Encouraging Business Scholars to Address Societal Impact
“We need a different economic system with multi-stakeholder, longer-term business models embraced by many new moral business leaders.” That was a key point made by Paul Polman, chair of IMAGINE and a former CEO of Unilever, at our 2020 Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) Summit. He further emphasized that “the world is accelerating, and business schools need to move boundaries and create space for rapid change. Deans should look at drivers of behavior, adding measures of societal impact of research to the current evaluation criteria.”
As business professors from six different countries, as well as members of RRBM, we wholeheartedly agree that business schools have an abundance of talented scholars equipped to address urgent societal challenges such as climate change, poverty, and economic inequality. We join a growing number of advocates for responsible research. For instance, Martin Kitchener, former dean of Cardiff University’s Business School in the United Kingdom, stresses that the future of business schools depends on their becoming “public value institutions.” His argument and those of others—such as Rakesh Khurana of Harvard Business School and Julie Davies of Huddersfield Business School—are further highlighted by Ken Starkey and Howard Thomas in their article “The Future of Business Schools: Shut Them Down or Broaden Their Horizons?”
Regrettably, a large gap exists between this potential and the research that many academics actually do. In an era when the collective value of business academic research is being questioned, we have a duty to close this gap. To become public value institutions, business schools worldwide must reimagine their purpose and place in the world—starting with their faculty’s research.
Broadening the Scope of Business Research
We are making some progress. We are seeing social movements such as the RRBM, a global network of business school leaders, scholars, and supporters who are encouraging and facilitating research that serves society. Governments are instituting regional mandates for research impact—this includes the U.K.’s quadrennial Research Excellence Framework, which requires higher education institutions to provide evidence of influential research that benefits society. Individual business schools have launched their own initiatives aimed at creating public value. For instance, Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management has created a detailed dataset that longitudinally analyzes publications based on their relevance to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Business schools can encourage their faculty to address societal challenges without requiring them to abandon their chosen topical interests. Rather, researchers need only broaden their work to include an intent to improve societal well-being, whether by changing the behavior of individuals, managers, companies, or government to improve people’s lives—for example, documenting the cost savings realized by investing in renewable energy or showing how policy changes affect water resource conservation and distribution.
Business schools can encourage their faculty to address societal challenges without requiring them to abandon their chosen topical interests.
Most researchers use financial organizational performance as the key metric for their research, but we need to broaden our assessment to include responsible organizational performance. This refinement is consistent with the Business Roundtable’s newly defined Purpose of a Corporation.
As business school faculty, we can produce research that convinces managers to cease practices that cause harm, such as mistreating employees, polluting airways and rivers, or depleting resources. For example, in an article published in a leading oncology journal, four marketing professors challenge cancer centers to cease misleading advertising that feeds patients’ optimism bias. They also recommend ways that these centers can improve their brand appeal more responsibly.
Measuring the Societal Value of Scholarship
The impact of research that encourages behavioral change might not occur for a long time or might happen in unexpected ways. This reality is a key challenge of evaluating the societal value of research.
Consider medical research related to immunotherapy. Doctors James Allison and Tasuku Honjo received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their pathbreaking work in advancing cancer immunotherapy. Such breakthroughs are often assumed to be recent, but physician William Coley first sought to stimulate the immune system for treating bone cancer in 1891. His work was largely dismissed until about 1945, when interest in arming the immune system gained traction. Today, Coley is known as the “father of immunotherapy.”
Such a long-term view of societal value is at odds with the short-term measures commonly used in business schools in their faculty performance assessments. These assessments focus primarily on the number of articles faculty publish in top-tier journals and use only a short timeline for evaluating work to make tenure and promotion decisions. In this system, many professors leave research with long-term social impact for later in their careers—but often, “later” never arrives.
For its part, AACSB International has issued new standards to ensure that schools’ “portfolios of intellectual contribution” demonstrably serve societal needs. Stephanie Bryant, AACSB’s executive vice president and chief accreditation officer, emphasizes that the association’s new accrediting standard on research distinguishes between “outputs” (number of articles and citation counts) and “outcomes” (the influence of those articles).
We agree with this distinction. One article published in a less prestigious journal sometimes has a far greater impact than five articles in top-tier journals. Case in point: Jay Barney’s “Firm Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage” was published in the Journal of Management in 1991. Rejected by top-tier management journals, this article nonetheless became the seminal paper in elucidating the resource-based view of the firm and underpinning subsequent related research around the world.
