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Embedding Sustainability in Core Business Curricula: Copenhagen Business School’s Approach

A flexible yet systematic approach to embedding sustainability in MBA and undergraduate programs brought benefits for faculty, staff, and students.

This story describes one school’s approach to embedding sustainability in curricula.

Copenhagen Business School (CBS) is integrating responsible management education into all 17 of its programs In coming years, all 18,000 CBS students will find responsible business a more prominent part of their education.

How CBS Embedded Responsibility Across its Curricula

Kai Hockerts, Academic Director at the Office for Responsible Management Education, leads the curriculum reform. He and his team tackle one program at a time.

  1. From 2008 to 2011, CBS embedded responsibility across its Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program. The MBA program has only 48 students, so its small size made the program an ideal pilot project.

  2. In 2012, CBS began embedding sustainability in its 17 Bachelor programs. The Office hopes to complete all Bachelor programs by 2014.

  3. Next, the remaining Master programs will be addressed.

Phase 1: Embedding Responsibility in the MBA Program

The Office began by suggesting a new, mandatory core course on responsible management. However, given full teaching rosters and limited resources, this proved difficult. They also realized that a single, stand-alone course would not achieve the large-scale change they sought.

“We realized that offering a single, core course might actually have the opposite effect we intended, by isolating the topic of responsible management education,” says Hockerts. “Instead, we decided to embed responsibility across all courses.”

The Office used a 3-step approach to systematically incorporate responsible management content across its core MBA courses.

  1. Review: Through one-on-one meetings with professors, the team reviews syllabi from every core course. They identify existing responsible management content and ask faculty to address the topic more explicitly in their syllabi.

  2. Reflect: The team then encourages faculty to include responsible management as a course learning objective. The rationale? Learning objectives are more likely to be the subject of active discussion and reflection. The team also asks faculty to reflect on how their approach to responsible management education relates to approaches used by their colleagues. The goal is to create a consistent approach across all core courses within a study program.

  3. Add: Only as the last step does the team intervene actively. If faculty want to include more responsible management content in their courses, the team provides access to case material, articles and other teaching resources.

“We started from the assumption that responsible management was already part of what professors taught,” explains Hockerts. “Rather than telling them what they should do, we encouraged faculty to make their own vision of responsible management more explicit and to reflect upon it in the context of the study program.”

Impressive Results for the MBA Program

  • The program leapt 20 spots, to 43rd, on the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes global ranking. The program is ranked 8th among European schools.

  • Responsibility has become one of three unique selling points for the MBA program. It is now core to the program’s reputation and an attraction for prospective students.

Phase 2: Embedding Responsibility in the Bachelor Program

When the Office began embedding responsibility in CBS’ Bachelor program, they used a Review, Reflect, Add approach, similar to their work in the MBA program. However, because the Bachelor program is substantially larger, the team modified the approach. Core actions were:

  1. Focus groups: “With 17 HBA programs and up to 5-6 teachers per course, we could not meet with all faculty individually,” observes Hockerts. “So, we began meeting with three student focus groups and one faculty focus group, asking them to carry the debate to the rest of their study program.” In focus groups, students discussed responsible management content currently taught in their courses and what they hoped to see more of. The Office shared this information with faculty, as an incentive to increase responsible management content.

  2. Flagship courses:The Office identified the course in each program that currently had the most responsible management content. Professors were then offered (rather than instructed) to make their course the “responsibility flagship” of that program. Flagship course professors received teaching release time in order to (a) embed new responsibility content in their curricula and (b) act as ambassadors for responsible management in their programs. For first-year flagship courses, the Office encouraged professors to give a broad introduction to responsibility issues. Upper year flagship courses were treated as capstones, and professors were asked to draw connections between the fragmented responsibility topics taught in earlier years.

Early Impacts Appearing

Embedding responsibility in Bachelor programs is still underway. However, already, changes are apparent:

  • Three programs decided to completely revise their approach to responsible management, including developing a vision for how responsible management is integrated in their program.

  • Within programs, faculty have begun to discuss and reflect on what “responsibility” means to them. Often, this leads to colleagues teaching in the same program meeting for the first time, which improves communication on unrelated issues.

  • Channels of communication are opening between programs. Disciplines define responsible management differently and the Office is working to optimize this interdisciplinary communication.

Advice for Embedding Responsibility in Core Business Courses

Hockerts shares these tips:

  1. You can’t make faculty teach. You can tell faculty to teach something and require they add it to their syllabi, but you can’t control what happens in the classroom. Change must be bottom-up and faculty owned. “We didn’t approach faculty saying ‘you should be doing this’,” says Hockerts. “We said, ‘we assume you’re already teaching responsibility’ and we offered to help make the content more explicit.

  2. You must be flexible. Successful embedding processes differ between programs and incentives differ between individuals. The team is constantly evolving their processes to solve new challenges. They are also expanding their definition of responsibility to be inclusive across disciplines.

  3. Top management must devote resources. Funding needed for curriculum reform is small compared to a business school’s total budget. But the funding is critical. Hockerts remembers that, “we couldn’t really kick this off until we hired a full time admin assistant.” The next step was to hire student research assistants to support course analysis.

More Information

Contact Kai Hockerts.

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  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

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