A New Civic Imperative

As business schools, we must adopt new missions and forge new relationships that put the prosperity of our local economies first.

A New Civic Imperative 2

THE POST-LOCKDOWN world will be a crucible of change where organizations of all shapes and sizes will be looking for tried, tested, and reliable strategies as they find their own ways forward. To survive, they must not only adapt to short-term conditions but also develop long-term resilience.

In short, organizations need business schools now more than ever.

And given the realities of a post-pandemic world, business schools will need to adopt place-based civic agendas as part of their individual missions—agendas that put the health of their local economies first. For some business schools, this might mean helping companies re-evaluate the length and complexity of their supply chains. For others, it might mean helping companies maintain new types of working arrangements with their employees or adopt strategies such as “near shoring” in which international operations are based in nearby countries rather than on the other side of the world.

Organizations will need our help maintaining new industries, such as the manufacture of personal protective equipment. As governments continue to encourage social distancing and travel restrictions, companies will need to know how to source materials locally, integrate automated and autonomous systems, and deploy artificial intelligence.

In principle at least, business schools should be places where business practitioners rethink the rules, adopt radical innovation, form new collaborations, and seek out opportunities for cooperation. But to become true partners to companies as they emerge from this global crisis, business schools must open their doors ever wider and make the training they offer even more accessible.

In practice, business schools have made obvious efforts to move beyond “business as usual.” Many have expanded their missions to include helping companies’ human resource managers design arrangements to keep staff working, engaged, and motivated through radical change. Some schools have designed online community hubs where people can associate safely, exchange new ideas, and help each other make decisions effectively during this time of uncertainty.

These efforts have been a great start, but we must continue to build on them. As educators, we must throw out our traditional rulebooks that call for us to adhere to rigid ideas about our programs’ structure and content. Those ideas were designed largely for predictable markets and business processes. Now that the future is so uncertain, we must be as adaptable, responsive, and agile as the businesses we serve.

In addition, we must promote cultures of compassionate leadership and management, in which social responsibility and purpose come to the fore and in which business schools and organizations alike rewrite the rules for what constitutes business success. COVID-19 and its aftermath have forced companies to value the stability and continuity of all stakeholders more highly than they value financial growth alone.

Within our civic agenda, we also must equip employees at all levels to succeed. Leaders will need the vision to deliver a strategy for business continuity, recovery, and adaptability. Financial officers will need to know how to maintain operations with interrupted cash flow, even when widespread disaster strikes. HR managers will need to be aware of and responsive to difficulties their staff will face working remotely. Marketers will need to reach customers whose spending priorities have changed as they now have different perspectives on their wants versus their needs.

For more than three decades, business schools have been drawn to the possibilities of global markets and opportunities, as business was increasingly defined by a homogenized international culture. But as organizations tap into local market needs and set up local supply chains, business now will be driven by a new bloom of local experiments, enacted through trial and error. That means that, as business schools, suddenly we have to go into reverse as well; we must base our curricula, research, recruitment, and corporate partnerships on an understanding of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and quirks of our local ecologies.

The most positive legacy of the lockdown might be the fact that universities have been forced to break out of their traditional conservative mindsets to be of even greater service to their communities.

It might at first seem that working within such a shrunken business world will be far more limiting than our previous global focus. However, I believe such localism will provide us with the chance to build stronger, more intimate, and longer-lasting relationships. We will be able to improve the ways in which our schools work with the mass of smaller firms that are the engines of economies. We’ll be able to call on practitioners in our regions to contribute more actively to classrooms, so that we achieve greater balance between international and local perspectives in our programs.

The most positive legacy of the lockdown might be the fact that universities have been forced to break out of their traditional conservative (and some might say elitist) mindsets to be of even greater service to their communities. For example, higher education institutions around the world have provided volunteers to help operate food banks and support small businesses in their communities. In the U.K., universities have made their premises available for use by the National Health Service and essential workers.

As business schools strengthen connections with their constituencies, that kind of unfussy cooperation and commitment to a wider social good must become the norm. We have moved a leap away from the formalities of corporate social responsibility to something more like integrated social responsibility, in which an organization’s service to all stakeholders and its brand are interconnected.

For business schools, adopting a civic agenda also includes working with more nontraditional students of all ages and backgrounds. In this way, we must do more than serve as conveyor belts that feed corporate-ready graduates to large established employers. Going forward, business schools must equip generations of people with the resilience and talents necessary to create wealth at all levels of society.

This not a time for business schools to return to business as usual. Rather, it’s a time for us to form new types of relationships with organizations and shape a new age of civic cooperation. It’s an opportunity for all of us to envision a new future—and a new socially driven purpose—for business education.


Zahir-IraniZahir Irani is pro-vice chancellor and a professor at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.

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