Preparing students to be responsible leaders does not just happen in one class. It is an on-going activity that involves students learning about these topics from a variety of angles in a range of different classes. For this reason the leading schools in this area are exploring how to approach sustainability from a cross-disciplinary lens: in teaching, research and on campus.
One example of a school that has made cross-disciplinary a key focus right from the start is Hanken School of Economics in Finland. I had the chance to speak with Nikodemus Solitander and Martin Fougère who jointly manage PRME implementation at Hanken.
1. Tell us a bit about the cross-disciplinary nature of your work?
When we became signatories of PRME we had two goals with our activities. First, we wanted to make sure it didn’t become a bureaucratic exercise. We wanted it to be a meaningful activity that added real value to our daily research and teaching activities. Second, we wanted our work to be cross-disciplinary. The issues around sustainable development are so complex and need to be dealt with in a cross disciplinary manner in order for the learning to be meaningful. To a large extent we see the value of corporate responsibility as a platform for dialogue – and the more voices you get in, the more interesting the dialogue will be. This starts with us as coordinators of PRME across campus. We represent two different subjects, Nikodemus from Corporate Geography and Martin from Politics and business.
Until now, the most important project that we’ve worked on is perhaps the cross-disciplinary minor in Corporate Responsibility (CR minor). We started working on this in 2008 – it had been in the works earlier but it got the necessary strategic leverage with our commitment to PRME. The CR minor combines perspectives on CR-related issues from five different subjects; (Supply Chain Management and Corporate Geography; Politics and Business; Commercial Law; Management and Organization; Marketing). Faculty from these different disciplines have created courses to be incorporated into the module. We also offer the CR minor to students from a variety of disciplines across our campus as well as the University of Helsinki. This has definitely contributed to student learning on CR-related issues at Hanken by bringing together an even bigger range of angles and perspectives.
2. What are some of the challenges you have encountered in taking a cross disciplinary approach?
Cross-disciplinarity, as we know, is talked about by many but practiced by few. One challenge is that departments tend to compete for resources, which in turn tends to hinder cross-disciplinary collaboration. We knew this from the beginning so we immediately looked for ways to address it.
Another challenge has been with faculty. Some faculty members have expressed unwillingness to have their course in the CR minor in fear that it would increase the class size and thus make classes too large to handle with current resources – and we can fully understand this. We’ve also interviewed a lot of students and one thing they said was that it is possible to take almost your whole degree (with the exception of the two mandatory courses that discuss CR issues) without being exposed to sustainability. The younger generation seems to be more convinced that business is inherently intertwined with social and environmental issues, but many of them lack the vocabulary to deal with these issues; it is clearly our responsibility to expose them to a variety of useful ways to discuss these issues. Since most faculty want to decide for themselves what is included in their courses, getting CR content into the courses is often a challenge.
3. What have been some of the advantages/success of taking this approach?
From the student learning perspective it’s evident that cross-disciplinarity within the context of CR adds a lot of value – we hear this constantly from the students.
As a teacher/researcher you also learn a lot from working with people coming from a different background and perspective.
In a paper we wrote for the Journal of Business Ethics we frame the learning that occurs through exposure to different disciplinary perspectives as one that develops ‘moral imagination’ for both students and educators. We believe that such moral development – not driven by the top-down imposition of normative ethical theories but rather by an exposure to different types of theories, situations, and stakeholder voices – is needed for “responsible management education” and to deliver the outcomes sought in the PRME. It’s great to see that cross-disciplinarity can work in practice – because you see it so seldom outside of the dinner speeches and policy documents, the incentives are not really there when push comes to shove.
We have also had the chance to work with and share lessons with a range of other schools around the world including from Audencia Nantes School of Management in France and La Trobe University in Australia, and this has led to some interesting research output (published in Journal of Management Education and Journal of Business Ethics) and created further synergies with our existing work.
4. What advice do you have for other schools looking to take a cross-disciplinary approach such as yours?
Our advice to others would be to build your sustainability strategy around cross-disciplinarity in relation to teaching, research and school activities. Make use of the resources that you have, informal networks, faculty that have an interest in this area, and build from that.
We have very little funding for our programmes but have still been able to make them work. Cooperation has been made possible by informal networks involving faculty across departments. From the beginning we’ve clearly taken the approach of using content that relies more on existing resources and structures – we wanted to move fast and develop this thing into something meaningful so by keeping the costs down, we gathered, correctly in retrospect, that it wouldn’t hit many snags on the way up the decision-making ladder.
5. What is next for Hanken in terms of this agenda?
We have many ongoing activities. First, this year we have initiated a course in social and environmental responsibility where student teams from different disciplines from both Hanken and the University of Helsinki work together on projects with local NGOs. Second, our International Management and Strategy master’s programme is being reframed as a masters in International Strategy and Sustainability starting in 2014-2015. It will include among its four core courses two courses dealing with ethics and sustainability, and will impose that at least one of the CR minor courses is taken among the electives, in line with our cross-disciplinary thinking and our commitment to PRME. Third, we continue to develop the CR3+ conferences with our partner schools (see the Inspirational Guide for the Implementation of PRME for more on this). Last but not least, we are among the founding members of the Global Doctoral Consortium on Sustainability and Social Responsibility which will involve giving one PhD course per year in the area of sustainability and making this course available to PhD students from other member schools. These are but four examples of the many projects that we are working on.