Understand and Change the World

Engaging ESSEC Business School students towards responsible business

Aurélien Colson

Aurélien Colson PhD, Professor of Political Science, and Patricia Langohr PhD, Professor of Economics at ESSEC Business School, reply to an interview on innovation in education.

Complexity and responsibility

Patricia Langohr

There are many challenges facing business and society today: the environment and climate change, the loss of social bonds and massive inequalities; not to mention a sense of despair or lack of meaning from a growing part of the population that translates into social and political instability, and populism. And it is within this context that today’s students of management and business – the managers and leaders of tomorrow – must learn how to deal with the environmental emergency and the turnaround of their businesses in an authentically sustainable way. Among other things, this means catering for their employees’ need for meaningful work that stimulates creativity and belonging, contribute to the response to worldwide challenges such as global warming, while being profitable. It is not a meagre task.

For two professors at ESSEC Business School, Aurélien Colson and Patricia Langohr, education innovation is not just the best way to reply to these challenges, it is the only way. And for them, throwing money at the challenge is not going to advance the issue, notably because the excess focus on economic and financial return is the root cause of the challenges. It is high time, they argue, that the common good, respect for people and for the environment, drove business – if not, the outcome is simple: there would soon be no more business to do anymore, in a world devastated by massive conflicts and environmental damages.

Business school is the place where both current and future managers learn how business is done, state Langohr and Colson, and at the same time where the instrumental business mindset is maintained and reproduced. As such, it is also the privileged place and lever for a transformation towards authentic, responsible and sustainable business practices and a different mindset. For this, it is necessary for future managers to become aware of their impact, and to endorse their responsibility and freedom to act with respect to the above-named challenges. This requires an interdisciplinary approach to issues and an ethical awareness.

Understand and Change the World

The creation of the Understand and Change the World initiative at ESSEC Business School finds its root in the co-constructed reform of the School’s first-year in 2015, and what professors Colson and Langohr have observed over several years of teaching at the institution as well as gleaning from discussions with colleagues in many other business schools. When students join ESSEC – at the age of twenty usually – a growing proportion of them feel an acute sense of lack of meaning and purpose. This is compounded by the context of the French, pre-higher education “classes prépas” system which sees young hopefuls studying an intense forty to sixty hours per week over two years in order to pass the competitive entrance examination to a Grande Ecole. For Patricia Langohr the stake is thus to revive students’ intrinsic motivation or inspiration in a context where technical training can easily take the lead and crowd out meaning and purpose. The Understand and Change the World programme provides the first brick towards building this aim.

First presented in September 2015, and now in its fourth year, every autumn term sees 400 incoming students participate in the two-week initiative. In that time, 13 groups of 30 students each address a different business and society-related issue, guided by a faculty member and/or professional. The students are allocated to a group and issue according to their preferences and a specific matching algorithm. Each group has to study its issue carefully from a theoretical and empirical standpoint and then provide policy or business recommendations to progress on the problem.

The topics lie at the crossroads of international relations, economics, management and environmental issues. Student groups work intensely and exclusively on their specific issue during the entire two weeks, alternating different formats. These include cohort lectures, four keynote lectures that provide global and background context, and teamwork in smaller groups mentored by a professor. Keynote speakers have included Carlos Ghosn (CEO of Renault-Nissan), Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sablière (former Permanent representative of France to the United Nations Security Council), or Laurent Berger (leader of the CFDT, France’s most important trade union). Lectures focus on a variety of business and society topics including, in past events, the United Nations and its handling of crises, economics for a limited planet, the digital revolution and geopolitics. Assigned a specific classroom as an HQ, students deliver a range of work output – reading summaries, case studies, and especially data collection from interviews carried out externally with more than a hundred NGOs, business executives and elected officials every year.

Throughout the two-week initiative, a culture of ‘daring change’ is encouraged and maintained and the challenge helps in maintaining intensive pace of the academic analysis and group work, as well as facilitating a creative tension that showcases the variety of student skills. A final deliverable exists in the form of a 20-page group report presenting students’ analyses and recommendations. On the last day of the workshop, all the 400 students assemble together with their professors in ESSEC main lecture hall. Each group is allocated 15 minutes to introduce, in a stimulating way, their key findings and recommendations to the whole cohort. ‘Students have always demonstrated great engagement and presentation skills!’ assert Profs. Colson and Langohr, enthusiastically. Finally, a vote is held to award the group ‘most likely to change the world’.

The takeaways

All in all, the Understand and Change the World initiative provides students with a vision of current structural and global challenges related to contemporary ways of business, and in particular short-term financial return optimisation, as well as alternative approaches and promising innovative models that build sustainable businesses. The initiative also gives students the tools for the discernment and practical wisdom they require in order to make a responsible commitment through their words and deeds, and in their daily life – at home, work, in business and in society. Moreover, the programme prepares students for their personal responsibility – it positions them as change catalysts who will be part of a collective transformation within the company and society to address the challenges of sustainability.

In the future, the initiative will also include a survey for students to complete two years farther down the line in order to identify if students have built on their ideas and knowledge acquired during the seminar. Ideally, state Langohr and Colson, the Understand and Change the World initiative should be an impetus for change and help instill a new mindset where students become aware of their personal responsibility and contribute to changing the business model toward sustainability.

In a perfect world, to be effective, the change in mindset for this responsibility should also become a priority and affect the faculty and institution’s management and alumni. What challenges need to be overcome to reach this aim? For Profs. Colson and Langohr, the main challenge is to truly bring these issues to the forefront in business schools – even if they aren’t currently rewarded in the business school rankings, remain moderately popular with firms and recruiters, and are not necessarily integrated in mainstream academic research. Based on the highly positive evaluation of the workshop by 3 successive cohorts of 400 students, Profs. Langohr and Colson remain confident: the emerging generation of business school students is truly eager to learn about our world’s contemporary challenges, and to contribute to more responsible and sustainable business which entails caring for common goods such as the climate or the oceans.

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3 responses to “Understand and Change the World

  1. This is inspiring and thought-provoking. As businessmen, we indeed need to learn to live with sustainability and mind and we should also learn how to respond to environmental emergencies.

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