Dr Andreas Birnik: Weaving Sustainability into an MBA Programme

Dr Andreas Birnik

DR. ANDREAS BIRNIK teaches Sustainability Strategy, Asia- Pacific Business and Corporate Strategy to MBA students and executives at NUS Business School which is positioned 23rd in the Financial Times Global MBA Rankings 2012.  Originally from Sweden, Dr Birnik has held finance, marketing and strategy positions at headquarters and in subsidiaries of multinational corporations in eight countries across Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  He holds a Master’s Degree in Economics and Business Administration from the Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden), a Doctoral Degree in Strategic Management from Cranfield School of Management (UK) and is currently finishing a Master’s Degree in Sustainability at Harvard University (USA).

Dr Birnik speaks with Bhavani Prakash of Green Collar Asia (GCA) on how MBA programmes can integrate sustainability thinking into their courses, and whether this creates career options for its students.

GCA: How have MBA programmes all over the world evolved over the last decade? Are they still propagating the conventional paradigm of endless economic growth, creating well-heeled workers for globalised corporations, or is there a new paradigm emerging? 

Dr Birnik: We have definitely seen a change at leading business schools around the world. While many students still want to join investment banks, management consultancies and large MNCs, more and more students want to join technology startups, cleantech companies or work with social entrepreneurship. The speed of this transformation varies from country to country, and indeed from city to city, but the trend is clearly noticeable.

In addition to new companies being created focused on sustainability, many established corporations are changing the way they do business. In 2011, 81% of the world’s largest 500 corporations responded to the questionnaire sent by the Carbon Disclosure Project about disclosing and managing a firm’s greenhouse gas emissions.  And as of March 2012, 3,580 organizations have submitted “triple bottom line” sustainability reports meeting the guidelines of the Global Reporting Initiative across economic, environmental and social impact categories. This shows that sustainability is making inroads into many of the world’s leading corporations.

Business schools are responding to, and in many cases driving, this evolution by offering courses in areas including sustainability, corporate social responsibility, entrepreneurship and technopreneurship. This had led to greater diversity within the business school community and to new career paths for students.

GCA:  How has the NUS-MBA programme incorporated sustainability teaching through triple-bottom-line thinking and measurement of social impact into its programme? 

Dr Birnik: The NUS MBA program is increasingly focusing on the areas that you mention and I will give you just a few examples to illustrate this. MBA students can elect to take both my own “Sustainability Strategy” course and a course in “Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility” developed and taught by Associate Professor (Adjunct) Robert K Fleming (Dept of Marketing, NUS Business School). Both of these courses provide students with perspectives that depart from the established paradigm emphasizing the pursuit of profitability above everything else.

NUS Business School has also created the “Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship & Philanthropy” to conduct research and organize events involving both students and the business community.  Professor Wong Poh Kam (Department of Strategy & Policy, NUS Business School) heads up the “Grameen Creative Lab @ NUS” which organizes the Social Business Week in Singapore every February and offers incubation support for social start-ups.  This year we were fortunate to have the Founder of Grameen Bank, Dr. Muhammad Yunus, with us. Guest lecturers from different walks of life (business, government, journalists) are increasingly being invited to the school to talk about sustainability and social entrepreneurship.  In addition, the business school has received a research endowment from Musim Mas to establish a sustainability chair at the school.

GCA: Is sustainability still a fringe area, or do you think it can become the bedrock of all MBA courses? What is needed for sustainability to become mainstream in an MBA program?

Dr Birnik: I believe the following five-step maturity model is a useful tool to assess how any business school is approaching sustainability:

Phase 1: The school is largely ignoring sustainability and social entrepreneurship, leaving it up to students to explore these areas on their own.

Phase 2: There are a few separate initiatives pioneered by independent faculty members without much central support from school officials.

Phase 3: Initiatives become institutionalized through actions such as establishing research centres, offering courses on a permanent basis, setting up endowed professorships, and the school’s leadership team publicly commits the school to promoting these areas.

Phase 4: Sustainability has made a significant and lasting impact on mainstream faculty members in areas such as marketing, organization, finance and strategy. Sustainability is actively discussed in a variety of courses and no longer “owned” by just some champions within the school.

Phase 5: Sustainability has become embedded into every course and every aspect of the business school ranging from the school buildings to energy use to the food being served and the pantry supplies purchased. The paradigm has shifted and sustainability has become the “new normal”.

As my personal opinion, I believe we are now at Phase 3 in our own development along the maturity model and on the trajectory towards Phase 5. Could we do more? Absolutely! And I will be one voice among many to continue to push for it. But considering where we are today, compared to in 2006 when I arrived at NUS Business School, I think we have made great progress.

GCA: Perhaps one of the greatest need of our times in dealing with complexity is “systems thinking.” Do you agree, and can you comment on whether an MBA programme should become more inter-disciplinary?

Dr Birnik: Being a responsible manager, and indeed citizen, in the 21st century definitely requires an ability to confront complexity in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.  In the sustainability field, systems thinking is necessary to understand the functioning of ecosystems and feedback loops affecting climate change. At a more-practical-level, systems thinking also provides insights into how to make managerial interventions more effective by focusing on curing underlying problems rather than addressing mere symptoms.

