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How Business Schools Can Help Unlock the Productivity Puzzle


Posted January 29, 2018 by Tim Vorley - Professor of Entrepreneurship and Associate Dean, of Impact, Innovation, & Engagement - Sheffield University Management School

The question of weak global productivity is a story that continues to dominate the mainstream media. Yet businesses tend not to be overly concerned with issues of productivity, per se, instead being preoccupied with efficiency and profitability. That said, the conundrum of productivity growth remains of central concern to governments around the world—and this is particularly acute in the U.K. The now infamous quip of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman—“Productivity isn't everything, but in the long term it is almost everything”—will forever haunt governments.

In academe, productivity was once the privileged domain of economics research, yet this multifaceted challenge has become the research fodder of business and management schools around the world. Since total factor productivity, or the efficiency measure for all inputs involved in a production process, has fallen short of adequately explaining dismal productivity growth, business schools working in fields from leadership and management practice to foreign direct investment, and from innovation to well-being, have the potential to offer real insights. Arguably, this expertise positions business schools at the heart of the productivity debate.

However, the productivity puzzle is more than an academic exercise and, like other research questions, will not be addressed in disciplinary silos. By its nature academic research is often about paradigm building, but to truly advance the productivity debate, those of us in positions to effect change need to challenge the status quo. The launch of the Productivity Insights Network in the U.K., the collaborative effort of nine universities and two private-sector businesses led by Sheffield University Management School, is a model designed to change the tone of the productivity debate in theory and practice. The emphasis is on co-producing new insights and identifying alternative approaches to increasing productivity—with partners from academia, industry, government, and nonprofit organizations—that are both robust and relevant.

AACSB’s Collective Vision, which identifies five distinct opportunities for change in business education, refers to business schools as co-creators of knowledge. By building on their teaching and research strengths to work with businesses and foster dialogues with governments, business schools have the capacity to positively impact the societies of which they are a part. Although many business schools profess to be impactful, how devoutly do they adhere to and deliver against their values? The business school of the future will be evaluated according not only to research and teaching excellence but to impact excellence, as well.

In many respects, business schools are uniquely placed to deliver on impact, not least due to their convening power. The breadth of expertise in business schools often means that they are home to a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary scholars, and can provide a forum to work with academics from different disciplines ranging from the arts and humanities to science and engineering. Moreover, business schools have the ability to serve as a platform to bring together stakeholders, given their strong corporate connections and links to government bodies. This shared space serves as a distinct strength for co-producing new insights that have impact for theory and practice—a process set to become an ever-more collective endeavour as the emphasis shifts from doing research on individuals, organizations, and societies to doing research with them.

For complex and multidimensional topics, like productivity, working in this way is imperative not only to better understand the issues and challenges but also to ensure that the research makes a difference. The wider societal value of business schools is unlikely to be the result of game-changing research from the ivory tower alone, but rather the product of collective game-changing, research-led impact. This principle defines the approach of the Productivity Insights Network, by breaking down siloed thinking and promoting collaboration to generate new perspective on an established issue. We don't just need more insights; we need new insights.

As the Productivity Insights Network embarks on a new three-year program of work, my excitement as a management academic is as much about the new ways of working as it is about grappling with the productivity puzzle. Clearly business schools are well placed to push the frontiers of productivity research, but co-creating the research with academic, industry, government, and nonprofit partners is critical to our ultimate influence and impact. By adopting the strategy of a co-creation position, initiatives like the Productivity Insights Network are at the intersection of academia, industry, and politics, and if business schools are to lead such major social, economic, and political debates, there is arguably no other way of working.

As an advisory committee member for the AACSB Co-Lab Conference in June, hosted by Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, I am encouraged to see a growing number of business schools engaging and working around the impact agenda. For those who haven't attended a Co-Lab event and are looking for inspiration and ideas, I highly recommend it for sharing potential and realized practices and meeting like-minded individuals. Through collaborations that result from such a convening, business schools are empowered to offer solutions that contribute to a more productive society.


Tim Vorley, Professor and Associate Dean, Sheffield University Management SchoolTim Vorley is a professor of entrepreneurship and associate dean of impact, innovation, and engagement at Sheffield University Management School in the U.K. He is on Twitter @timvorley.

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