SDGs and business education, a win-win game

SDA Bocconi held a 2021 PRME Global Forum session


If a Stock Exchange of Words existed, “sustainability” would certainly be a blue chip. Having survived the green-washing “bubble”, its listings are constantly going up and its value grows stronger beyond fads and contingent convenience. Like securities, even words owe their long-term success to the real value that they express: a strong underlying economic entity for securities, a deep-rooted idea for words. That is why speaking of sustainability is first of all referring to a culture of responsibility, before thinking of economic policies, tech solutions or, even more so, marketing strategies. And the matter no longer only concerns industries with a large environmental footprint, but it increasingly involves educational institutions with a deep cultural impact as well.

It was precisely upon these foundations that the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative was created, with the support of the United Nations, back in 2007. With over 800 member institutions, it is aimed at strengthening the sustainability profile of business schools and higher education schools all over the world, providing today’s managers with the knowledge and skills to achieve tomorrow’s change. During the 2021 edition of the PRME Global Forum, SDA Bocconi, in the persons of Manuela Brusoni, Director of Accreditation and Sustainability, Maria Errico, Alexander Hiedemann and Angelica Orfino, held a session whose title was: “Using mission to drive SDG activity: challenges and the role of schools of management”. Our School is a member of the PRME initiative from the very beginning and the event acknowledged the long journey the School has committed to, and its international leadership on these topics.

The title of the session clearly referred to the mission of the PRME group, i.e. providing future leaders, through managerial education, with the cultural tools to balance their financial goals with the sustainable development goals (SDGs) set up by the UN, aligning academic institutions with the work of the United Nations Global Compact. To “flesh out” the 17 SDGs in the day-by-day of economy and manufacturing, PRME members commit to 6 principles that directly apply to their educational action:

  1. purpose: giving students the right approach and skills to be future generators of sustainable value for businesses and society at large;
  2. values: incorporating the values of global social responsibility in academic programs and activities, as well as in organizational and managing practices;
  3. method: creating educational frameworks, processes and environments that offer effective learning experiences to develop responsible leadership;
  4. research, conceptual and empirical, to advance our understanding of the role, dynamics, and impact of companies in the creation of sustainable social, environmental and economic value;
  5. partnership with business managers to improve our knowledge of their social and environmental responsibility challenges in order to face them together;
  6. dialogue among all stakeholders – faculty, students, businesses, government, consumers, the media, and civil society – on these critical topics.

And since the work on sustainability and social responsibility is in continual progress, the 6 principles have been integrated in a conceptual and practical scheme that PRME members use to assess their achievements in two-year reports. SDA Bocconi’s long-standing PRME experience was marked by six reports from 2010 to 2020, tracking the evolution of the School in the field of sustainability. These reports map out a long and difficult journey looking back on the strategies and practical solutions that have enabled the School to practice the 6 PRME principles in its day-to-day life.

These reports cannot come down to a task-list to tick – Manuela Brusoni said – or, worse, to an excuse for self-celebration. Tackling the subject of sustainability and SDGs requires you to be self-critical and intellectually honest in the first place. You need to acknowledge both success and room for improvement. You also need to differentiate your approach to individual SDGs, knowing that, like any other type of organization, business schools can have a strong positive impact on some of them and a less direct one on others.

That is why SDA Bocconi’s session at this year’s PRME Global Forum aimed at raising a discussion and putting forward a selective approach to the UN  SDGs: for some of them the School and business education in general can have a leading role in society and the economic world, for others they are mainly required active and synergetic  compliance. Take SDG #13 on climate change, for example: if business schools do not have the same impact as oil companies, this does not mean they cannot and should not act according to it, both at a practical and individual level (think of the new “Near Zero Energy” Campus for SDA Bocconi) and, above all, at a cultural level, fostering corporate good practices and supporting innovators and policy makers who are heading in the right direction.

But which SDGs are core to SDA Bocconi and to schools of management in general? Which are the ones a growing fraction of their reputation and even of their future is at stake on? Two are certainly key:

  • SDG #4 Quality Education: Offer cutting-edge managerial education to reduce the barriers to the development of professional skills and guarantee lifelong learning opportunities for all. For this purpose, SDA Bocconi appointed a Quality, Accreditation and Benchmarking (QAB) team and a Learning Lab to design and develop more and more innovative, engaging and effective learning approaches.
  • SDG #17 Partnerships for the Goals: Foster cooperation among businesses, public institutions, research organizations and communities to increase the chances of achieving the sustainability objectives. Being a partner to over 250 universities and business schools in 45 countries, SDA Bocconi shares knowledge and experiences within a vast exchange network.

Each individual school of management should also enhance what is more distinctive to their identity, based on their missions, and promote it selectively, by designing a measurable impact spanning from research to teaching & learning, and dissemination. At a first analysis, three other SDGs emerge as relevant to SDA Bocconi:

  • SDG #3 Good Health and Well-being: Ensure health and well-being for all at all ages. Among many initiatives of the School, CERGAS is especially relevant. CERGAS is a multidisciplinary research center working on health management, health economics and policies, health technology assessment, social care services and management of social and non-profit enterprises. As to health management, the impact of CERGAS’ work became evident during the Covid-19 emergency.
  • SDG #5 Gender Equality: Encourage a cultural shift in organizations to actually give equal opportunities to women and men. It has been demonstrated that companies with greater gender equality are more innovative and profitable. SDA Bocconi has long embraced the value of gender equality, setting up concrete actions to support the participation of women in its programs.
  • SDG #9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. Many of the School’s initiatives serve this objective, specifically our Impact Investing Lab, aimed at developing businesses with a major social impact, DEVO Lab (Digital Enterprise Value and Organization) addressing Digital Transformation as well as the MOOCs on financing and investing in infrastructure.

To conclude, the UN SDGs need the business schools as cultural mediators to disseminate and permanently embed the seeds of sustainability in the social and economic ground. On the other hand, schools of management need SDGs too, in order to map out the great challenges awaiting businesses and institutions and jointly face them. This means sustainability goals will increasingly be among the schools’ accreditation and international ranking criteria, balancing traditional indicators. A true cultural revolution is up and going and cannot be reversed. The challenge for a top-notch research and educational institution is now to be leading it.

SDA Bocconi School of Management.

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