The Responsible Management Education Research (RMER) Conferences are part of the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative, which is designed to equip Business students with the skills needed to balance economic and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
RMER conferences are organised in collaboration with various PRME chapters and working groups. They serve as a platform for the global PRME community to share and discuss new ideas, approaches, theories, experiences, and practical applications related to responsible leadership education and the advancement of SDGs.
This year’s 10th annual RMER conference was hosted by the Iscte Business School in Lisbon/Portugal and featured a diverse array of speakers and participants from business, education, government, the non-profit sector and broader society. One of the keynote speakers was one of Torrens University Australia’s accomplished academics, Dr Heinz Herrmann, who is also a Research Fellow with the university’s Centre of Organisational Change and Agility (COCA).
A former CEO with more than 25 years of experience in technology, media and telecommunications, including commercial and not-for-profit board director roles, Dr Herrmann was asked to make a keynote presentation on the topic of ‘The Role of AI in Management Education, and how it can support sustainable business practices.’
A different approach to artificial intelligence (AI)
Within his keynote, Dr Herrmann highlighted the difference between a computer algorithm versus an AI algorithm, as well as a closer look at how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly used in industry, research and education, pointing out opportunities and risks.
“Speed can masquerade as intelligence but speed is not the same as intelligence. The most recent wave of AI technology in this century is ‘algorithmic AI,’ which uses machine learning, neural nets, and big data. Neural nets have evolved in the late 2010s towards generative AI with ChatGPT perhaps being the most prominent product at the moment although products are sprawling.”
“Generative AI produces opportunities, as well as risks, for higher education around the world, and universities have taken different approaches to address both. Outside education, we have seen several spectacular failures of AI in the last decade, which has led to the emergence of Responsible Artificial Intelligence (RAI) as a new field of research and practice,” Dr Herrmann explained.
A passion for sustainable development and a commitment to advancing the UN SDGs
In his keynote, Dr Herrmann explained the need for further action and more sustainability-focused education pointing to the SDGs’ 169 specific targets the UN hopes to reach by 2030, including ending poverty and hunger, building quality education systems, advancing gender equality, and providing clean water and sanitation, as well as affordable energy.
Dr Herrmann added that the lack of progress towards targets prompted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a foreword to the 2023 SDG progress report to state: ‘Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been.’
“We as business schools and universities involved with educating business leaders have to roll our sleeves up”, says Dr Herrmann. “Leaders do not apply systems thinking in their decision-making, so they either don’t see or don’t care about the interconnected impact of unintended consequences on the sustainability of their decisions. In my view, education needs to step up to address managerial myopia and ethical decision-making explicitly in the curriculum.”
A recognised socially and environmentally responsible AI researcher, with connections to the industry.
Dr Herrmann’s research focus is around competitive bidding/tendering, artificial intelligence, business ethics and mixed methods research. His research in Responsible Artificial Intelligence (RAI) has been conducted under the auspices of Torrens University’s Centre of Organisational Change and Agility (COCA).
“My 35-year industry career also provides RAI case studies for student learning, and my industry background also keeps me focused on applied research, as opposed to fundamental research.”
“In terms of the research-teaching nexus, research informs my teaching and vice versa,” said Dr Herrmann. “I embed sustainability and the SDGs onto every subject I teach, and the subjects I have taught at Torrens University have had a great impact on my choice of research and four of my research publications have already become part of the subject material for our students.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a double-edged sword towards the achievement of SDGs
Dr Heinz Herrmann pointed out, that research has identified that AI has the potential to support the achievement of 134 of the 169 SDG targets. However, he also acknowledges that AI needs human leadership to refocus on sustainable outcomes, which “often is a double-edged sword”.
“Perhaps the biggest issue is that the leaders of the business world in the industry are KPI’d with a high priority on economic results at the expense of social and environmental ones”.
“This is also reflected in how AI has been developed to date. Where public commitments are made by corporations, they often are alibi-driven ‘ethics washing’ and-or intended to attract motivated leaders in the war for talent and then suck them into the grind of profit growth above all else.”
“This needs to stop,” says Dr Herrmann. “However, how that can be stopped is a problem which, maybe only be resolved ultimately through global regulation to force systemic change. It is fundamentally a ‘wicked problem’ resulting from an unintended consequence of capitalism.”
“Unfortunately, we are seeing trends towards mounting national self-interest in major economies. The focus seems to be on the ‘now’, but in the end, we won’t die with a smile on our faces unless we come together, despite this trend. We are killing our planet and we are exploiting ourselves as humans.”
Even in the face of these complex challenges, Dr Herrmann remains optimistic that change is possible
“As a leverage point,” he said: “I believe we should start to more radically put effort into redesigning the globally different flavours of capitalism towards SDG goals, information flows across all stakeholders including the public, and self-organisation of that redesign as a community of all stakeholders.
“Everyone’s effort and ultimately voting counts in this. But details are so important here. Let us make sure in such complex undertakings that we do not carry on to discriminate – consciously or unconsciously – against our minority community members. It is important to remind ourselves that since the year 2020, the richest one percent of the world captured nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created. If you are financially secure, take a reality check on the rest of the world or even just your local community”.