Instilling sustainable thinking across courses

Special to Western News

Ivey Business School professor Tima Bansal was recently recognized by the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program for her innovative and integrated approach to teaching sustainability, not as an elective or afterthought, but as an essential part of business decisions.

As Tima Bansal sees it, treating sustainability as a standalone, piecemeal concern is counterproductive. In fact, it is unsustainable.

“In the MBA program (at Ivey Business School), students have core courses in the first five months. They all take the same courses; these are presumed to be something every MBA student should know – strategy, finance, operations, marketing. Sustainability, in my mind, isn’t really a course,” said the Ivey professor.

“Sustainability is not something you can teach separately, even though it is something every MBA student should know. What I do is co-teach a single class in every core course – which is still not very much, but still more than most business schools offer.”

Bansal was recently recognized by the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program for this innovative and integrated approach that aims to teach students sustainability, not as an elective or afterthought, but as an essential part of business decisions. The Ideas Worth Teaching Awards honour extraordinary teaching in business education across the globe.

Bansal, Executive Director of the Network for Business Sustainability and Director of the Centre for Building Sustainable Value, was one of just two Canadian winners among a total of 20 who are being recognized for their work on issues of critical importance to the business world.

“This approach allows students to really see sustainability can be applied anywhere and that it is just a different way of thinking. Ideally, it opens up their minds,” she noted.

The definition of sustainable development, Bansal said, is development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the needs of future generations. Simply put, it means “intergenerational equity,” she explained. Business is the means for economic development and if businesses don’t understand sustainability, they will never ensure intergenerational equity.

“Essentially what I do, in each one of the courses, I say, ‘Let’s extend the timeframe. Instead of thinking about the present, let’s think about the future – sometimes even the long-term future – of this decision you are making. Let’s not just think about the organization; let’s think about society and what is in society’s best interest.’” Bansal explained.

“As soon as you extend the students’ minds to the long term, to something much bigger than the organization, it changes the way they approach the business decision.”

Her goal is to open up students’ minds and challenge what they take for granted.

For instance, should a business organization decide to buy a new coal mine? Only if it considers the present, Bansal said. If you consider the future, you have to consider what the future of coal looks like. Does the organization want to put their employee housing in town or on the mine site? If students change the perspective towards what’s better for the society not the organization, they will arrive at a different set of decisions.

“Business studies, organizational studies, tend to be reductionist, tend to try to simplify, to try to get to the nub of a problem. What I’m trying to do is show when you extend the time perspective, or the organizational perspective, you don’t necessarily complexify the problem but you do see different things in the problem so it brings to bear a different set of issues and probably a different decision than you’d make,” she added.

“Organizations, not all, think of sustainability as a different set of activities. Ultimately, it feels like it is tacked on to organizational decision-making. What I’m hoping we will do is train a generation of leaders that think about the bigger system and think about the long term. In doing so, they will secure the prosperity of future generations. The students are changing how they have a conversation. That’s the first step – to recognize they are doing things differently and they can start to embrace it so it becomes second nature and habitual.”

This integrated approach to learning sustainability is helping shape a more prosperous future for Ivey students and the economy in which they will work, Marika Marty, Bansal’s student and MBA Student Association President.

“What’s exciting about bringing sustainability concepts into the business school classroom is the potential to not only to challenge some our more traditional thinking but to also consider some of the opportunity for innovation and transformation in the business world by embracing sustainable practices,” she said.

“As future leaders in the business world, Ivey trains us, every day, to make difficult decisions, and Tima’s approach of team teaching helps us understand how sustainability is not a stand-alone topic; it’s integrated and weighed in many of the decisions we’ll be making across an organization’s landscape – in marketing, finance, accounting, analytics. Integrating principles of sustainability into core business practices is another way of breathing vitality into our economy.”

Bansal’s co-teaching approach is funded by the Royal Bank of Canada. The funding runs out this year and going forward, the approach to teaching sustainability with this integrated model that requires two professors in a classroom is not yet clear, Bansal added.