Mapping the SDGs – Experiences from USB

University of Stellenbosch

Three and a half years into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and a growing number of Business Schools are organising mapping excercises in order to gain a better understanding of where their school stands when it comes to impacts and opportunities in relation to the Goals. In their most recent Sharing Information on progress (SIP) report, the University of Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa outlines their USB-PRME-SDG mapping exercise. They brought together academic and adminstrative staff to look more closely at their activities both in their work as well as their daily lives as a way of gaining a better understanding of the extent to which staff are aware and committed to the advancement of sustainable development. Dr. Arnold Smit, head of USB Social Impact and Associate Professor in Business in Society shares more about their experiences.

Can you share USB’s approach to the SDGs?

At USB, we have made a firm commitment toward advancing the SDGs in our teaching, research and social engagement. At the same time, we have chosen not to prioritise certain SDGs over others. A postgraduate business school is by definition a multidisciplinary institution of which the staff and students represent a broad spectrum of academic interests and industry experience. We therefore believe that they should be free to contextualise the SDGs for themselves and select those they want to focus on. What we as a business school can bring to all the SDGs, though, is our core expertise, namely the development of responsible leaders and managers who will care about the implementation of the SDGs across all industries and sectors of society. So far, we are very encouraged by the results that we see with our approach.

USB organised the SDGs into 7 groups. Why did you do this/How did this come about? Has this led to more awareness within the community?

Organising the SDGs into seven themes is not something that USB invented. We have decided to follow the leadership of our mother institution, Stellenbosch University, in this regard. This categorisation is, on the one hand, a reflection of the contextual realities of South Africa and the African continent, and, on the other, an alignment with the different faculties and academic streams of the University. The seven themes are education (SDG 4); social justice (SDGs 5 and 10); environment and sustainability (SDGs 11, 13, 14 and 15); resources and infrastructure (SDGs 6, 7, 9 and 12); employment and inclusive economic development (SDGs 1 and 8); safety, security and good governance (SDGs 16 and 17); and food security and health (SDGs 2 and 3). Our experience is that it certainly simplifies the terrain of the SDGs for us without diminishing the complexity and systemic interdependencies involved in advancing the goals. Since this is the first time that we communicate about our SDG alignment in this way, it is still too early to gauge the impact thereof on our stakeholder communities in terms of their awareness and understanding of what we aim to achieve in this regard.

How did the mapping exercise come about?

As a PRME signatory, we are very much aware of the essential relationship between responsible management education and sustainable development. Since we subscribe to both the PRME and the SDGs, we were curious about the extent to which we have made progress with integrating them both into our teaching and learning, research and social engagement activities at the school. I also need to add that, during the reporting period, we have successfully completed our AMBA and AACSB re-accreditations and we were in the midst of preparing for EQUIS. All three of these institutions emphasise the integration of ethics, responsibility and sustainability into management education, albeit from different perspectives. The 2017 – 2018 PRME SIP therefore offered us the ideal opportunity to think more deliberately about the extent to which we were able thus far to close the loop between PRME, the SDGs and our educational activities as a school.

What was USB-PRME-SDG Mapping exercise?

The mapping exercise consisted of three activities completed over a period of two months. The first activity consisted of a workshop to which all staff – academic and operational – were invited to participate in. This exercise, firstly, had a very practical intent, namely to brainstorm all teaching, research and social engagement related activities of the school that are directly related to the seven SDG themes of the University. With this information we then, secondly, were able to make an evaluation of the progress we have been making with the implementation of the PRME.

The second activity consisted of a survey that we sent to all staff – once again academic and operational – to establish which of the seven SDG themes they actively promote, and what it is that they practically do in connection with it. We were interested in whether such activities are core to their profession, whether or not they serve on the board of company or non-profit organisation, whether or not they offer pro bono or volunteer services in supporting their chosen SDG-related activities and whether or not they are involved in funding and/or fundraising.

The third activity consisted of an analysis of the school’s research outputs over the reporting period in relation to the seven SDG themes. This analysis covered peer reviewed journal articles, technical reports, and conference presentations.

As a whole, these activities helped us to develop a more informed view of how far we have come with integrating the PRME and SDGs in our various educational and social engagement activities.

What were some of the insights that came out of this?

A first insight was certainly one of being pleasantly surprised by the extent to which USB staff are aware, committed to and actively engaged in the advancement of the PRME and the SDGs. What is especially encouraging is that this is the case academically within the ambit of the school’s educational activities, as well as privately in various domains of broader societal involvement.

