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Three deans

Past, present and future Deans of Cambridge Judge Business School address business education and grand societal challenges at the Cambridge Union.

Socially distanced audience clapping the hosts of the Three Deans event held at the Cambridge Union.

Business schools can play a key role in addressing some of the grand challenges of our time including climate change and inequality, said a former, present and future dean of Cambridge Judge Business School in a unique event at the historic Cambridge Union Society.

The event organised for the Cambridge MBA cohort, before an in-person and virtual audience on 2 July, brought together:

The event was moderated by Michael Kitson, University Senior Lecturer in International Macroeconomics and Director of the MBA programme at Cambridge Judge.

Here are some edited excerpts of the hour-long discussion, entitled Cambridge Judge Business School Deans: Past, Present & Future:

How business schools can play an essential role in addressing big societal issues

Mauro F. Guillén: “The perception in many parts of the world is that business schools suffered a reputational problem, starting with the 2008-09 financial crisis, and it wasn’t really addressed, and COVID-19 then exacerbated. Now business schools are including issues of inequality and businesses’ responsibilities to create a community of learners who are not only aware of these issues but willing to act on them as future business leaders.”

Sandra Dawson: “It’s so important for leadership to understand context on a global scale when it comes to the curriculum. We have to put more emphasis on the dimension of time, to be sure we’re identifying the short, medium and long term, and to make it legitimate to look at each of those. Also the dimension of space, geography: understanding what it’s like to live in northern India, in Central America, in the north of England. And the third dimension is humanity, is people: reflected in the ethics and the purpose and the values, and Cambridge Judge Business School has always had a sense of purpose and seeking to make a positive difference.”

Christoph Loch: “What do we give you in terms of teaching? We give you the ability to holistically manage an organisation for performance (performance not only for profits but also other goals), and that’s not going to change; however, by what we tell you and show you as opportunities we give you legitimacy to think in certain ways. In the past, legitimacy was all about ownership and shareholder value, and that turned out to be devastating. It is the responsibility of business schools now to give you the legitimacy to think broader than shareholder value, to remind you that there are responsibilities that businesses have in the context of their societies.”

Approaches to tackle climate change

Sandra Dawson: “You have to believe that it’s not good enough to look at the next quarter, next year, next five years, but you’ve got to look at the next 25 years, 30 years, and think about your supply chains and the extraordinary changes that will happen. So an enormous challenge is to make sure you have a really good sense of horizon and are looking into the future of what your business is going to be.”

Christoph Loch: “Whenever decisions about climate change and sustainability are discussed, it’s in the context of yet another constraint you’re placing on us, our stressed organisation. But we shouldn’t look at this as constraints: if we reconceptualise this as opportunities to create new types of value, we can become solution oriented rather than thinking about any constraints people are putting on us.”

Mauro F. Guillén: “Business has a very important role in three respects: business can put more pressure on governments and politicians; businesses can set more ambitious sustainability goals; and businesses have been all too eager to take subsidies from government – I have nothing against subsidies as long as they don’t subsidise production but rather innovation, because subsidising production means subsidising technologies that are not the most competitive.”

The role of governments and universities in promoting innovation

Christoph Loch: “Government has to set a real direction on the way they want to go. Universities can help in two important ways: they develop a lot of (pre-competitive) new technologies, which you can see, for example, in the Cambridge cluster, and universities also have contact with companies, government agencies, charities, in helping and educating them how to use the technologies and change their organisations to be able to do new things.”

Sandra Dawson: “Universities are fundamental in the creation of knowledge and ideas, but the translation of fundamental research is very, very complicated and it requires the markets and the technology and the people to want to work together. In relation to the pandemic, we’ve seen a speeding up of scientific inquiry through to translational research right through to vaccination. The very fact that the chief scientist has been appearing alongside government – providing he keeps his independence, which I think he has been trying to do, with science appearing to have an independent role – this might help generally even though it’s been forged out of this terrible experience of the pandemic.”

Mauro F. Guillén: “I would emphasise the social relationships and how you can maximise those among three sectors – business, government, and universities. One thing that can be done is helping people rotate in and out, having porous boundaries between sectors, so there can be more intermingling. Co-location matters a great deal, which is why we have clusters and localised ecosystems such as the one that exists here.”

The corrosive effect of inequality

Sandra Dawson: “I’m very, very personally concerned that in the last 20 years both nationally and internationally we’ve seen the growth of inequality, and it’s important to understand how people feel left behind, neglected, absolutely humiliated. It’s so corrosive – it goes generation after generation after generation – and it means we cannot build successful societies, which means we cannot build successful businesses, if we persist in that.”

Christoph Loch: “Inequality is fundamentally corrosive because it destroys the trust of the population that we’re all in the same boat. Once part of the population sees that a few privileged people have all the opportunities, that part of the population feels cut off, and this will discourage identification and cooperation with society and encourage following demagogues.”

Mauro F. Guillén:”If you have to point a finger at just one thing, it’s technological change because it’s most affecting people in the middle level of skills. Let me be provocative: I think the robots that are replacing human workers have to pay taxes, and with the revenues from that we can help people who are displaced. We’re reaching levels of inequality that we haven’t seen in 120 years, so we have to do something about it. Business has a role to play in all of this, in being aware of what the consequences are, and realising the costs being imposed on society that in the end accumulates and aggregates to a huge problem.”

Some final words to students

Mauro F. Guillén: “Avoid groupthink. As MBA students you’re going to be leading a team, so don’t hire people for your team who think exactly like you think, because then you’re not going to be challenged and you’re not going to be as successful.”

Sandra Dawson: “As MBA students you should always ask yourself what is the purpose of an organisation and what is my purpose in it, and am I going ahead and fulfilling that purpose? If you can’t answer that in terms of your identity and the purpose of the organisation that you’re with, then you need to think again and ask: ‘Do I belong here or should I go somewhere else where I can really articulate a purpose?'”

Christoph Loch: “Ask yourself: ‘What would I like to look back on 30 years from now and be proud of?’ – and go for that. It doesn’t have to be ‘the one right thing’ because you will have opportunities to change course.”

Watch the CJBS Deans: Past, Present and Future event recording