The future of business schools: Existential innovation or obsolescence?

Sustainable Transformation

The Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) are inspired by internationally accepted values such as the principles of the United Nations Global Compact. It is the ambition of Antwerp Management School (AMS) to integrate responsible management education into its research and teaching activities and thus to lead by example.

A central commitment of any institution participating in the PRME initiative is to regularly share information with its stakeholders on the progress made in implementing the Six Principles through a Sharing Information on Progress (SIP) report. In September AMS will publish their SIP report. Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to read this PRME report.

But not all business schools participate in this commitment yet and throughout the years business schools got a lot of critics. In this blog you'll read some of these concerns.

While business schools have been instrumental in enabling business success and economic development around the world, they have also failed the world dramatically. Amid the upheaval caused by the pandemic, the climate catastrophe that is upon us, and the invasion of Ukraine, the time has come for business schools to show their true colours and engage in existential innovation. The key to such innovation is burying business case thinking once and for all and embracing a role as activist.

Obsolescence never meant the end of anything, it’s just the beginning."

- Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)


Historical development of business schools

Despite the fact that business schools have been considered as being one of the most successful categories of organization globally, their historical development is fraught with crisis and controversy. Over the years, scholars and practitioners of management, as well as other observers, have criticized business schools for myriad reasons, including but not limited to:

  • an unscientific grounding of the management curriculum,
  • a too narrow and rigid scientific model of management,
  • teaching capitalism as the only form of organization to their students,
  • a failure to impart practical skills to their graduates, lack of faculty’s business experience,
  • surrendering to the rankings and the market and not delivering on their original promise of contributing to public value through developing management as a profession.
For a concise overview of other reasons, see Khurana and Spender, 2011. 

Martin Parker, who is among the most outspoken contemporary critics of business schools, has said that "If we want to be able to respond to the challenges that face human life on this planet, then we need to research and teach about as many different forms of organizing as we are able to collectively imagine. For us to assume that global capitalism can continue as it is means to assume a path to destruction".

Truth be said, business schools have responded to recent critiques by displaying a willingness to adopt Responsible Management Education (RME) as a concerted effort to contribute to tackling the systemic crises our world is experiencing. With a myriad of RME initiatives, many – if not most – business schools have by now integrated sustainability-related topics in their management education programs and have started pivoting towards some sort of “responsible capitalism”, addressing sustainability as a business case and driver of product and business model innovation, studying sustainability impacts as risk drivers, embracing topics such as impact investing, and acknowledging that management students are seeking “purpose over profit”. Moreover, over the past couple of years, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become a focal point of attention for business schools’ teaching and research (Miotto et al., 2020; Weybrecht, 2022a).


Superficial responses to Responsible Management Education

However, the inconvenient but inescapable reality check is that, for the larger part and notwithstanding the fact they are not without merit, these responses have been too superficial; business schools’ innovation efforts have fallen short of qualifying as substantive.

In fact, as Mijnhardt suggests, "business schools are lagging behind’ other disciplines, and have ‘moved more slowly than other academic departments to work on more interdisciplinary, collaborative and socially relevant themes".

This notion is also reflected in a recent study of 5,500 articles published in top-tier management journals between 2008 and 2018 by Harley and Fleming (2021). Their results show that only 2.8% of articles critically addressed global grand challenges, including:

  • inequality,
  • climate change,
  • racism,
  • and gender discrimination.

We should therefore acknowledge the conclusions from Tufano’s historically-informed analysis about the way in which business schools are responding to systemic global challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened inequality, and the climate catastrophe: most business schools are adapting, as opposed to using this as a moment of transformation’. Such inert behavior is partly a direct result of outdated and rather passive conceptions about the role of business schools merely attributing them an enabling role in businesses staying and/or becoming successful in today’s world.


Reimagining and reinventing for the future

If anything, and thereby echoing the words of Parker, business schools should reimagine and reinvent themselves and their future against the deep concerns about raging patterns of ecological destruction, human exploitation, possibly already irreversible climate tipping points that are destabilizing societies worldwide, and power structures rooted in petro-masculinity.

This means that business schools should go well beyond teaching (future) business leaders to appreciate the complexity of socioeconomic and natural systems, sensitizing them to the consequences of their (in)actions, and familiarizing them with the trade-offs involved with sustainability-informed corporate decision-making.

Business schools should adopt an activist posture towards the challenge of systems change rather than passively hiding behind their outdated and fossil-fuelled business models. Capitalizing on the roles and functions that business schools have in society and business – notably teaching and research – starts with intellectual activism (Contu, 2020) and should epitomize an overhaul of the very idea of what a business school and management education are, and what they are capable of in our world. 

If business schools continue to be complacent and remain focused on incremental change and (justifying) the celebration of values that run counter to society and nature, their future will be pale, not bright. As management scholars know, every institution has its expiry date. And thus, business schools face a choice: urgently embark on an existential innovation journey inspired by what they can become, or submit to certain obsolescence following from what they have been.


Subscribe to our newsletter and be the first to receive the AMS PRME report.

Subscribe to the Sustainable Transformation newsletter


The full article was published in Global Focus, the EFMD business magazine.