A second insight is that our approach to the advancement of PRME and the SDGs seems to be working well at this stage, namely to provide an encouraging and supportive context and leave it to people to act on their own particular interests and commitments in terms of how and where they want to be involved.

Lastly, I need to mention the importance of mission, vision, values, strategy and leadership in creating a positive context for responsible management education and sustainable development. It makes it so much easier when people can work in a context where they are encouraged to pursue that which is ethical, responsible and sustainable in management education, in business and/or organisational life and in society in general.

What were some of the insights that came out of this from your staff in terms of their social engagement profile? Has this had an impact internally?

Our staff were delighted to participate in the mapping exercise. After the publication of the PRME SIP, there were several conversations about what this could mean for continued conversations, for example, across academic disciplines. At an academic lunch hour conversation about the report, it was interesting to note how faculty members moved the discussion from agreement on the academic relevance of the PRME and SDGs for teaching and research to asking for support with the mastery of real life sustainability practices at work and at home. In addition, we are planning for an event towards the end of the year during which we’ll be celebrating the variety of ways in which our staff and students advance the SDGs through participation in social engagement activities.

Are you measuring impact?

We are at the early stages of evaluating impact. We are in the process of developing our own social impact evaluation framework. We currently approach it firstly from a research perspective in order to ensure that we work from a firm epistemological and methodological base for impact evaluation. Secondly, we harvest social impact narratives from staff and students in order to understand the extent to which our focus on responsible leadership and societal stewardship do bear fruit, whether in terms of practical engagement at a community level, innovation of business practices at an industry level, or thought leadership and policy influence at a societal level. Thirdly, we use our various reporting channels, such as accreditation reports, our integrated report, and the PRME SIP as opportunities around which we can continue to shape our emerging understanding of what impact means in our context. Lastly, we have started with the development of a social impact evaluation framework for the research that are produced by both faculty and students.

Share some examples of initiatives that were mapped that you are particularly proud of? 

USB has a firm record of social engagement activities beyond its formal postgraduate programmes. The school’s Small Business Academy builds the capacity of small business owners, most of whom are from township communities. In addition, the school provides training for non-profit leaders and managers to enhance their capacity for public value creation. There is also an executive education type programme for school principals, deputies and officials from marginalised and poorly resourced school districts. USB is more than just a business school for business; it is a business school for society. Over and above these initiatives, USB has become well-known for its focus on women in the workplace, corporate governance and board leadership, responsible and ethical leadership in organisations, and development finance.

What advice do you have for other schools undertaking similar mapping exercises around the SDGs?

Reporting, in its various forms, should be regarded as a precious opportunity for conversation and self-reflection. Reporting has a reciprocal dynamic: the story that we are writing about ourselves is also the story that keeps on shaping us. Mapping, in this context, is a tool for engaging with your own story. It helps to see the parts and the whole; to pin the dots, and to make the connections between them.

A mapping exercise should be carefully planned. Consider the elements to be included, the process to be used, and the people to be involved. Design it as an opportunity to learn together as a whole school community. In our case, we have done our first mapping as an activity in three steps. Now that we have done it, we have a method and foundation on the basis of which we can do it again and involve more stakeholders – especially external ones – in the future.

With a mapping approach, one can create a context and framework for people to connect their own SDG-related work to without becoming prescriptive about what they should focus on. Through the mapping, they discover the nature and value of their own contributions to that of the larger whole. They also discover linkages with the SDG-related interests and work of others around which they can start with collaborative initiatives.

Every report is a picture at a certain moment in time. It might be taken from an accreditation angle. Or it might represent the perspective of a sustainability or integrated report. It might be to get a picture the school’s research outputs. Or it might be for PRME SIP purposes. Whatever the need of the moment might be, each report represents a piece of a larger collage and with each the narrative may potentially become more purposeful and meaningful. There are many layers and angles involved in SDG-work and a mapping approach helps with engaging with it in a systemically integrated way.

What’s next?

Doing thorough social impact evaluation is still an unfulfilled objective for us. Our next step will be to link the mapping approach that we have embarked upon in our PRME SIP 2018 to a thoroughly developed social impact evaluation method. We hope that our next report will represent some progress in this direction. It goes without saying that we’ll only be able to do so if we maintain our commitment to the SDGs and deliver students who are responsible leaders and stewards of society. Incorporating the student voice will therefore also be imperative in the next round of mapping and reporting.


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