Lessons in Corporate Sustainability —
And the Future of Higher Education

global network courses
Less than a year ago, Jenn Hoyle was asked if she would be interested in helping build a new Yale online course for global MBA students.
Hoyle, who is studying hydrology — not business — as a Ph.D. student at F&ES, admits that she had little exposure to online learning at the time, but was attracted to the challenge of learning more about this new direction in higher ed.
Over the next several months, Hoyle worked with a team from F&ES, the Yale School of Management (SOM), and the Yale Broadcast & Media Center to create the course, Natural Capital: Managing Risks and Opportunities in Global Resource Systems — which was launched in January. Designed for students in the Global Network for Advanced Management’s partner schools, the curriculum explored real-world resource challenges facing major companies.
By late March, Prof. Brad Gentry, the course instructor, was leading a discussion on Coca-Cola’s water management strategy — a case study developed by Hoyle and Sarah Short M.B.A. ‘13. Following along were nearly 60 MBA students from across 15 times zones.
“The course was very unique; every student participated in the same forum whether they were on the Yale campus or they were in China,” says Hoyle. “No matter what time of day it was for them, everyone was seeing the same interactions.”
Beyond offering a dynamic online learning experience for students enrolled in the course, the Natural Capital project offered a valuable foray into the emerging world of online education for the Yale students, faculty, and staff who developed the course.
Organizers estimate that nearly 150 people — including nine students and several professors from F&ES — were involved in developing the course, from creating the curriculum and designing the online resources to delivering lectures and working with the companies featured in the case studies.
The course is a centerpiece in the new partnership among F&ES, SOM, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
“Linking questions of sustainability and complex systems into this network of business schools has allowed participants to get comfortable having active on-line connections with people in other locations,” said Gentry, a professor at F&ES and SOM. “But it has also enabled us to connect with more faculty and students, and have them connect with each other in a lot of different ways.”
The course had two primary objectives, Gentry says. One was to make MBA students aware of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of companies’ use of natural resources, including energy, water, materials, food, climate and natural places. The other was to illustrate that companies’ dependence on these resources can be as much a business opportunity as a hindrance.
And the Web offered a unique opportunity to engage, in real time, numerous players involved in the complex management of these resource systems, including the very companies who depend upon them.
For each resource system, the course explored actual business dilemmas faced by companies as a consequence of this resource dependence. In addition to reviewing Coca-Cola’s management of water resources, for example, the course examined Alcoa’s effort to sell more aluminum to the automotive sector to meet multiple sustainability goals and analyzed the market opportunities for General Electric’s water-treatment equipment in the the shale gas sector.
Throughout the semester, students heard directly from the company officials themselves, in addition to Yale professors and guest lecturers from around the world.
“When you’re trying to dig into real systems that are facing real issues, you have to work in teams and you need to bring in people who are really knowledgeable about different facets of the system,” Gentry said.
“Digital technologies allow you to do that so much more easily. You don’t have to put someone in the car or onto an airplane. You can call them in their office and interact with them online from there.”
For the Yale students who coordinated the course, it’s the type of technology-driven network that they will encounter when they enter the workforce, said Stuart DeCew, director of the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, which helped coordinate the course. 
“There is a model here for approaching bigger problems and achieving deeper collaborations,” DeCew said. “This is the same thing that we want students to be able to do when they get out in the world and deal with environmental challenges.”
And throughout the process, he said, the project fostered connections across different spheres, including between F&ES and SOM, between business and academia, and between the MBA students worldwide.

The course was created in partnership with Yale's Office of Digital Dissemination & Online Education, whose involvement was led by Senior Manager Sara Epperson.

While Yale is exploring several different models in online education, from massive open courses to hybrid degree programs, the small networked online class utilized by Gentry offers a unique opportunity to create a network of talented students worldwide, said Lucas Swineford, Executive Director of the Office of Digital Dissemination & Online Education. “Student are truly able to enter a global classroom, where students are in different locations, sharing different cultural perspectives,” Swineford said. “It really puts the learning in a completely different context.”
One of the first Yale students to get involved in the project last summer was Laura Franceschini M.E.M. ’14.
Franceschini, who spent several years developing sustainability strategies for businesses, was asked to be a teaching assistant (TA) and helped develop the module for the material systems chapter of the course. Like several other students, she completed the work as an independent study.
“I was really interested in knowing how a course at Yale is developed,” she said. “It seems like it would be a structured process. And it was structured, but we had to make up a lot of things as we went along because this type of course had never been done before.”
To develop the curriculum, organizers created teams that included students from F&ES and SOM to assure that each component represented the environmental science accurately, but was framed in a way that was appropriate for an MBA course.
“It was really a group effort… students [from SOM and F&ES] working together, thinking this through, arguing it through, making sure that all views are properly represented,” said David Bach, Senior Associate Dean for Executive MBA and Global Programs at the Yale School of Management.
For Jenn Hoyle, the F&ES doctoral student studying hydrology issues, the interaction with students from SOM was one of the most valuable parts of the experience.
“I typically work in a very specific area focused on leading issues in watershed management,” she said. “So I lose perspective of the fact that not everyone thinks that watershed management is crucial to the future of our water supplies.
“I was teamed up with a business school student, and just our back and forth — between Sarah [Short]’s emphasis on the skill set and perspective of our audience, and my efforts to articulate which big themes we should highlight in the curriculum — was a valuable exercise.”
For Franceschini, who frequently split her academic load between F&ES and SOM courses, integrating her environmental background into a business framework was more of a natural fit. In fact, she hopes that these two worlds will overlap more often in the future.
“I really believe that sustainability should be integrated into the core curriculum of every MBA program, and this course is a first step toward that,” she said. “The intent of the course really resonated with me. And I would love to think that someday this course, or something similar, might be integrated into the curriculums for one of the business schools that we worked with.”
PUBLISHED: May 27, 2014
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.