Embedding the SDGs into the Curriculum and Research – lessons from the Gordon Institute of Business Sciences in South Africa

The Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa has been part of the PRME Champions since 2018 and a signatory since 2009. They are committed to working collaboratively to achieve higher levels of performance in transforming business and management education in curricula, research, educational frameworks, sustainability based partnerships and thought leadership. I spoke with Jill Bogie about how they are going about this, including what changes are being made during COVID-19.

How has GIBS approached embedding the SDGs?

At the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), we believe that business can and should be a force for good. As our Dean Nicola Kleyn put it, in our setting of a country and continent in great need of economic development, this is an imperative. We work with business, government and civil society to create a better, more equal South Africa. While firmly rooted in a university system, we are physically and philosophically close to business. Much of the work done here is not necessarily labelled as relating to the SDGs but rather it was about teaching that is relevant to business and society, as situated within the South African context.

How are you embedding the SDGs into curriculum.

The current MBA programme was recently refreshed to integrate the SDGs and related content. While this was not the sole reason for the changes that were made, the process allowed for some important updates to the programme to align content more specifically with PRME principles. Responsible and Ethical Leadership form the foundational philosophies for this course and is the golden thread that knits the programme together. Students are challenged to approach the Environment of Business, Innovation and Design, Decision Making and Strategic Implementation courses with this lens to achieve the designed responsible leadership and ethics outcomes. On the Environment of Business course students also learn directly about the challenges that local businesses and communities face, their aspirations for the future, how they respond and adapt to these challenges and how they shape and create more desirable futures through experiential learning methodology. This is further reinforced with a growing number of related electives including on the UN Sustainable Development Goals – Partnering to deliver shared value, Women in Leadership, Women Entrepreneurs: Overcoming barriers and achieving success, Future Fitness: Sustainability, Diversity and Inclusion, The Moral Leader, Corporate Governance, ESG Investing: People. Power. Profit, Innovating at the Base and Social Entrepreneurship & Impact: When purpose drives profit and profit drives purpose.

Is there a particular programme that stands out?

The Applied Business Project (ABP) is a large scale compulsory syndicate project that students are expected to complete over a 9-month journey. It is a core course of the Post-Graduate Diploma (PGDip) programme, which is essentially the first year of the 2-year MBA. Programme. Syndicates are required to select an SDG they would like to focus on and decide on a problem or opportunity to address through the project. Following a rigorous research process students are expected to come up with a feasible and financially viable solution to address their findings. The final output of the project is a 20 minute presentation and a 40 page report. Through the process, students are expected to apply what they have learnt from their core courses to either the problem formulation or the solution and ultimately, gain a deep understanding and appreciation of the power of sustainability, shared value and the potential impact of business.

How are you embedding the SDGs into research.

Research on the SDGs is specifically encouraged by the GIBS Director of Research and the research department. Some of these processes are ongoing and some have been created more recently and are still in the development stage, such as the new incentives being offered for SDG research in conjunction with the University of Pretoria (UP). To date, a mapping exercise has been completed of the SDG priorities in all departments. It found that our research currently focuses on five key strategic areas including diversity and inclusion (SDG 5 and 10), entrepreneurship and innovation (SDG 8 and 9), business in Africa (SDG 8) and ethics and governance (SDG 16).

A new research initiative is currently in progress to encourage inter-departmental research and a funding budget has been approved to incentivise researchers to engage in SDG related projects. All GIBS faculty were invited by the Director of Research to participate in this initiative and several projects were put forward for consideration. We also focus on the SDGs in several of our Centres of Excellence including Centre for African Management and Markets, The Ethics and Governance Think Tank (and its Ethics Barometer for South Africa) and the Entrepreneurship Development Academy, as well as a recently established interdisciplinary Centre for Entrepreneurship.

How are you connecting your work to what is happening nationally or regionally in relation to the SDGs?

