Celebrating 20 years of Business-Society Management

In the 1990s, when cutting-edge business scholars began to focus on the relationship between business and society, most of them organised seminars on business in society or business and society. But this didn’t quite make sense to RSM professors Muel Kaptein, Lucas Meijs and Rob van Tulder because the combinations treated business as something separate from the rest of life. They sought to change that.

Story by Bennett Voyles

The alternative they proposed when they launched their department on the subject 20 years ago was Business-Society Management (B-SM). ‘The idea was that the focus of a management school’s scholarly attention should be on the interaction between business and society (which is why the hyphen is used). Business not only accommodates society and operates within a given context but actively influences society as well,’ the three recall in their recently published book about the history of the department, Mainstreaming Sustainable Business: 20 years Business-Society Management, 20-year impact?

Two decades later, the department, the first of its kind in a European business school, is still focused squarely on that hyphen, but has grown beyond the three professors and now encompasses 35 staff members and 109 master degree students. B-SM’s holistic approach to major societal challenges has taken root in many classrooms and boardrooms around the world – thanks in part to the efforts of the B-SM’s 1,200 alumni.

Rigorous approach

B-SM turned out to be in the vanguard of a revolution in management education that saw business not as a sphere that was separate from society but as one more force in society – and a potentially powerful instrument for achieving larger social goals. 

Scholars like Dr Corinna Frey-Heger took note. RSM’s B-SM department ‘had been on my radar for a long time already, because it combined an interest in real-world challenges and global social issues with a very rigorous approach to research,’ says Frey-Heger, the most recent addition to the faculty, and who earned her PhD at Cambridge for a thesis on innovation and knowledge management in response to the refugee crises. ‘Sometimes in the academic world it’s hard to find a department that’s good at combining both,’ she says.

Wicked problems

B-SM trains students to focus on complex real-world challenges that go far beyond traditional business concerns about profit and loss. For example, students in Frey-Heger’s next Sustainable Grand Challenges class will be assigned a “wicked problem” posed by Commonland, a non-profit founded by B-SM executive fellow Willem Ferwerda that is dedicated to restoring vast swathes of ecologically devastated country all over the world through a combination of business, philanthropic and governmental resources.

‘We try to nurture our faculty in the department and our students in the master programme to be critical, independent thinkers,’ says Prof. Joep Cornelissen, who heads the B-SM department.

And they seem to have succeeded: a number of faculty and alumni have regularly featured in Dutch newspaper Trouw’s annual list of the Netherlands’ top 100 “greenest thinkers and doers”, including Ferwerda and Li An Phoa. Phoa is founder of the Drinkable Rivers initiative and of Spring College, a nomadic school focused on fostering ecological thought.

Facing the challenge

According to Prof. Meijs, over time the department has evolved from a focus on businesses’ relationships with their stakeholders toward more direct involvement with resolving difficult issues, particularly those having to do with broadly defined sustainability.

Today’s students tend to take their studies much more personally, integrating its lessons more deeply into their lives than B-SM students once did, said Prof. Meijs. ‘Ten years ago, this was just an interesting option and it didn’t relate to their private lives. Now you can see them living how they talk.’

When she arrived in September, Frey-Heger also noticed an unusual degree of focus among the B-SM students. ‘Some of them had a very specific idea of what they wanted to do. For example: “I’m interested in finding better ways of keeping the ocean plastic-free,”’ she said.

The right angle

Although the MSc Global Business & Sustainability that B-SM graduate students earn is popular with recruiters, the current students don’t seem to be as focused on whether they work for commercial or not-for-profit organisations as might be expected, says Prof. Cornelissen. For this generation, such distinctions almost seem beside the point.

‘My sense generally is that our students really want to work for companies that do good. Whether that’s a social enterprise, a non-profit, or a larger corporate, they don’t care as long as it has a moral compass,’ he explained.

It might also reflect a perspective they are picking up as students in B-SM, and which 2003 graduate David Frans, now a partner in the energy practice of consultancy firm Roland Berger, recalls in the book: ‘You can add value anywhere. It’s just a matter of looking at it from the right angle.’

More information

For copies of the book Mainstreaming Sustainable Business: 20 years Business-Society Management, 20-year impact?, please contact Ronny Reshef via

This article was first published in the winter 2018 edition of RSM Outlook – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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