The pandemic offers a unique opportunity for business schools to further embrace the social responsibility agenda, says Hongwei He.

There is now an increasing acceptance that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a long time. As academics and staff working in a business school we, like everyone, are adjusting to this new normal and working out how to shape and direct it for the better.

One opportunity is for us to drive further our social responsibility (SR) agenda and this is a subject I have recently written about in both the Journal of Business Research and in an article for Forbes.

As I have touched upon, during this difficult time business schools are in a unique and strong position to be more socially responsible for a number of reasons. Not only do we have increasingly diverse expertise but it also presents a unique opportunity to develop our students to be more socially responsible business and societal leaders.

Also this is a critical time to demonstrate our care to our employees, students and wider communities, while it is also an opportunity to demonstrate our leadership. And finally, but by no means least, we need to be prepared for the post-pandemic recovery.

Diverse expertise

With the pandemic affecting every single aspect of our society, business schools are in a unique and strong position to contribute to our fight against it due to our diverse expertise.

For instance, new research in the fields of accounting/finance and economics can provide policy advice on economic and financial incentives to keep the economy going during the ongoing pandemic and post-pandemic recovery.

Behavioural science is particularly suited to offer insights on the compliance issues regarding rules of social distancing, quarantine, self-isolation, and so on. While marketing and consumer behaviour research can help with the development of effective communications and social marketing campaigns.

And healthcare managementsustainable consumption, and operation management teams, such as those at Alliance MBS, have been at the forefront of helping organisations prepare for recovery. People management and organisational research can also help with understanding employee mental health issues and work-life balance, and providing safer workplace environments. There is also a role for big data and analytics in helping to predict the development of the pandemic and coping and intervention strategies.

Developing socially responsible future leaders

Developing socially responsible graduates is one of the core missions of the University of Manchester’s SR strategy, and COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to further achieve this mission.

For instance we can use the opportunity of e-learning and blended learning development to embed more SR materials in our curricula, while we can also, for instance, ask students to develop communications campaigns to encourage people to adhere to social distancing rules.

We also have a responsibility to educate and help our students behave in a socially responsible way during their studies, and their own experiences of socially responsible behaviour in controlling the spread of COVID-19 helps them to be socially responsible graduates.

Demonstrating our care

The pandemic is also an acid test of us being a caring organisation. A socially responsible business school needs to put in place the most rigorous safety measures for its staff and students, and our commitment to engaging with and serving the community has never been under such a critical threat.

The impact of opening our campus on the wider community cannot be underestimated. All necessary measures need to be put in place to minimise any potential negative impact on the spread of the virus. Failing to meet the test would set a potentially very bad example for our students and tarnish our reputation.

What we do in terms of all of the above aspects and measures is also a test of our leadership in wider communities. Business schools have been leaders in driving societal changes and business/social innovation thanks to our close links with industry and other institutions, our research with social impact, and our track record in educating future leaders.

We now need to take a leadership position with regards to our continued efforts in fighting COVID-19. Taking proactive initiatives, establishing partnership and collaborations, and simply being a good role model are some of the ways of leading during this difficult time. We should be the beacon for hope and optimism and set good examples for others to emulate and follow.

Being prepared for recovery

Finally, SR is more important now because we should be prepared for the post-pandemic recovery.

One day COVID-19 will disappear, or at least be diminished. But it has changed the world, accelerating trends such as working from home, online shopping, and the transformation of high streets and city centres. In this context, business schools should capitalise on their strengths and expertise to contribute to our society’s adjustment to these accelerated changes. At the same time we also need to adapt to new ways of conducting research and educating our students.

Moreover, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated both new and ingrained social issues such as inequality, discrimination, and mental well-being. Not only do we need to tackle these issues ourselves, but also we need to offer advice and solutions to the wider community.

Professor Hongwei He is Professor of Marketing and Director for Social Responsibility at Alliance Manchester Business School.

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