Changing How We Assess Scholarship
A shortsighted publishing culture that favors output over outcomes narrows the influence of business research. We propose that business schools start taking a longer-term view by making these three key changes in the way they assess scholarship:
Emphasize publication quality over journal prestige. Qualified evaluators should actually read professors’ published work, not merely scan their curricula vitae, to assess that work for societal impact. These evaluations should include not only top-tier journal publications, but also white papers and articles in the popular press that may prove influential.
Compile research impact portfolios. Evaluations of faculty’s performance should include an assessment of their research impact portfolios, which would feature elements such as:
- A brief written statement from the researcher about each publication’s societal impact.
- Evidence of that impact, such as number of downloads and citations, size of readership, and documented changes in individual or organizational behavior.
- A list of publication-related awards.
- A list of published professional books (typically written for managers).
- Information about research dissemination, including presentations and blogs, as well as mentions in the press and on social media.
- A summary of interactions and collaborations with targeted audiences, including managers.
- A list of personal development activities that support ongoing research and education.
A research impact portfolio has a threefold benefit. It broadens and deepens effective assessment of performance, encourages faculty to plan and implement societally relevant research programs, and gives faculty more of a voice in in their performance evaluations.
What gets measured gets managed. If the rankings were to evaluate the societal value of research, schools would start managing those metrics.
Work to change the criteria used for business school rankings. Annual business school rankings such as those published by Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times are based on criteria such as GMAT scores, graduates’ starting salaries, and access to networking opportunities. The time has come for business school rankings also to use the societal value of faculty research as a metric. If schools saw their rankings begin to sag because their faculty’s research was not adequately addressing societal issues, they would begin hiring faculty with a societal impact orientation and encouraging existing faculty to address social issues.
The bottom line: What gets measured gets managed. If the rankings were to evaluate the societal value of research, schools would start managing those metrics.
Changing the Research Landscape
Fortunately, business schools have a precedent to follow for making such a fundamental change. Starting in the 1990s, they underwent similar transformation when they became more global in their focus. This history offers business schools six lessons for increasing the public value of research today:
1. Explicitly declare a public value mission. As business schools started emphasizing global perspectives, some faculty followed suit by writing more case studies and conducting more research with a global orientation. If business schools explicitly embrace societal value as part of their missions, faculty are again likely to follow that lead.
2. Fund public value research. Schools can designate research grants and support for the most promising proposals that focus on societal value—just as they did to promote global research. To encourage researchers early in their career trajectories, schools can make stipends available to doctoral students whose proposals emphasize societal value.
3. Honor research with high social impact. Schools can recognize such research with awards, future financial or workload-based support, and other incentives. They can publicize that research aggressively via their websites, social media, alumni magazines, and other communications.
4. Sponsor relevant speaker presentations and series. Schools can invite business leaders, as well as internal and external faculty, to speak about their work relevant to societal impact.
5. Incorporate high social impact in performance reviews, promotions, and tenure decisions. When evaluators reward faculty whose research has public value, they can change their academic cultures.
6. Bring social research into the classroom. Perhaps the biggest influence faculty will have is in the way they shape the social consciences of their students—our future business leaders. The classroom offers significant opportunities for schools to merge societal impact with their business scholarship.
Putting Intentions Into Practice
Our aim is not to imply that current faculty research is not highly useful, but to encourage faculty to broaden the scope of their scholarship to address societal problems. Here are just a few examples of goals they could pursue:
- Demonstrating how digital technologies can profitably enable more environmentally sustainable supply chain practices.
- Developing new measures of corporate effectiveness that encompass people and planet, as well as profit.
- Providing evidence-based, economically sound guidance to companies on contributing to climate stability.
- Exploring how to narrow the digital divide.
- Proposing innovative ways to repurpose facilities that have closed or will close because of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as malls, movie theaters, or even some college campuses.
- Examining how technologies such as artificial intelligence unintentionally harm customer and employee well-being and suggesting remediation strategies.
- Designing new ways to preserve and enhance biodiversity.
- Studying ways to improve the quality of healthcare and other critical services while reducing costs and improving accessibility—especially for the elderly, people with advanced illness, and people who live at or near the poverty line.
- Offering solutions to businesses and governments for coordinating and implementing supply, distribution, and use of vaccines for COVID-19 and other potential health crises.
To advance social progress in more concrete ways, business schools must place scholarship with societal value at the core of their missions and reputations. By assessing how well their faculty’s research creates value for society, business schools will position themselves well to contribute to the greater good.