The Role of Business Schools in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
As business schools in a post-truth era we must ensure through research, teaching, and engagement that the integrity of business remains strong.
Social, economic, and political change around the world is being defined by a new phenomenon, referred to as the dawn of a “post-truth” world. The prominence of the term, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as when "objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief," led to its accolade of word of the year in 2016. However, while in the U.K. the notion of post-truth has been most visible in the context of Brexit, the concept has wide-ranging implications for universities generally, and business schools in particular.
With business schools around the world engaged in a broad range of research, more now than ever there is a need to demonstrate the value of our scholarship, teaching, and impact. A central aspect of this is upheld through the mission and vision of business and management schools, which identify what we do and what we stand for. The importance and influence of business schools is, of course, externally validated, by our students, our partners, and our funders. More than this, our credibility is defined by our wider publics.
A central aspect of ensuring that business schools maintain our reputations is by maintaining our intellectual integrity, conducting and publishing research that pioneers new insights that impact the world around us. Sustaining the confidence, and interest, of wider publics in what we do cannot be achieved from the Ivory Tower, and business schools—already familiar with engaging partners—are well positioned to exemplify the value of collaboration. Arguably, now is the time for business schools to demonstrate their credibility by providing a forum to work with public and private, nongovernmental organizations to move beyond the cynicism of the post-truth era.
Not Business as Usual
At Sheffield University Management School (SUMS) our mission and vision state our collective commitment to promoting socially responsible work practices. Indeed, this is fundamental to who we are and the work we do across the school, from employment relations to accounting and international business to organizational behavior. Beyond our research at SUMS, our commitment to socially responsible work practices is embedded in our teaching and is intrinsic to our engagement initiatives and the impact we aim to have. And more than CSR and sustainability, which are commonplace in many business schools, colleagues are working with our partners and the wider public to shape and co-produce socially responsible work.
In many respects, as business schools we have a unique role to play in the post-truth world. Through our research, teaching, and engagement we must ensure that the integrity of business remains strong and does not fall foul of the same hyperbole as the global politics of false claims and spin. Business schools are well placed to sustain dialogues across different stakeholders and communities and ensure that public trust in business is not lost among constituents in the same way it has been in politics. A key feature of this objective is supporting authentic leadership and effective communication with the public—in which the public can continue to believe.
We are in increasingly uncertain times, socially, economically, and politically. For businesses, like other organizations, the question is how to best respond to what is seemingly a state of perpetual change. The 2007 financial crisis demonstrated that businesses are, in the main, incapable of regulating themselves. This poses further challenges to business schools about how they can engage with and support policymakers and regulators so they better understand and can respond in uncertain conditions. Arguably, however, with levels of uncertainty facing business unlikely to change in the short term, businesses with strong, honest, and credible reputations that resonate with emotion and personal beliefs will be the winners.
As part of the wider academy, it is critical that business schools maintain our status in today’s post-truth world. To do this we need to remain true to our often bold and ambitious missions and vision statements and confident in our ability to contribute to rebuilding society through our core purposes of research, teaching, and impact. In this way, and given our footprints regionally, nationally, and internationally, we can and are making a difference to the societies of which we all are a part.
Tim Vorley is a professor of entrepreneurship and associate dean of research at Sheffield University Management School in the U.K. He is on Twitter @timvorley.