Let's elevate our focus from quality to impact

15 October 2020

Dan LeClair is CEO of the Global Business School Network (GBSN), which improves access to quality, locally-relevant management education for the developing world.


At home, a part of my shelves is filled with books about business education. While browsing the section in recent months, I noticed something that never occurred to me before. All but a small handful of the books are about what’s wrong with business schools. They cover a wide range of failings and problems over the last century. Many, if not most, are well researched and written. The collection has been useful.

Now, however, the criticisms only seem misplaced and unhelpful, missing the mark in myriad ways. The scope was too narrow or the depth was too shallow. The observations are out of date or out of sync with the current reality. The analysis did not capture the complexity, dynamism, and the underlying purposes of an increasingly diverse set of business schools around the world.

Frustrated, I began to wonder why these feelings had not come up before. Am I getting cranky in my old age? Maybe a little. Was the change triggered by the newest title in the section, Nothing Succeeds Like Failure? Doubtful, since one of the earliest books has the unpleasant title of Gravy Training.

I now believe the shift in thinking was largely because my work has changed and I’m experiencing business schools from an entirely different perspective. For nearly two decades, my work focused on improving business schools. I was more receptive to the criticisms because it is hard to improve anything unless you believe something isn’t working, and are willing to learn about the underlying causes. I appreciated the insights about what hasn’t worked, as much as the insights about what has.

Now my work is about enabling impact. For the last year and half, I have had the privilege of working closely with a special (and growing) set of institutions in the Global Business School Network (GBSN). I’ve been able to go deeper into the work of more than 100 business schools in 50 countries, all striving to improve leadership, management, and entrepreneurship in and for the developing world. This experience has shown me that business schools already are a powerful force for good in our society. They aren’t perfect and don’t always succeed, but they are trying and they are innovating to make a difference.

And I have come to believe that with help from an organisation like GBSN, business schools can do more. Indeed, every leader and organisation with a stake in business education can play a role. That includes deans and directors, business executives, scholars, accreditors, partners, alumni, and more who believe as I do in the power of business schools. The idea is to focus less on fixing schools and more about empowering them—supporting, connecting and deploying them for greater good. Here’s my condensed list of what we can do to realize the full potential of business schools in improving society.

  1. Elevate our focus from quality to impact. Quality is important and necessary but insufficient for impact. Think beyond narrow traditions about what constitutes quality and consider ways to make our people, as well as our education, research, and engagement activities, more useful to the communities we serve.
  2. Cultivate our strengths as an industry. For example, we must build and maintain the credibility of our research or we risk eroding our capacity to drive positive change and become part of the problem.
  3. Foster collective action across business schools, disciplines, and sectors. Reputational concerns, competitive pressures, and financial challenges are important factors, but can sometimes hide opportunities for societal impact. Focusing on the larger picture can often surface new arrangements that actually improve reputation and financial stability.

While I know these suggestions need further development, I hope they already can serve as a guide for everyone who believes, as I do, that business schools can change the world.

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