Building Sustainable Legacies

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Question-based learning

The secret to uncover solutions that leap-frog above and beyond current practices is the ability to ask pertinent questions. Enabling students to ask good questions is the higher purpose of teaching and represents an essential factor of successfully educating leaders to embrace problems we don’t yet know and come up with solutions that don’t yet exist based on technologies that have not yet been invented. An intended side effect of question-based learning is the increase in a student’s ability to hold the tension of not knowing answers and the ability to live with half-truths, partial answers without shying away from courageously taking a step in what appears to be the right direction given what is known at that time. Acting – reflecting – correcting – and acting again will be the future dance of our leaders. It may be called “stumbling forward”[1], a not so elegant yet courageous engagement towards the world.

The key benefit of question-based learning is the development of liberal learning. The 2011 Carnegie Foundation report on undergraduate business education in the United States demands from business education an integration with liberal learning, in order for students to:

a)       Make sense of the world and their place in it,

b)       Prepare students to use knowledge and skills as means toward responsible engagement with the world, and

c)       Instill students a sense of responsibility for the Common Good, guided by commitment & values.

This is achieved by a) analytical thinking, b) multiple framing, c) reflective exploration of meaning, and d) practical reasoning.

Reflection and awareness  in a world becoming more complex, more unpredictable, more challenging, means getting rid of unilateral thinking, conventional ideology, and reductionist vision of the raison d’être of the firm. – Philippe de Woot

Un-covering assumptions that shape the way we look at the world is a critical step to be able to start forming one’s own opinion about what feels right. Another element of this approach is the inherent possibility to render conscious the many currently undeclared assumptions of the oppressing current economic thinking, opening the opportunity to discuss alternative avenues. Some of these assumptions are:

  • Growth and consumerism as the unquestioned answer to economic downturns and crises since the 1960s. Despite that fact that growth has driven us to a state in which we use 1.5 planets to cover our current needs.
  • The contribution of business to society is measured by the return on shareholder equity limiting the purpose of business to maximizing shareholder value,
  • For the longest time, goods of Mother Nature have been free of charge (fish stock, forests, water, commodities, etc.) with capital only being required for the exploitation and often the destruction of these resources. Governments of emerging countries have started to lease or sell entire regions (valleys, glaciers, frost land) to companies to exploit the inherent natural resources that often took millennia to develop.

[1] This term was developed by Katrin Muff in the case study of Business School Lausanne with Prof. Dr. J.B. Kassarjian of Babson College (2008-2010).


We often question the impact of research conducted in universities – here is some good news!

Much has been written and much more has been discussed about the lack of impact of social sciences. Here is an outstanding article of how the “Professor Divide at American Universities” can be fixed. The authors make a valid case for a Teaching-Intensive Tenure Track. If you are in education or care about education, this is a must read!

Issue-centered learning

One of the core pillars of management education for the future is to turn current functional-based, single discipline teaching into issue-centered, trans-disciplinary learning. The development of a question-based, creativity-focused approach that enables critical and divergent thinking is an integral part of this.

Future learning environments will be established both inside a classroom and as collaborative learning platforms for action learning and research (collaboratories) in business and other organizations as well as in communities. The choice among all of these different learning settings depends on what stage a student or participant is in the journey towards mastery. As such different settings are needed for acquire awareness and actionable knowledge than we need for guided practice and independent application.

Embedding business and management education in its larger context is an important way to ensure that students perceive the necessity of engaging multiple disciplines and develop the skills required to successfully apply knowledge. Historically, some business schools have attempted to do this through the case study method. Increasingly, innovative business schools are complementing the case method with action learning projects and in this sense are following the lead of medical schools, and also engineering schools that require field-based, engineering capstone projects.

Through learning and skills development that is conducted within a context selected both for its potential learning value and for its potentially positive impact on the problem being addressed, the role and purpose of business, the state of the planet, and awareness of existing and emerging societal issues is dramatically enhanced. Teaching disciplines in isolation may be an efficient way to transfer knowledge, but it misses the opportunity to develop in students and participants deep understanding of when and how to apply knowledge, and the skill to do so effectively.  Disciplinary expertise is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. It must be complemented by deep understanding and leadership skills if students are going to develop the competencies required to solve complex multi-disciplinary problems.

Issue-centered learning is organized around existing and emerging societal and environmental global issues (i.e. water, health, poverty, climate, pollution, migration, energy, renewable resources) on a global and local scale and ensures that students develop the following characteristics, skills and competencies that complements the functional knowledge they learn and enables them to become leaders for a sustainable future:

  • A global, holistic, long-term and visionary perspective
  • Clarity, focus and intensity of commitment
  • Highly motivated to do good; to do the right thing (ethical thinking translated into action)
  • Highly evolved capacity for creative, critical, holistic, ethical and systemic thinking and decision-making
  • Ability to navigate through uncertainty, ambiguity, setbacks, challenges and problems
  • Action and results oriented. Self-starter with a high need for achievement.
  • Patient (with respect to staying the course) AND Impatient (with respect to being driven to achieve results as fast as possible)
  • Highly skilled in learning by doing; adapting; making and learning from mistakes quickly and inexpensively
  • Integrative; skilled at boundary spanning
  • Skillful in figuring out root causes; determining critical success factors; and focusing on what is most important

An issue-centered education integrates disciplinary knowledge (finance, marketing, strategy, HR) when appropriate in the learning journey of attempting to resolving a specific issue (water, migration, climate change, poverty, etc.).  Conventional wisdom is challenges by uncovering underlying assumptions of the dominant discourse – in any domain. We need to develop innovators who will question the status-quo and challenge current assumptions. Issues-centered learning is critical for ensuring that graduates are able to embrace the larger context within which their organizations operate.