As a teacher, I think it is vital that we instill intellectual curiosity in our students so that they seek out information in other domains than what they are studying. To this end, students in my courses get confronted not only with “business school” material but also reading material drawn from the natural sciences, public policy and the humanities. The purpose of this is to make the students look at topics from different perspectives and to widen their intellectual horizons. I also provide compilations of video clips and reading material so that those students who wish can immerse themselves further beyond the course.

Combining knowledge from different fields can also help students to discover new career opportunities or indeed even to generate business ideas for new companies. Being successful in business requires differentiation and one of the best avenues to achieve this is by combining previously unconnected areas. If you focus all of your time within just one domain, you are less likely to come up with new and surprising ideas.

GCA: Do you see a difference in the approach of Gen Y students in an MBA program than say a decade or two ago?

Dr Birnik: I think there has been a shift with the Gen Y students, who are also sometimes referred to as the Millennials. Compared with previous cohorts, I believe that Gen Y students want to be themselves both at work and during their free time. As such, they are no longer satisfied with simply working for money during the daytime and then expressing their personality and interests during evenings and weekends. Instead, they want greater alignment between their own values and those of the organization they work for. Millennials also typically believe that businesses have wider responsibilities to fulfil than merely making money for their shareholders.

In addition, Gen Y students are looking for a greater balance in life. This does not necessarily mean that they want to work less hours in total but that they demand more flexible working arrangements, the ability to work from home part of the time and to play an active part in their children’s lives.

However, it is important to point out that the aspirations of the Millennials have been affected by the late 2000s recession which has increased unemployment rates in many countries including for graduates. As a result, many Millennials have found themselves fighting to get whatever job they can rather than the jobs they really want.

GCA: What are the implications for companies of the rise of Gen Y?

Dr Birnik: Compared with previous generations, Gen Y students are to a greater extent searching for meaningful work and for having a greater stake in how the organizations they work for are managed. This obviously poses a challenge to conventional corporate hierarchies as more and more Millennials chose to work for start-up businesses or for social ventures making a societal impact. This is a marked shift from a couple of decade ago when landing a job with a large MNC, an investment bank or a management consultancy was seen as the only way to go after an MBA degree. To be honest, many Gen Y graduates still take a “mainstream” job when they are straight out of school but fewer and fewer aspire to having such a career for the duration of their working life.

Millennials are also constantly plugged in through their laptops, tablets and smart phones; and they do not hesitate to tell others what they think through Facebook postings, blogs or review sites. This means that they are used to making their voices heard and they expect to be listened to from an early age rather than wait until they have reached a certain level of seniority. They are well aware of the “power of us” and do not hesitate to write negative reviews about products or to expose companies they feel behave unethically – including their own employer. While this might sound like something for individualistic Westerners rather than Asians, we already see this happening in the rampant use of blogs, review sites and social networks across Asian countries.

GCA: Has the NUS-MBA program created options as yet for students to carve out careers in sustainability? Is the interest and demand there from industry? Where is the gap and how do you think the gap can be filled?

Dr Birnik: Compared with mainstream corporate, banking or consulting careers, it is clear that career paths in the sustainability field are currently less obvious and less numerous. Having said that, I have had students who have joined renewable energy companies, waste management firms and worked as consultants in the sustainability field. I am also in touch with a few former students who are currently honing their own sustainability start-up businesses.

I think it is important to note that while there will be some new companies created in the sustainability area, we are essentially talking about a paradigm shift that is likely to also make a great impact on established businesses. As such, I think we have a role to play as a business school by educating students about sustainability so that they can play a part in reshaping their future employers, regardless of the industry sector. This includes equipping students with essential skills, including the ability to conduct sustainability audits, compute carbon, energy and water footprints and prepare sustainability reports.

As companies in Asia become more aware of the need to work in a sustainable way, I believe that there will be more and more relevant employment opportunities for our students. In this regard, pioneers always have a tougher time as they are heading down a path that is not already well trodden.

GCA: Are NUS-MBA students encouraged to think about green or social entrepreneurship as a career option? And conversely, would green or social entrepreneurs be benefitted by an MBA program?

Dr Birnik: These career options are definitely encouraged as evidenced by the many teaching and research activities carried out by NUS Business School in these areas. Studying for an MBA is also an ideal time-out from corporate life as it gives students the ability to explore different possible careers or even to work on their own business ideas. One of my own favourite social start-ups is kiva.org which was in fact developed by an MBA student at Stanford during her studies.

I also believe that studying for an MBA can equip green and social entrepreneurs with valuable tools and an enriched personal network. As a hard-working entrepreneur, it is easy to get somewhat myopic from spending all the time on developing a particular venture. A high quality MBA program can then serve to broaden the perspectives, to provide examples of best practices, as well as next practices, and access to a sounding board consisting of both faculty members and fellow students.


About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals and entrepreneurs are brought together.

She is a recruiter, speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six Seconds.org

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.  Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at]greencollarasia.com or through LinkedIn.


Further links you may be interested in:

GCA:  Environmental Education in Singapore


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