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Case Studies in CSM’s MBA Programme

The MBA Programm at CSM – Linking theory with practice to educate change agents for sustainability

MBA Sustainability Management Workshop Bionade Gruppenfoto Real life cases in the MBA Sustainability Management

In a one-week company-internal workshop, MBA students in groups of 5-6 persons develop solutions for real life problems from our practice partners. The students stay the whole week at company premises and are in close contact with a ‘topic sponsor’ (Ger. “Themenpate”) and various employees. At the end of the week the participants present their results to a jury of company representatives and external experts.

Until now, 11 real life cases have been organised with partners of all size and industry sectors, among them BASF, BIONADE, EWE, IKEA, Vaillant, Lufthansa, memo, and Dräxlmaier. The topics are as diverse as the companies themselves. Examples include sustainability strategies, communication concepts for corporate sustainability, tools for carbon footprinting, and key performance indicators for energy management.


In response to an increasingly perceived lack of systematically qualified sustainability management experts, the MBA Sustainability Management of the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM) at Leuphana University in Lueneburg enrolled its first students in 2003.

As the worldwide first MBA fully dedicated to sustainability management, the programm deals with a broad set of sustainability challenges and solutions primarily from a management perspective. The MBA aspires to support sustainable development through educating change agents in business and society. The ultimate educational goal of fostering “change agents for sustainability” refers to the cultivation of a complex and extremely demanding competence profile. Students not only acquire expert knowledge in the fields of general and sustainability management, but they also attain comprehensive soft skills and key competencies to convince, inspire and take action in order to shape companies and societies in a sustainable way.

The two-year part-time or one year full-time continuous education programme is designed with a modern blended learning approach, combining a multimedia-based e-learning platform with printed course materials and on-campus seminars. To be accepted for the programme, students must have at least two years of professional work experience. On average, past and current students have about 9–10 years of working experience.

The didactical principles refer to application-orientated, self-organised learning with intensive tutorial support, collaboration and interdisciplinarity at highest academic level. The whole MBA programm is designed to bringing together a strong theoretical basis in the field of sustainability management with entrepreneurial spirit and practical implementation approaches.

Spanning boundaries proves to be a permanent task for the MBA programme in Sustainability Management. Due to the diverse educational and professional biographies of the students, different cultural backgrounds and heterogeneous levels of experiences, building bridges and overcoming supposed contradictions is both an educational challenge and an important key competency for sustainability managers. To address students’ diversity and link theory with practice, the MBA programme uses various teaching and learning formats.  One of these formats is through real life cases (company-internal workshops) and case study seminars.

Gruppenbild_MBA Sustainability Management_Workshop_Dräxlmaier - © Dräxlmaier Group

© Dräxlmaier Group

Case study trainings – revealing and spanning boundaries between theory and practice

The first reason to employ real life cases and case study trainings as boundary spanning learning formats is the students’ proximity to practice. Either as live situations or as vividly written, acoustic and pictorial descriptions of real life management challenges, case studies have the capacity to intensively and immediately involve students as imagined prota­go­nists into concrete problem-solving processes. However, confronting the students with a “detective story” alone does not yet span any boundaries between theory and practice. Therefore, studying and applying theories and concepts are considered essential preconditions for the case study teaching process at the CSM. For this reason, we primarily apply case studies in the advanced stage of the programme, bringing together acquired theoretical knowledge, methodological competencies, and soft skills with the professional experience of the students. As in typical real life projects, students work in interdisciplinary teams to solve practical sustainability problems of a company or any other type of organisation.

Another advantage of case study teaching is that it provides the free­dom of an ar­ti­fi­cial learning space that encourages students to en­gage in cre­ative, innovative ‚out of the box‘ pro­blem-sol­ving without losing sight of the prac­ti­cal relevance and appli­cability of the developed solutions. For professional students, this freedom proves to be of exceptional value as it offers a rare opportunity to veer off conventional paths and promote experimentation.  A jury with our practice partners assesses the student presentation and discusses performance, whereas a written report is evaluated by CSM professors and lecturers.  As a result, students receive an unvarnished feedback and become aware of boundaries between theory and practice or between different industry sectors. Additionally, jury members exchange their opinions and assessment criteria and therefore often exceed the scope of their particular background.

The capacity of case studies to span boundaries between theory and practice is not restricted to ‚mere‘ theory and concept applications. Besides real life cases, in which practitioners, students and researchers come together, the CSM has developed written case studies in cooperation with regional business partners. In this process practitioners are intensively involved in the research and writing process about their ‚real life‘ management challenges. As our local partners are curious to hear the results, some representatives also take part in on campus case study seminars at in Lueneburg. Thus, a three-fold knowledge transfer and learning process between professionally experienced students, practitioners and academia is induced.


The MBA in Sustainability Management provides a boundary spanning approach embedded in a diverse set of teaching methods. On the one hand, it places emphasis on concept-based solutions of practical case problems. On the other hand, it is embedded in a set of various learning and teaching methods. This enables to benefit from the strength of case studies as a highly practice- and application-oriented format without losing sight of the importance to impart theoretical and con­ceptual knowledge beyond the single case. In this way the transdisciplinary approach of case study teaching in the MBA Sustainability Management enables mutual learning of change agents for sustainability.

Dr. Charlotte Hesselbarth and Sabine Mirkovic

More about spanning sustainability management boundaries in the latest CSM Newsletter: http://www.leuphana.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Forschungseinrichtungen/csm/files/newsletter/CSM_Newsletter_2012.pdf