Business school research must refocus on societal issues


In a post-pandemic world, where one has the impression that everything is called into question, business and management schools are invited to provide proof of the value they bring to society.

Research plays a key role. Many business schools have moved from teaching-oriented institutions to research-oriented ones. As a result, many have developed an incentive system that places a strong emphasis on the editorial productivity of academics. But the competition for the publishing space is so strong that a large amount of research is published in media that has no impact. And the whole publishing process takes so long that the usefulness of the knowledge is compromised.

At the same time, young researchers are under such pressure to publish quickly that many of them are pursuing low-risk research strategies. Senior teachers 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 allow them to break out of their disciplinary silos. In both cases, the innovation and impact of their research suffers.

There is also a tendency to favor the “solitary researcher” model, supporting individual research at a time when the great challenges of society require solutions born from diverse and transdisciplinary perspectives that go beyond simple technological innovation.

Business specialists could make a vital contribution to such ventures. “Green plastics”, for example, will not solve the problem of plastic pollution in the oceans unless they help companies re-examine their supply chains, change their packaging and encourage their customers to adopt healthy habits. different purchases.

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

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

An alternative is the relevance model, in which schools integrate real-world relevance into the existing core of their research portfolios. An essential element of this model is to focus on making academic research available to practitioners. The limitation is that it always emphasizes scholarly publication over translation of research for practice.

The most radical alternative, the most promising in the long term, is the catalytic model. This is based on the notion of co-creation, shifting business schools from an emphasis on ‘linear valuation’, in which schools and teachers are the main beneficiaries of research, to an emphasis on ‘dual validation ”, which recognizes that business and management research is a social science in which schools co-produce research and solutions with major groups of societal actors.

Yet the catalytic model also presents the greatest challenges. Rethinking research requires visible and inspiring leadership, for example. For example, schools could create new Dean or Associate Dean positions dedicated to promoting engagement and impact. However, these numbers cannot work in isolation. They must be supported by specialized support staff, work closely with a Dean or Associate Dean for research, and have the demonstrated support of the Dean of the school as a whole and the entire management team. to give their work internal legitimacy and visibility. It will also help to secure broader institutional support.

Support structures must also change. Schools must break down their traditional silos and promote multidisciplinary teams of researchers with complementary skills. They should emphasize interdisciplinary work when securing and allocating funding and engaging decision makers.

Another area of ​​change required is staffing and incentives. The default position of business schools has been to reward researchers pursuing linear careers based on academic publishing. They need to adopt different models emphasizing a greater diversity of research and impact approaches. In other words, schools must diversify by appointing academics who engage in policy and practice within the framework of their ethics and identity. And they must promote equity by rewarding both professors who are strong mobilizers and communicators and those who publish extensively.

Ultimately, business schools need to create truly inclusive teams that bring together academics with different skills to generate ideas, secure funding, produce academic publications, and translate results into real impact. If these changes can be made, leaders and researchers can make great strides in addressing the enormous challenges facing our societies and economies today.

Ansgar Richter is Dean of the Rotterdam School of Management and Professor of Strategy, Organization and Corporate Governance at Erasmus University. This article is the result of collaboration with Wilfred Mijnhard, colleague of RSM, and Katy Mason and Angus Laing of Lancaster University, as well as conversations with the global business education accreditation body AACSB.

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