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Are Business Schools Addressing Social Challenges of the 21st Century?

Are Business Schools Addressing Social Challenges of the 21st Century?


In 2015, all United Nations Member States signed onto the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is a blueprint for 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) that call on all countries, developed and developing, to work together in a global partnership. The United Nations (https://sdgs.un.org/goals) describes how they seek to realise the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality. The SDGs are integrated and indivisible and attempt to balance three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental). It also recognises that ending poverty, and other similar deprivations, to be imperative in devising strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur socio-economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

To a considerable extent, the state of the global position is encapsulated in the descriptions of the development goals. People around the world seem to be more aware of how we—as a species and as individuals—should adjust our lifestyles to create sustainable societies. In its efforts to achieve sustainable development, the United Nations has focused on articulating these goals and accordingly raising awareness to people around the globe.

In a more developmental sense, the work by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the work by International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) on the standard setting in particular, matters related to education, technology, and innovation systems, are all attempts and forming part of a global discourse towards the development of a sustainable society. However, as is being experienced in the USA, parts of Europe (especially Eastern Europe), Russia, China, India, South America, as well as Africa, the interference of political perspectives and conflicting ideologies seem to hamper and derail the often-good intentions of creating a sustainable society – South Africa included.

Sustainability is at the heart of The Da Vinci Institute for Technology Management’s (The Da Vinci Institute) purpose as a business school. The dream is to influence the co-creation of humane, sustainable societies—and any community or society represented by either a student, a staff member, or an alumnus. Higher education is intended to be involved in knowledge production and the dissemination thereof, with the aim of contributing towards socio- economic development. The Da Vinci Institute as a business school, endeavours to contribute towards the achievement of the SDGs and locally, the objectives as laid out in the National Development Plan (NDP).

The Da Vinci Institute subscribes to the quintuple helix framework of innovation, which facilitates cooperation between higher education providers, industry, government entities, civic society, and the natural environment. The Da Vinci Institute is an active contributor towards the achievement of the South African National Development Plan criteria. This is done through its teaching, learning, research, and community engagements. It is recognised that as a business school, with students from various countries and continents, there may be national development plans in other contexts, related to local drivers in the respective country, which students would then apply in a contextual approach.

Through coursework and research, students, staff, and alumni are required to critically engage with the objectives of (1) national planning, (2) continental initiatives (Africa Agenda 2063) as well as (3) global imperatives (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

Students, staff, and researchers must, for example, propose ways in which businesses could: align themselves with their national development initiatives (in the case of South African students the NDP); co-create innovative solutions to assist in the realisation of such goals; propose actions to address poverty and inequality; and help overcome increasingly complex systemic challenges.

This is made possible because of how the institution applies situated learning—the application of knowledge in context—and Mode 2 knowledge production principles (learning as a creative process), making it especially applicable to business.

The intention of Mode 2 knowledge production is to apply situated learning, problem-probing, and decision-making to solve work-based challenges and contribute to the professional development of students and the teams that they lead. In doing so, they must show not only a return on investment but also a social return on investment within the different micro, meso, exo and macro systems at play within their socio-economic context.

The Da Vinci Institute nurtures managerial leaders to confidently handle the demands of an ever rapidly evolving world, with a continuous interplay between algorithms (machine rhythms) and the androrithms (human rhythms). Deeply rooted in the DNA at The Da Vinci Institute is how people can embrace technology to solve social developments and challenges.

In addition, The Da Vinci Institute embraces a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning; uses a business-based action learning discourse; focusses on heterogeneous and diverse academic designs; promotes social accountability in a professionally relevant manner. Much of the thinking and strategy behind this discourse is informed by the seminal texts of Gibbons (full text) (1994), coupled with the earlier works of Dewey (1938), Knowles (1975), Kolb (1984), Jarche (2014, 2016), Bronfenbrenner (1977), Leonhard (2019). Linking ideas (innovation), people, processes, and tools (technology) in a systemic way, however, seems to be challenging in most current work environments.

As a result, the socio-economic system often has difficulty to deliver on its promise of supporting members of society in making prosperous and sustainable contributions. Irrespective of natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc), pandemics (Ebola, HIV-Aids, Covid-19, etc), business schools globally have been faced with challenges related to their potential contributions in probing and facilitating sustainable societies. Being aware of these challenges regarding the non-engagement in opening organisations to become more future fit, The Da Vinci Institute aspires to narrow this gap.

The choice of The Da Vinci Institute to focus on a systemic engagement with stakeholders, as opposed to offering off the shelf pre-defined product solutions related to business administration, marketing, sales and finance, is intended to redirect the business school conversation globally. When exceptional circumstances emerge natural disasters, pandemic, accounting scandals (Enron, Steinhoff etc.) or the recent ongoing war between Russia and the Ukraine or the looming confrontation between China and the USA, business schools should reflect, as a continuous ideal, on how they intend to co-operatively redirect and reposition the place of work within society.

The Da Vinci Institute does not intend to show up as a specialist solution creator, but as that of a specialist prober and facilitator. This is done to engage as many stakeholders as possible, to redirect the workplace in fulfilling its mandate as a socio-economic enabler within society and ultimately contributing to the development of a sustainable enterprise. As a business school, The Da Vinci Institute understands the importance of civil society in shaping the future landscape, the impact of our actions as civil servants on society at large. Hence, The Da Vinci Institute calls on everyone to embrace social responsibility towards meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

Business schools should continue to ask themselves the following questions:

Are we preparing working people to make sense of an ever evolving and complex world? Are we ensuring that knowledge artisans are prepared for a global work context based on digital assets rather than physical ones? Are business schools ready to address the social challenges of the 21st century?

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(This is a co-authored blog, by Professor Ben Anderson, Professor HB Klopper, and Dr Marla Koonin.)