Transformative change starts with responsible research

We have a duty to teach the next generation of business leaders about inclusivity, sustainability and corporate responsibility, say Erika H. James and Ilian Mihov

February 28, 2023
Source: istock

Those who hoped for a quiet start to the year after 2022’s turbulence have been disappointed. Fresh geopolitical rifts – surveillance balloons above the US, Russian threats to escalate military action – have opened up, while rising food and energy prices continue to impact consumers. Economic growth across Europe is sluggish, and industrial disputes on both sides of the Atlantic are dragging on. The threats of wildfires, extreme heat and flooding – which stem from global warming – also loom large.

While some turn to political leaders for answers, others are increasingly looking to businesses for leadership on these pressing global problems. According to the latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, the public continued to place greater trust in businesses than any other institutions – just ahead of NGOs, and some distance ahead in the trust stakes than governments or the media.

While this shift is partly a result of eroding confidence in failing political systems and divisive media coverage, it also represents the increasing reach of many multinational organisations, whose recognition of their growing responsibilities has led them to be identified as a force for good.

Heads of companies big and small must heed this call. To succeed in business but strengthen their trusted position, further insights are needed, but they must be found in a responsible way.

Responsible research isn’t just about acting ethically when collecting data; it is about recognising changing social values and the scientific realities faced by business – particularly the idea that business cannot leave people, communities or less resource-rich societies behind.

Profit is not always king. Forward-thinking business scholars must consider the impacts of business action on nature and communities, thus addressing the global risks that concern today’s leaders. For instance, at Insead, the Humanitarian Research Group examines sustainable production and consumption, closed-loop supply chains and the circular economy. This work has yielded results that have improved disaster logistics and access to life-saving medicines.

Aligning research with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been important for these Insead initiatives, which have sought to leverage the principles of business as a force for social good. The group helped to feed into the European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which has helped consumers and businesses to save millions of euros while reducing emissions and landfill.

At the Wharton School, rigorous research from its Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Initiative has similarly driven progress in environmental regulations and business best practice. Additionally, Wharton’s newly formed Coalition for Equity & Opportunity (Wharton CEO) now provides the data-driven insights that will allow businesses to make informed decisions in the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.

Last summer Wharton and Insead came together to sponsor the Responsible Research in Business and Management Summit, where researchers, CEOs and UN leaders shared perspectives on how responsible research opens new paths to prosperity for responsible business. The need for responsible decision-making, the private sector’s role in achieving the 17 SDGs and the need for greater research into innovative technologies and techniques were all key takeaways.

Inclusivity, sustainability and corporate responsibility are not just buzzwords – or even fashionable add-ons for companies. They are crucial ingredients for business success –companies have clear reasons to embrace responsible business models and practices. Diversity and inclusion bring new perspectives and new voices to discuss solutions. Sustainability action can lower overhead costs and increase appeal in new market segments. Social procurement and sustainable supply chains create positive impact on a global scale. And investment in a climate-safe future often provides the same or better returns compared with traditional investments.

Business schools serve as a vital bridge between knowledge creation and putting the results of such academic research into practice. As thought leaders and educators, we have a duty to pass on this knowledge through our teaching to the next generation of business leaders. We must ensure that they understand the importance of responsible research and use that knowledge to make responsible decisions that consider the full environmental, natural and human impact of their actions.

Climate change is now in focus, with current responses set to fall short of global goals. Inequality is on the rise between countries and within countries, with wealth disparities driving unequal outcomes. A coordinated green recovery from the pandemic did not materialise as instability and conflict continue to agitate global markets.

This is not a moment for business to blink in the face of adversity. Organisations that survive and thrive in the post-Covid economy will rise to meet this pivotal moment. This year, we need more responsible research at more business schools around the world. We need more leaders looking to responsible research to define the future of their businesses and industries.

Embracing responsibility empowers visionary leaders to make informed choices and puts business at the forefront of solutions to pressing global challenges. For businesses looking to lead in the 21st century, the solution space is a great place to be.

Erika H. James is the dean of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and Ilian Mihov is the dean of Insead, near Paris, In June 2022, Insead and Wharton co-organised the 2022 Responsible Research Summit, whose 2023 summit will take place at Insead’s Europe campus later this year.

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