Ashridge’s CEO: The role and purpose of a business school, and our strategic response to a changing context

11 02 2011

Kai Peters, Ashridge Chief Executive

(This blog piece reproduces Kai Peters’ introduction to Ashridge’s June 2010 Sharing Information on Progress report to the United Nations on Ashridge’s sustainability strategy) 

A changing context

Our context is always changing. In the past few years, the most pressing challenge in the wider context for most leaders has been navigating the challenges of ongoing crises in the global economy. But immediately beyond this lie wider and connected trends with impacts that we are becoming more certain about: demographic change, an eastward shift in the centres of economic power, alarming trends in public health, urbanisation, rising inequality, systematic abuse of human rights, increasing scarcity of natural resources and degradation of ecosystems – forests, water systems, climate.

But it’s not just our context that’s changing; it’s how we understand our context that’s changing too. Much of our economy and industrial processes are still built on assumptions from the time of the industrial revolution, a time of huge technological innovation and improvement in the quality of life for many, a time when we looked around and saw, for example, abundant natural resources and man’s ‘triumph’ over nature. Now, we are increasingly aware of the limits of this narrative, we see that resources are scarce, that ecosystems are more delicate and fragile than we realised. And with globalisation in the 1980s and 1990s our horizons are no longer national but international, with globalised capital flows and trade in goods and services, where decisions taken in one part of the world now have far greater impacts than they used to on the livelihoods of others far distant. The new narrative that is eclipsing the industrial revolution perspective is sustainable development – a new ‘big idea’ that helps us make sense of our changing context and how we need to adapt.

In response, we are seeing new organisational practices emerge: new business models, new products and services, new operational practices. But we are also seeing many older organisational practices continue, practices that are increasingly less relevant in a changing context. Practices that are not healthy for our organisations, for our communities, and for the wider ecosystems of which we are a part and on which we rely.

Why are we seeing these new organisational practices emerge? Some people are changing behaviour because they are persuaded by the scientific evidence of environmental challenges for example, for others it might be more to do with personal values and a concern for fairness and stewardship for future generations. For others again, it might simply be the recognition that if large numbers of people are starting to think and act differently, this means certain markets may shrink while others may grow.

The role and purpose of business schools

So as things change, it is helpful to ask ourselves again: what’s the purpose and role of a business school?

On a practical level Ashridge exists to help organisations and individuals be more effective. We work in partnership with organisations and individuals to help in tackling complex challenges – supporting and developing leaders and leadership, formulating and implementing strategy, fostering and stimulating organisational change. Through bespoke learning and consulting interventions, complemented by executive qualification and open enrolment learning programmes, and underpinned by applied research, we are partners in organisational learning and change. It is our aspiration that, by helping organisations and individuals be more effective, we play a valuable role for society as a whole.

On a more philosophical level, we recognise that part of the collective purpose and role of business schools, along with the professional bodies and major management consultancies, is to act as both stewards and shapers of the body of practices and thinking – the cultural norms – of organisational life.

We steward the collective lessons learned by the countless organisational leaders who have gone before us, often unconsciously, as these ‘past lessons learnt’ become codified and embedded in the conceptual frameworks and tools that inform many of the conversations that take place with today’s and tomorrow’s leaders every day in business schools and more widely.

And as we help today’s managers make sense of a changing context and new practices, we also help shape the broader public debate and intellectual current of ideas within which today’s leaders in organisations make strategic and operational decisions.

We therefore collectively play a limited, but nevertheless significant role in influencing the behaviour of organisations. The questions we ask, what we champion and celebrate, and the values and contexts embedded in our concepts, frameworks and tools, make a subtle but important difference to the decisions others make.

Our strategic response

If this is our purpose and role – what we do – and this is how our context is changing, what does this mean for our strategy? The right strategic response is embodied in the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education, which we helped develop.

We need to be challenging organisational leaders with the realities of our changing context and helping them make sense of what this means, not just for their strategy and organisational practices, but also for their broader purpose.

This isn’t a ‘nice to do’, it’s a strategic imperative – only organisations that adapt as their context changes survive and thrive. By leveraging our strengths and by innovating now, we are seeking to protect and extend our competitive advantage. If what our clients value about working with us is our expertise around leadership, strategy and change, engaging with sustainable development is about ensuring that our expertise in leadership, strategy and change remains relevant. This is also, in the bigger picture, what we exist for as a business school and how we add value to society as a whole.

How do we act to make this strategic imperative become a reality? There are three clear areas of focus:

First, we need professional excellence from our faculty – we need them to engage in inquiry, dialogue and thought leadership that asks what our changing context means for our core areas of practice. We also need to be learning from innovative organisational practice where it is emerging, and looking again at our own concepts, frameworks and tools to ensure they are still relevant in changing times.

Second: we then need our faculty to bring this new thinking into our work with organisations and individuals.

Finally, it goes without saying that we also need to apply it to the way in which we manage ourselves as an organisation.

Do we have the capability to deliver? Yes, we believe we do. Although there are obvious challenges, we believe we have the people and the culture to deliver, and we believe we are making the right decisions to support the kind of change we need. Our full June 2010 report Innovation in a Changing Context outlines in a bit more detail our thinking in these three areas, the steps we have been taking, the challenges, and our plans for the future.

Kai Peters, Ashridge Chief Executive, June 2010.

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