Look around and business schools are making grand claims to be working responsibly, sustainabilityethically, for society and even for humanity. While the criticism levelled at business schools after the financial scandals of the early 2000s and the 2008 Financial Crisis lead to soul searching for the sector these can seem like quite ambitious claims.

Yet Schools are not alone in marking out these themes. At the EMFD‘s 2018 conference in Copenhagen “society” was a strong theme. Indeed the requirements of the EFMD’s accreditation arm – EQUIS – now include a standard on social responsibility. Meanwhile AACSB has been active in promoting sustainable leaders.

There is a risk that business schools may appear to be undertaking the equivalent of “green-washing” by companies with dubious environmental track records. Could we call this “society washing”? Could stakeholders be duped by yet another rebrand of a Business School? To what extent do business schools really “walk the talk”?

Having branded Grenoble Ecole de Management as a “Business Lab for Society” in 2018, a transition from “a School for Business and Society” in 2014, we had invited a thorough examination of our claims at a recent EQUIS accreditation visit. Accreditors, like colleagues and other stakeholders, can quickly see through what is “talk” and what is “walk”. In fact like all organisations it is vital to base stated purpose on the internal organisational identity – the faculty that make up the school. In answering the accreditors’ questions it became clear that “society” actually came from the values and past behaviours of those inside as well as those external pressures.

Walking the ‘society’ Talk at Grenoble.

The ethical and financial crises over a decade ago prompted a number of initiatives to promote more sustainable behaviour among business schools. Back in 2007 Prof Caroline GAUTHIER – a Grenoble academic committed to teaching and research activities to promote sustainability – encouraged our school to join the nascent UN PRME initiative, Principles for Responsible Management Education. A small step but a vital as a catalyst to further initiatives in Grenoble including faculty training to develop a “sustainable mindset” among our students, being a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and being an early adopter of the Responsible Research in Business and Management initiative.

In research, our school has developed a reputation for a depth and breadth of its activities linking technology with societal concerns. Over a five-year period Prof Joachim SCHLEICH has developed a high-profile team with a strong reputation for research in the management of energy technologies and innovations. Now numbering five permanent faculty, the team carries out funded research for national and international organisations while also being committed to having an impact on academic and practitioner communities.

More recently our WoMen@GEM project captures a range of initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality among our employees, students, alumni and other stakeholders. This builds on a vibrant research environment that includes the Research Chair Women and Economic Renewal led by Prof Severine LELOARNE. In a short period of time the school has found itself with WoMen@GEM alumni groups and gender issues being “mainstreamed” into classes. Recently a new incubator for women entrepreneurs was inaugurated: coaching women to develop their venture and create jobs while also exploring the impact women entrepreneurs on their local geographies.

To impact society engagement with policy makers and governments is essential. Over a number of years Prof Carolina WERLE has develop our expertise in food marketing and highlights potential risks for childhood obesity through experimental research. As a result Caroline and her colleagues are now advising two Government agencies on communication guidelines to help improve health outcomes based on their research findings. Similarly Prof Hugues POISSONIER is leading a national task force to produce a White Paper on for responsible suppliers and buyers and then to develop a “Label” for compliant organisations.

Students for Society

Further evidence of impacting the “mindset” of students is in the certificate for the management of handicapped workers. In France companies are required to recruit a certain proportion of employees classified as disabled or face fines. In 2012 Prof Sylviane CHABLI developed a short program to raise awareness among managers and develop their competences for the management of such diverse workforces. The program “certificat management et handicap” has been opened up to more students and won a prize for Pedagogic Innovation in 2013.

A “society” awareness among our faculty permits other initiatives to emerge. One recent example was a small-scale project in 2017 to find student volunteers – yes, volunteers no credits or grades – to explore ethical issues in finance in their spare time. Over a short period Prof Arnaud RAFFIN found himself with five times as many student volunteers as he had expected for his “Finance for Tomorrow” project. In addition a number of interested company stakeholders are now ready to support the next steps. The project is on a roll!

Faculty for Society

No business school can be complacent about their responsibilities and contributions for society. However, it is equally important to base claims and ambitions on an existing identity and actions – particularly among faculty who are the driving force for business school development and impact. It is the case that to walk the talk for society it is necessary to have a certain depth, breadth and critical mass among faculty. While we would not want to claim that everyone is working in the same way – that is part of the richness and pluralism of working in an academic Business School environment – we can say that “we do society”.