How business education can create business citizens

business schools

Yusuf Sidani is the Dean of Suliman S. Olayan School of Business (OSB), part of the American University of Beirut (AUB). He explores some of the challenges business schools have faced in recent years and explains why he thinks business schools should embed ethics and morals throughout the curriculum to produce work-ready graduates:

The world needs business professionals and, perhaps more importantly, business citizens.

In their desire to have a strong curriculum, business schools have traditionally expended efforts on increasing the professional side of the school.

Much of the curriculum reflects a desire to broaden knowledge and conceptual business knowledge. While this effort is admirable, an over-obsession in that direction will push a school of business away from developing a business citizen.

A business citizen is one who understands important business concepts and has access to relevant business tools and techniques, but—on top of that—has an appreciation and an understanding of how to operate a business under various, often conflicting, competitive, societal, environmental, and ethical demands.

Here’s how business schools can graduate business citizens:

Leveraging a business school’s embeddedness

For business schools that are part of a larger university system, a school needs to leverage on this embeddedness.

There might be pressure from faculty to emphasise a uniform culture and build a community around the business school. Yet, it is worthwhile to look at this embeddedness as an opportunity rather than as a hurdle.

For stand-alone business schools, there needs to be alternative ways of creating a broad relationship with a larger community beyond the walls of a school of business.

Why is this important?

Businesses do not deal only with business partners, and their relationships are not restricted to suppliers, customers, and employees and the interactions among them.

There has been growing importance given to engaging third parties, including governmental agencies, NGOs, and the larger community, in the university experience.

Students understand that they must attend to a wider set of expectations and manage a broader set of relationships. This becomes the building block of developing the business citizen.

Connecting with other disciplines

Faculty members and business school administrators thus find themselves in a continuous struggle between having to choose between more vertical depth in the curriculum (that is, more depth within business topics) versus horizontal breadth beyond direct business offerings (courses from outside business).

While a certain level of depth is needed, a good differentiator for business schools could be their ability to graduate well-rounded individuals with enough depth and breadth of education.

Schools of business will find that, sometimes, a certain degree of immersion in courses in humanities, social sciences, and hard sciences would complement their business educational experience.

Vertical immersion vs. horizontal education

Business schools should repel the urge to emphasise vertical immersion at the expense of horizontal education.

Relevant courses in sciences would help students, for example, in understanding the real impact of their business decisions on the environment in which they live.

Courses in social sciences help understand the variables influencing societies and how people approach their lives and make decisions; this is valuable for marketers. Courses in humanities will broaden the perspective of future business leaders in making decisions of ethical significance.

Yet, the value of horizontal breadth does not only lie in utilitarian ends regarding how this helps future decisions in business. A diverse curriculum develops the person as a citizen in a community where people need to live together whether they run profit-seeking businesses or not. People assume many roles in life; being a business professional is just one of them.

Business schools will find it beneficial, through inter-disciplinary connections, not only to graduate a business professional but also to graduate a business citizen.

A growing emphasis on social responsibility

Impact can be measured at multiple levels:

Student learning
Knowledge creation
Knowledge transfer
Community engagement
Interaction with a wider set of stakeholders

At its best, a business school would transform from just being a repository of business knowledge into a centre of learning impacting an extended community and helping to bridge societal gaps.

Some have criticised this way of thinking. Decades ago, economist Milton Friedman strongly disapproved of the growing corporate emphasis on social responsibility.

He said businesses exist to create value for their shareholders; to make any other claim on business diverts them from their real missions. He argued that as businesses are neither designed nor are they equipped to solve societal problems, we should not expect that from them.

Developing business school citizens

The same rationale could be used to criticise the perspective of a school of business as developing citizens. A business school, it might be argued, is a unique place where future managers learn about the ins and outs of running a business efficiently and effectively. To make any other claim on the role of the school would only distract from this.

The counterargument is that learning happens better with the recognition that there are multiple roles that a business manager assumes; these are not restricted to money-making activities. Students need to be prepared early on for that multiplicity of roles.

A business school needs to graduate students with the needed knowledge, skills, and competencies to contribute to a profit-seeking entity, but with a strong realisation that all of this has to be done with a proper balance among various societal, ethical, and environmental demands.

Internationalisation and accreditation

With the growing inter-national move into globalised education, facilitated by accreditation bodies such as the AACSB, EQUIS, and AMBA, international accreditation processes need to be utilised for proper benchmarking, application of best practices, support, and guidance. These processes should not be used to change a strategy just to meet an accreditation threshold.

Rankings are important and celebrated, yet strategising around rankings would yield good public relations and short-term reputation, but not good education.

The future of business education?

Business schools are legitimate institutions that will continue to provide solutions to the societies in which they operate. This legitimacy is increasingly getting challenged by new disrupters, facilitated by a drive toward globalised education in a hi-tech environment.

Business schools need to repurpose business education around developing the character of the total, well-rounded business citizen who is not a mere business professional. Success in doing that means that business schools will remain relevant for generations to come.

For more information, please see Sidani, Y. (2023). How Business Schools Can Graduate Business Citizens In (Editors: Anders ÖrtenbladRiina Koris), Debating Business School Legitimacy: Attacking, Rocking, and Defending the Status Quo (pp. 217-233). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

For additional insights, trends and reflections on business school leadership, visit the conversation here.