GIBS is a convening space for conversations that are sometimes difficult and controversial, but always meaningful and insightful.  These take different forms from masterclasses on topics such as the economic outlook for South Africa, emerging technology trends and township entrepreneurs, to keynote speakers such as the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng talking about ethical leadership; and debates on issues such as the future of public and private healthcare in South Africa, and the future of farming in South Africa. We host leaders from all sectors of society, from national government, local government, business, and the nonprofit sectors. GIBS has also recently gone online with its regular debates with business leaders and experts and has introduced a series of online  ‘flash forums’ starting from mid-April on topics such as strategic thinking in a time of crisis, surviving COVID-19 and making sound decisions in critical times.

How are you thinking about, and measuring, impact.

At a school level, a new project was initiated in 2019, reporting to the GIBS Executive committee. It is only in the planning stage and a working committee has met to discuss how to approach how to demonstrate the impact of SDG initiatives at GIBS. This is an important step forward in our progress towards embedding the SDGs – across all aspects of the school’s activities – demonstrating responsibility for the commitments we make and being accountable for the outcomes that we deliver. It will be a multi-year project. At a programme level ,there are two examples. The first is an evaluation of the learning outcomes on the PGDip programme, designed specifically to assess the impact of integrating SDG content. This involves a pre- and post- survey to assess awareness, knowledge and understanding with regards to the SDGs. It is a longitudinal study and the first results will be available during 2020. A customised instrument was designed. It was derived from several other instruments, including the Sulitest.

The second example is part of a broader study being conducted in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University (another PRME Champions school), related to climate change literacy. It involves a pre- and post- survey and pre- and post- focus groups. The teaching intervention deals with the basics of climate change. Over 6 countries around the world are included in the study and initial research results are expected in 2020.

What have you found works at GIBS in terms of engaging people in this topic and bringing about change/engagement?

While this requires a collective effort, it is important to have ‘champions’ – a small team who has the mandate, but most importantly the energy to pursue different initiatives, connect people, coordinate, support and be an advocate and activist for the SDGs and to encourage and help to developing new ideas.  We find that it makes sense to have multiple initiatives  in different places at the same time and work where the energy is; communicate and network all the time; keep going; recognise the people who are doing great work. You should also expect that different people in different disciplines will develop in different ways, so be flexible and customise.

Get involved in multiple initiatives around the SDGs. The network of action is growing all the time. Not all plans take off, but be available to work with others and contribute even in a small way. Meet new people, invite them to your school, get colleagues involved – there is so much to learn from what is happening elsewhere in the world.  But do use these avenues to learn and to contribute. Tap into the PRME network. Fortunately at GIBS we have partnered with other PRME schools on research collaborations that have enabled us all to secure funding.

Be flexible and constantly review, revise, and develop; and most of all be patient; expect things develop over time. Use challenges to learn, review and move forward doing things differently and/or different things. Build on what is already being done and is working well

Constantly assess both what works and what does not work, to continually keep current and make improvements. Last but not least, the more you try, the luckier you get!

How are these initiatives changing/adapting to the current COVID-19 reality?

The main impact on our teaching is the delivery process.  We have, in a few short weeks, revised our course material to deliver both synchronous and asynchronous online programmes, while retaining the standards of the learning outcomes. We are keeping programme completion dates on schedule, with some changes to dates of delivery. However, while it is quite possible that we may continue to use our newly acquired skills for synchronous online teaching, the asynchronous mode is seen as temporary until the crisis regulations are lifted and allow us to revert to our preferred modes of teaching.

While the changes to the delivery of teaching has been very fast, other activities have continued but inevitably at a slower pace. The crisis has also triggered new discussions amongst faculty about how to ensure our teaching remains current right now and as the economy, locally and globally, transitions to a ‘new normal’.  Faculty members are already working on writing new teaching cases that address the issues faced by businesses during and after the lockdown period.  Some faculty members have arranged webinars and created YouTube material on COVID-19 related topics such COVID-19 scenarios.

For more review the latest Sharing Information on Progress Report submitted by GIBS here. And visit this past PRiMEtime post to see how the Gordon Institute of Business Sciences in South Africa is responding to the COVID-19 crisis.  




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