Emerging Opportunities for Business Schools

Collaborating with Other Disciplines


Partnerships are emerging between the business school and other units on campus, in part, to address a wide range of social issues that are complex and multi-disciplinary in nature.

It’s not easy for scholars of different fields to work together. They often take fundamentally different approaches to the same problems, compete for the same resources and the brightest students, and can operate with entirely different cultures, even within the same institution. Yet collaboration across disciplines is on the rise and positioned to be a major catalyst for change in higher education. The opportunities and advantages of these collaborations stem largely from the changing expectations and environment of higher education in society.

Society now expects universities play a central role in addressing major social challenges and issues through research and education, and the grand challenges of today are not bounded by scholarly disciplines. The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which address a wide range of global challenges, such as poverty, hunger, health, climate, energy, and more, are not defined by the scope of university-based schools of engineering, medicine, public administration, business, arts, or social sciences. Likewise, any one of the 14 NAE Grand Challenges in Engineering would be difficult to solve absent fundamental breakthroughs in the basic sciences, the study of human behavior, and processes for production and distribution.

Working together to solve grand challenges is important not only because each discipline owns a piece of the intellectual puzzle but also because creativity and innovation occur at the intersection of different perspectives. New ideas come from looking at problems through different lenses. Universities nurture diversity of ideas and perspectives; multidisciplinary initiatives capitalize on this diversity to create new ideas and value. Business schools today might be intensely involved with finding cures for rare diseases (e.g., Cambridge Judge School of Business), alleviating poverty (e.g., Stanford Graduate School of Business), and preventing cyberterrorism (e.g., Muma College of Business)

Grand societal challenges aside, the more concrete benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration are perhaps a bigger driver of collaboration as the environment of higher education becomes more dynamic and competitive. At least three major sources of benefits currently exist: financial support, program differentiation, and best practices/knowledge transfer.

More and more, universities are trying to capture a larger share of the financial benefits of research breakthroughs. Commercializing inventions has been a central concern, and business schools have emerged as key contributors, leveraging business planning expertise and well-developed ties to the business community. Business schools also have expanded their role in entrepreneurship education, business incubation, and business plan competitions, not only to serve growing interest among students for starting new businesses but also to create new revenue streams.

Collaborating with other disciplines also provides opportunities for business schools to differentiate themselves as competition intensifies. Business schools are, for example, leveraging the core strengths of their universities. For instance, a strong medical school might lead to new business programs in the health care sector, enabling the business school to capture a larger slice of an area likely to grow as the population ages. New areas of focus, such as a data analytics and behavioral economics, are bringing together disciplines in new and different ways. In today’s comprehensive universities, the combinations are endless. One especially interesting area for potential collaboration is in leadership development, an area with growing demand across disciplines, and where business schools have led the way in scholarly foundations.

One of the most important, but least appreciated, benefits of collaboration is to create a platform for sharing best practices and knowledge across disciplines. By working together more closely with other schools, business schools can learn from other disciplines. Medical schools, for example, have moved more purposefully toward problem-based learning, spending less time in the classroom and more time in clinical situations. Students must still learn the theory, but the emphasis is on application and experience as well as learning from others. What can business schools learn from law schools about scholarship? From engineering schools about admissions? From art schools about curricula for mastering skills?

With these collaboration benefits, however, also come many potential difficulties. In addition to the usual challenges of identifying the right partners, negotiating terms, and managing relationships, one potential obstacle stems from a built-in tension in the way business schools are connected to universities. On the one hand, business schools have matured in alignment with the social sciences model for scholarship and research. On the other hand, their professional orientation necessitates significant engagement with practice. Business schools also struggle sometimes with legacy financial models of universities, which have motivated them to pursue more independence rather than less. Similarly, many business schools aim to develop their own brand, sometimes to complement the university brand and other times to separate and distance themselves from it.

These tensions are real but should not always be viewed as obstacles to collaboration across disciplines. Independence can sometimes remove or reduce the conflict that comes with competing for central resources. And there is no rule that says business schools collaborating with other disciplines requires them do so with other units at their university. In a higher education environment that is becoming more business-like, campus loyalty and school spirit can sometimes get in the way.

Related Resources

David Szymanski, dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Business, discusses cross-college collaboration and other strategies for educating holistic students. 

Business Schools on an Innovation Mission
This report, written by the AACSB International Task Force on Business Schools and Innovation, presents arguments to motivate business school leaders to elevate the concept of innovation to be a defining characteristic of the mission of their schools.

Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals
This website details the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which have come forth from the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20.

NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering
With input from people around the world an international group of leading technological thinkers were asked to identify the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century. This National Academy of Engineering shares the 14 identified Grand Challenges for Engineering here.

Shaping the Future of Business Education: Relevance, Rigor, and Life Preparation
Shaping the Future of Business Education answers the question of how to prepare tomorrow's leaders, leveraging the knowledge of two dozen distinguished professors and leaders in business education.

The Institutional Development of Business Schools
This book offers empirical findings on change and development in business schools, looking at the causes and consequences of the ranking and branding wars which business schools undergo. It also offers critique on the various challenges facing business schools in the contemporary world.

Do You Have Something to Add?
Email vision@aacsb.edu to share your ideas, articles, research, and reports with us.