Business school research must be refocused on social challenges

Schools should be hubs of interdisciplinarity, co-producing research and solutions with key stakeholder groups, says Ansgar Richter

十月 3, 2021
Business people hold a small plant, symbolising business school impact
Source: iStock

In a post pandemic world, where it feels like everything has been called into question, schools of business and management are being asked to provide evidence of the value they bring to society.

Research plays a key role. Many business schools have transformed from teaching-driven institutions into research-driven ones. As result, many have developed an incentive system that puts a heavy emphasis on academics’ publishing productivity. But competition for publication space is so high that a vast amount of research is published in outlets that fail to make an impact. And the whole publication process takes so long that the usefulness of the knowledge is compromised.

At the same time, junior scholars are under such pressure to publish quickly that many pursue lower-risk research strategies. Senior faculty tend to have greater freedom to make more fundamental contributions that may carry higher risks, but often they have not received the training that would enable them to break out of their disciplinary silos. In both cases, the innovation and impact of their research suffer.

There is also a tendency to favour the “lone researcher” model, supporting individual research at a time when society’s grand challenges require solutions born of diverse, cross-disciplinary perspectives that go beyond just technological innovation.

Business scholars could offer vital input into such endeavours. “Green plastics”, for instance, will not solve the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans unless we help companies re-examine their supply chains, change their packaging, and encourage their customers to adopt different buying habits.

Business schools are responding to the political demands for a greater civic role, and the way they define purpose is rapidly changing. But to ensure that the knowledge they produce has impact, more is needed. Institutions must change their missions, governance, faculty and knowledge production models for both research and education. They must embrace more transformative, human-centred knowledge production models. And they must do so in collaboration with other disciplines and key external stakeholders, including policymakers, practitioners and public groups.

In order to reposition their research, business schools can adopt one of three models. Those that are part of a wider institution that values them as research entities in their own right can adopt what be might called the broker model, playing the role of co-producer of impact and value with other disciplines.

An alternative is the relevance model, whereby schools incorporate real-world relevance into the existing core of their research portfolios. Essential to this model is an emphasis on making scholarly research accessible to practitioners. The limitation is that it still emphasises scholarly publication over the translation of research for practice. 

The more radical alternative, with the greatest long-term promise, is the catalysing model. This has the notion of co-creation at its core, moving business schools from an emphasis on “linear valorisation”, in which schools and faculty are the primary beneficiaries of research, to an emphasis on “dual validation”, which recognises that business and management research is a social science in which schools co-produce research and solutions with key societal stakeholder groups.

Yet the catalysing model also presents the greatest challenges. Reimagining research requires visible and inspirational leadership, for instance. For instance, schools could create new dean or associate dean positions dedicated to promoting engagement and impact. However, these figures cannot operate in isolation. They must be backed by specialist support staff, partner closely with a dean or associate dean for research, and have the overt support of the overall school dean and the entire senior leadership team to give their work internal legitimacy and visibility. This will also help garner wider institutional support.

Supporting structures also need to change. Schools must break down their traditional silos and foster multidisciplinary teams of researchers with complementary skills. They must emphasise interdisciplinary work as they secure and allocate funding and engage policymakers.

Another area of required change is staffing and incentives. Business schools’ default position has been to reward researchers for pursuing linear careers based on academic publication. They need to embrace different models emphasising a greater diversity of approaches to research and impact. In other words, schools need to diversify by appointing academics who engage with policy and practice as part of their ethos and identities. And they need to foster equity by rewarding both those faculty who are strong engagers and communicators and those who publish prolifically.

Ultimately, business schools need to create truly inclusive teams that bring together academics with differing skills to generate ideas, secure funding, produce academic publications, and translate findings into real-world impact. If these changes can be made, leaders and researchers can make large strides in addressing the huge challenges our societies and economies currently face.

Ansgar Richter is dean of Rotterdam School of Management and professor of corporate strategy, organisation and governance at Erasmus University. This article emerged from a collaboration with RSM colleague Wilfred Mijnhardt and Lancaster University’s Katy Mason and Angus Laing, as well as conversations with the global business education accrediting body AACSB.



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Reader's comments (2)

Nicely explained about the focus by business schools
Great article. All the more reason to increase the weight given to impact in the REF and reduce the weight of "world leading, in your dreams" research that no one cares to read or cite and of no use to anyone.