5 Reasons for Optimism About Business School Research

5 Reasons for Optimism About Business School Research

Despite discouraging attitudes toward business school research, five positive developments are signaling a broader movement toward greater relevance and impact.

When it comes to business school research, the general sentiment has hardly been encouraging. Managers say they pay little attention to published academic research, asserting that is out of sync with or behind practice. Policymakers complain that management scholars are too narrowly focused on business, ignoring an extensive range of important societal problems. And senior scholars are starting to believe that the system they helped build and perpetuate is not working, preventing scholarship from achieving its full potential and impact.

Deans worry that the expense of sustaining a major commitment to academic research is too great given the competition from new business education providers that don’t invest in knowledge creation or in the people who produce it. They are also concerned about consulting companies leveraging more practical research to enhance their position as providers of learning and development. Meanwhile, students and their parents are beginning to ask why tuition and fees are rising, when much of the cost supports research that does not help graduates find and fit jobs. Donors, too, are asking tougher questions, probing for evidence that their support actually makes a difference.

These are serious challenges. For some, the problems are insurmountable. They see higher education as too slow to change and business school research as part of an industry that is being disrupted. So why, then, am I so optimistic about business school research? There are five reasons. Individually, each represents a positive development. Taken together, they signal a broader movement toward greater relevance and impact while leveraging a commitment to rigorous methods and independent thinking.

1. Boundaries Between Academia and Practice Are Blurring

For a long time, business school faculty members were sorted into two buckets. One bucket held PhDs, academicians who did research to advance theory and stay current in their field. The other bucket contained practicing managers who joined business schools after many years of significant business experience, which they continue to supplement through ongoing practice. That approach worked well for a while, but today’s faculties are becoming more complex and diverse, blurring the boundaries that have traditionally separated academics and practitioners and straining the “two bucket” model.

That’s why AACSB standards have changed and now allow PhD research faculty to enhance their academic knowledge through experience in practice and practitioners to build on their experience through scholarship. We call these valuable faculty participants “scholarly practitioners” and “practice academics,” respectively, and we are beginning to see more of them.

Scholars are starting to move more readily between academic and business settings. Technology companies, for example, have been bringing in PhD economists to analyze data and develop models to solve business problems. The economists gain ideas and access to data for academic research. They collect insights from the data about economic behavior and efficiency and develop, from their work, a deeper understanding of the leadership skills students need to convert knowledge to application. Some of these scholars will stay in business, others will return to faculty positions, and many will straddle both academia and practice. But all will be adapted to moving more readily between academia and business.

Finally, at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida, and many other schools around the world, we are seeing more faculty externship programs, which provide support for professors to work full-time in business for a semester or year. These and other programs are closing the theory-practice gap in both research and teaching.

2. Business Schools and Businesses Are Co-creating Knowledge

AACSB’s Collective Vision for Business Education calls on business schools to be co-creators of knowledge, to pursue strategies that “position themselves at the intersection of industry and practice, as conveners and partners in the knowledge creation ecosystem rather than just suppliers.” It encourages schools to create new platforms for accessing and analyzing data, as well as for incubating new management ideas.

In one sense, business schools have always produced knowledge with business support; think about case studies, for example. But co-creation is much more than sharing data with scholars—it’s about the messy work of combining research skills and academic standards with practical experience. It’s about the hard work of identifying and framing the right problems. Despite the challenges, co-creation is gaining traction and respect. For example, Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford partnered with executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles to interview more than 150 CEOs, representing a wide range of sectors around the world, about their leadership challenges and experiences. The results were presented at Davos and used for course and program development, and they now are providing the academic collaborators with ample content to prepare journal manuscripts. The partnership was challenging, requiring scholars on both sides to navigate differences in desired objectives, approaches to research, and project timing. Yet they were able to overcome the challenges to provide useful research.

The topic of co-creating knowledge is high on the agenda for AACSB’s Co-Lab Conference, designed to connect business schools with practice. This year the conference will be hosted at by the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley in June. In addition to exploring opportunities for business schools and business to partner for research, participants will consider new partnerships that catalyze innovation, improve employment outcomes and career trajectories, and more.

3. Research Is Addressing Grand Challenges

Leading a global trend, Gerry George, now dean at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University, and his editorial team at the Academy of Management Journal focused their three-year term on “grand challenges” defined by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy as “ambitious but achievable objectives that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination.”

In inviting research and submissions, the editorial team refers to issues arising from “environmental degradation and climate change, the proliferation of big data, social media and the digital economy, extended life expectancy and health, poverty and social inequality, access to housing and the renewal of the built environment, and geopolitical instability,” among many others. The culmination of their editorial work, a Special Research Forum, received an overwhelming response—more than 130 submissions, from which 14 papers were selected and published in December 2016. Other prestigious journals across business disciplines are considering similar initiatives.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015 have begun to serve as an organizing framework for business and business schools to understand and connect with the most critical challenges facing society. Across the 17 goals and 169 targets, there is much for business schools to consider in defining their research mission and purpose. The SDGs now serve as the guiding framework for the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) and the main theme of the 2017 Global Forum for Responsible Management Education, held in conjunction with the United Nations High-Level Political Forum. Other inspirational organizations, such as the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI) and Aim2Flourish, are also connecting to the SDGs.

4. Academic Disciplines Are Mixing and Merging

It is difficult if not impossible to break entrenched disciplinary silos by building on or extending previous research. However, by confronting society’s grand challenges, business schools are beginning to combine disciplines—both inside and outside business—in new and different ways. SDG7, “Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all,” for example, is an inherently interdisciplinary challenge. New research combinations such as industrial psychology and public policy, computer engineering and marketing, and behavioral economics and medicine are forming around issues related to workplace automation, cyber-security, and global health.

Research centers are playing a new role in combining disciplines. For example, selected as a 2017 Innovations That Inspire recipient, the Social Innovation and the Health Services Research Centre (HSRC) at Alliance Manchester Business School “brings together health services researchers from four disciplines to drive innovative perspectives in research while making an impact on how health and social care is delivered.” Even more interesting is that academic centers are bringing together clusters of corporate research centers, reinforcing the growing connections between academia and business.

5. Impact Has Begun to Matter

In its 2008 report, the AACSB Impact of Research Task Force recommended (among other things) moving beyond counting journal articles by “extending and augmenting AACSB International accreditation guidelines to require schools to demonstrate the impact of faculty intellectual contributions on targeted audiences.” Following an exploratory study, AACSB moved in the recommended direction by requiring schools to produce “high-quality intellectual contributions that are consistent with its mission, expected outcomes, and strategies and that impact the theory, practice, and teaching of business and management.”

Although we have a long way to go, I am already seeing signs that the conversation about research is changing. For accreditation and beyond, deans are telling more and more stories about interesting and impactful research by their business school colleagues. The stories they tell are less about prestigious journal titles and impact factors and more about how the research has been or can be used in practice or policy, or how it has translated into a new course or program. And they are talking about new ways to demonstrate impact, such as reach/readership among practicing managers, software adoptions and adaptations, and case studies of applications. We are also seeing, and welcoming, more efforts to contextualize research to have a bigger impact locally as well as improve cross-border management capabilities.

All of these developments are exciting. They are encouraging more diversity in the way we think about, conduct, and reward research. They are paving the way for more innovation by breaking long-standing traditions and barriers. Ultimately, they will help business schools compete in a changing environment. And that’s why we should all be optimistic about the future of business school research.

Dan LeClair is focused on strategy and innovation in business education. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLeClair.