs for the business school as a whole is a significant step towards mainstreaming the thinking that business is part of a broader system and has its effect in that broader system.

Stating that "We are a force for positive change in the world" inspired our students, faculty, staff, alumni and corporate relations in such a way that we are now tempted not to call it a mission, but a common purpose.

In 2017, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) adopted a new mission: We are a force for positive change in the world. This mission represents a shift from the more common previous mission, which was something like “we provide excellent and responsible education and base our teaching on our sound and world-leading research.” As a reference framework as to what positive change exactly should focus on, RSM has chosen for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which provide a common language and common aims for government, business and civil society organisations up to 2030.

Our new mission has unleashed a lot of energy and passion amongst the broader RSM Community. Now it is time for step two: what exactly does it imply to be a force for positive change in the world? What is the type of student that we want to attract and educate? What is the type of research that contributes to “being a force for positive change”? And what consequences does this mission have for the way we organize our own operations and facilities? These questions present us with a typical management problem: how to fill the gap between promise and performance.

As a business school, we had already been inspired by our own “I will” campaign, which triggered more than 10,000 I will statements of students, faculty and alumni alike in the past decade. None of these statements revealed the traditional frame linked to business schools to “maximize profits” or earn a lot of money. Rather, the abundance of statements already revealed the desire to “add value” to society, based on an entrepreneurial spirit.

We were additionally inspired by the “I Will be a hummingbird” story of professor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. If you’ve never seen the video, we recommend that you spend two minutes watching it. The core of her message is that, no matter how small or insignificant you may feel, you can always do the best you can.

If we translate this to our context, what we can do is to make sure that we equip our students with the knowledge, skills, mind-set and network that they need to do the best they can; and we inspire our professors to use their great minds and talents to do the same and join our network of forceful hummingbirds, which combined will become a force for positive change.

Actively engaging with the SDGs for the business school as a whole is a significant step towards mainstreaming the thinking that business is part of a broader system and has its effect in that broader system. It adds to the understanding that we live in a complex world, and that there is no easy solution to wicked problems. But it also adds direction to our “good intentions” – which need effective implementation and action, and which in turn requires scaling and joint action (partnerships) of often “strange bedfellows” such a non-governmental organisations. The contribution RSM tries to trigger in this complex environment has taken a number of routes. A few initiatives include:

  • We’ve published a Positive Change series of frameworks presenting new ways of designing effective corporate strategy: directly linked to the SDGs as a starter, as well as linked to specific topics like sustainable finance and landscape restoration. With this series, we hope to inspire professionals to contribute to positive change in their organisations;
  • We have designed 17+1 online learning modules on the relevance for, and relation to, business and the SDGs. These modules will be used in a wide variety of our on-campus programmes, but we will also share them online, free of charge; we have recently published the first 23 videos here: www.rsm.nl/sdgs;
  • In 2017, we submitted our bi-annual SIP-report (sharing information on progress) to the PRME (principles of responsible management education, the Higher Education-branch of the UN Global Compact). It marked a first attempt to cluster our activities and output by SDGs;
  • We have closed an alliance with the Dutch chapter of the UN Global Compact Network;
  • And last but not least, the SDGs are part of our curricula. To provide only one example: as part of the core course titled, ‘Leadership, Sustainability and Governance,’ our (2000) Bachelor students have to assess the corporate strategy of a Dow Jones-listed multinational based on its contribution to the SDGs.

Concluding, the SDGs are indeed becoming part of our common lingo and this in turn facilitates collaborations with organisations that use the framework – important, since real impact can only be realized in partnership with others.

We recognise that we are far from reaching our mission, nor do we want to claim that we’re perfectly aligned with the SDGs. We admit that it is scary and fragile to be so bold in our ambition, and that we run risks and are vulnerable to criticism.

Stating that We are a force for positive change in the world DID inspire our students, faculty, staff, alumni and corporate relations in such a way that we are now tempted not to call it a mission, but a common purpose – a guiding star that we try to take into account when we do the best we can, whatever we do.

Do you share our mission to be a force for positive change, and our belief that this starts by doing the best you can? Please join us and get in touch via positivechange@rsm.nl

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