5 Transitions for Business School Research

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Thursday, April 4, 2019
By Johan Roos, Lee Waller
Photo by iStock
Business schools need a new approach to research that not only benefits business and society but supports the great policy initiatives happening today.

Few managers are aware of the insights created by business school faculty—or where there is awareness, these insights are neither well communicated by professors nor understood by practitioners. We in the global business education community are all aware of the problem. Anyone who regularly attends business school conferences will have heard the same challenges debated time and again: How can we become more relevant to business? How can we impact society’s grand challenges? While critical industry stakeholders have set out new policy agendas to drive more relevance, engagement, and impact—including the U.N.’s Principles for Responsible Management Education, AACSB’s Collective Vision for Business Education, and the Responsible Research in Business and Management network—it is not obvious that much progress has been made.

So why do we still struggle to change our ways, despite the many laudable calls for change? Like other enduring organizations, academic institutions were built to last and, consequently, change only at a snail’s pace.

This inherent rigidity is informed by the well-known pull of academic, scholarly prestige. What gets recognized and rewarded, what leads to career success and progression, and what is valued most in traditional business schools are scholarly academic papers published in elite journals. Single-discipline faculty groups, focused on deepening rather than broadening their theoretical understanding, create these research outputs. Papers are written by academics for academics, often with limited experience of organizations except their own, with modest if any corporate input, and with little to no focus or impact on practice.

It is, however, such publications that progress faculty along the tenure track, that support funding bids, that make or break prestigious accreditations—and rankings. They, in essence, support the academic and financial success of both the school and the individual faculty member.

So, if the current “non-impact” approach has such strong backing, is so utterly ingrained in business school thinking and operating, is it in fact possible to change it? Yes—as long as business school faculty and leaders both appreciate the problem as such and can see that a different model can be as good (or bad). We clearly need another approach to start generating business school research that is both usable and beneficial to business and society. That is, we need to produce research outputs consistent with the great policy initiatives and calls for action happening today.

If we want to change the practice, we need to change the assumptions underlying it. We need to create a shift from valuing academic impact to only valuing practical use and benefit; from single-disciplinary to multidisciplinary research; from detached to engaged scholarship; from projects driven by external funding to those driven by relevance and practice; from paying for thinking to paying for outputs. This all may sound radical, but the changes are happening. Transformations are occurring: faculty passions, principles, ethics, and curiosities are driving change in some institutions.

We believe business schools can make five key transitions to overcome the problem:

  1. Focus on a few big challenges to build critical intellectual mass institution-wide, not just in siloed disciplines.
  2. Ground research in real organizational problems, not in gaps found in the academic literature.
  3. Offer professional research services to optimize resource utilization, rather than waste professorial time.
  4. Promote research application and benefits, not just production and outputs.
  5. Reward impact, not just effort.

Developing a collective research agenda focused on a few grand challenges facing organizations is not easy to do in a landscape of autonomous departments, strong research centers, and/or independent faculty senates. But, to avoid becoming obsolete in the eyes of, first companies, and then students, this is a journey schools must take.

Any attempt to address real problems necessitates engagement of faculty from many disciplines, as well as partners from corporations. Incentivizing financially or with time, a broad range of research outputs outside traditional peer-reviewed journals, including industry magazines and mass media, TED Talks, media interviews, and development of innovative pedagogical tools, is another significant step forward. As well as traditional citations, schools need to recognize and reward impact in many forms, including readership, downloads, web views, and other analytics. Faculty should be awarded bonuses for outputs that achieve over 100,000 views, for example, and encouraged to compete for research awards that celebrate both output volume and research impact.

To make this happen, schools should take inspiration from professional service firms whose careful time and performance management of junior and senior staff make the most out of each individual’s knowledge and skills. The result is that faculty voices will be heard and their findings will be shared across a broad practitioner audience, ultimately impacting individuals, business, and society.

This strategy partly reflects Van de Ven’s model of engaged scholarship, which ensures that a practical problem and clear research question exist before the power of scientific method based on our particular epistemological stance is unleashed. It also reflects the movement toward impact by shifting focus from the creation and communication of research to its application and the use and benefit it can have.

One of us, Johan, has worked in seven business schools in six countries and has been a leader or part of the leadership team at four of those schools, and he knows that such change is not going to happen everywhere and overnight. The other, Lee, has been instrumental in implementing this kind of transition in our current school and understands that this shift is easier said than done. But, we know it can be done.

And it should be done. Our research must be more relevant to people outside academia. We find it is both painful and wasteful that so few practitioners care about the insights generated by so many competent business school colleagues around the world. How long can we go on generating great papers read by only a few managers, without demonstrable impact on society and on individuals’ lives? We recently presented the titles of articles published in the latest issues of top journals in our field to senior managers, and, with very few exceptions, the reactions were not encouraging.

We are convinced that the schools that can make the kind of transformation we outline, while retaining academic credibility, are bound to be more successful in our increasingly competitive market. They will retain and attract faculty who genuinely care about practical problems, who are or would like to become engaged rather than disengaged scholars, and who will become more relevant in classrooms of increasingly demanding business students.

At Hult International Business School, we pride ourselves on making this transition.

To those of you who are already moving or want to move in this direction, prepare to expend a great deal of energy first to change the system, and then even more to prevent the reversion or dissipation of this new way of working.

Johan Roos
Professor and Chief Academic Officer, Hult International Business School
Lee Waller
Director of Research, Hult International Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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