Business schools told to focus research on ‘big issues’

Conference hears scholars should focus on challenges like climate change and global sustainability, not the corporate world

November 7, 2018
Climate change in action
Source: iStock

Business schools must do more research into the “big issues” of the modern world to ensure they stay relevant to businesses and policymakers, a conference has heard.

Anand Anandalingam, professor of management science at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, said that most of the research taking place in business schools did not focus on the issues that concern policymakers, governments or businesses. These are the “big questions”, such as climate change, global conflict or droughts.

“I think the research agenda [in business schools] is too narrow and too focused on what the corporate world can do in the next year or two, we’re not working on the big issues,” he told the Chartered Association of Business Schools’ annual conference. “We need to capture the imagination of the public at large. If you show what you’re doing is topical and relevant, money will come in.”

Professor Anandalingam said that business schools had a lot to offer on these kinds of issues, for example climate change and its impact on finance, particularly on how to insure against the impact of climate change. “That’s what I would encourage my faculty members to do: work on these issues,” he said.  

Part of the reason why governments look at business schools in a different way to the rest of a university is because “they are not sure what we are contributing to society”, Professor Anandalingam said. “Have we done something significant, like cancer? They don’t know – and we haven’t.”

Lynne Berry, a visiting professor at Cass Business School at City, University of London and chair of the Breast Cancer Now charity, said that some business schools were doing research in these kinds of areas but added that they could do more.

“Sometimes it’s about the minutiae of the supply chain but it’s also about those big pictures,” she said. Business schools can help global industry address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and modern slavery, for example, and “if we don’t do that, the businesses we work with will think that we’re not as relevant as they’d hoped”, she said.

Earlier speakers also emphasised that business schools needed to demonstrate their relevance to policymakers during a discussion on how institutions can contribute to the UK’s industrial strategy.

The challenge was proving that they can connect research and their education to the priorities of the industrial strategy goals to make the UK an innovative and productive economy, according to Simon Collinson, former chair of Cabs. For example, they have the expertise to help build strong businesses from the technological advances the industrial strategy aims to fund.

Institutions need to “take a piece of that funding and prove we are the bridge”, said Professor Collinson, deputy pro vice-chancellor for regional economic engagement at the University of Birmingham.

Ann Dowling, chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that researchers in business schools should be involved in commercialisation activities linked to all of the strands of the industrial strategy, “as they will not be profitable unless current business models change”. They will, however, need to engage with science and technology research in other parts of the university to show their worth.

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