Trust is one of the key themes at the EFMD Annual Conference and it is extremely timely for the business education community to look at this. We are at a point in many parts of the world where it seems there is an increasing lack of trust, as part of rising populism and nationalism.
Where do business schools sit in all of this and what is their role?
To some observers, business schools have contributed to the problem, furthering globalisation, and increasing the inequalities between the haves and the have nots. These troubled times are certainly a challenge for the reputation of business and therefore business schools.
However, I would argue that there is an opportunity to focus on the unique attributes of business education and communicate its impact in trying to make the world a better place. Fundamentally, schools have a chance to position themselves as pillars of trust in an untrusty world.
In particular, there are three key areas where business schools can communicate their unique strengths to build trust.
The first is greater dissemination of research to non-academic audiences. While propaganda goes back thousands of years, ‘fake news’, ‘post truth politics’ and ‘alternative facts’ are prominent in our world today.
Depressingly, political debate on both sides of the Atlantic, amplified by the power of social media, has normalised these concepts. In response, business schools and higher education as a whole should be a counter to this. Practical content that is grounded in rigour and sound evidence has never been so important. In the latest Edelman Trust Barometer (2019), academic experts are cited as one of the top two credible sources of information. This is a great opportunity for business schools to engage further with the media, and non-academic audiences.
The second is schools’ key role in developing future leaders. Globally, there are millions of business students, and the influence that business education has in both influencing and responding to the demands of students is huge. As someone who works with a range of business schools, I am struck by two trends that I see among students. One is a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the other is the desire to make a positive difference – or what some would call ‘purpose’ or ‘responsible leadership’.
Whether students want to start their own business or make a difference in an organisation, they are looking to schools help them with entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills. Many institutions such as the Oxford Foundry at the University of Oxford have been established to help them do this.
Possible changes in rankings such as the Financial Times, are in part a recognition of the student demand for education that helps make the world a better place, and not simply a route to an increased salary. Schools have wonderful examples and stories of their work in this area that need to be shared widely to help communicate the significant impact that the sector is making.
Lastly, the intrinsic strength of schools should be to build bridges between academia, business, and policy makers. With the focus on research and the development of people and organisations, business schools are ideally placed to bring different parties together to tackle complex issues, such as the ethics of new technology and climate change, amongst others.
Naturally, all schools want to focus on what makes them different. However, at a sector level, there is a real opportunity to communicate how business schools can be the pillars of trust in an untrustworthy world.