Anchoring Impact to Identity
Few stakeholders in higher education have missed the global discussion about societal impact, and global accreditors such as AACSB and EFMD are no exceptions. For example, in the AACSB 2020 business accreditation standards, the phrase “societal impact” appears nearly 50 times, across all sections of the standards. According to the new Standard 9, which is focused on “Engagement and Societal Impact,” a business school is expected not only to detail impactful initiatives and activities, but also to demonstrate how those activities will accelerate across its organization, operations, and strategy over time.
Standard 9, however, does not prescribe a particular way to achieve societal impact. Each business school is expected to present its own take on how societal impact is anchored in its mission, strategy, curriculum, and intellectual contributions. But even a school that is au fait with corporate social responsibility and the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals might be uncertain how to ground and formulate its responses in its accreditation report.
For administrators, a knee-jerk reaction to accreditor expectations might be to develop measurements, targets, and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the school’s societal impact endeavors. While this approach might serve some objectives, it could deflect attention from more profound discussions about what societal transformation and impact mean in the context of the school’s specific raison d’etre. Academic leaders should know how their school will sustain societal impact in its key operations, irrespective of which external assessment body knocks on its door.
In other words, business schools that are pursuing AACSB accreditation should recognize that Standard 9 presents them with an opportunity to take a “strategic deep breath.” They can revisit their missions, strategies, practices, and KPIs to find ways to embed societal impact in their mission-based activities.
Impact: An Ever-Widening Concept
The lexical definition of impact includes the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another. This definition implies both causality and force. Beyond causality and force, impact also suggests relationality. In academic contexts, societal impact is not simply about what we do and how well we do it. It’s also about how our activities relate to both what we do in other spheres and where we are in terms of our geography, strategic focus, and future ambitions.
Under Standard 9, the challenge of this constellation of causality, force, and relationality lies in showing that true transformation has taken place. To be classified as impact, such change must come about because of a school’s activities; it should not be the result of serendipity or a mere reproduction of existing conditions.
That’s why business schools have used academic citations as their primary measure of impact for so long. Citations have a clear cause and effect, and we assume that most scholars choose academic citations with great care and not without reason. Therefore, the more a scholar’s research is cited by academic colleagues, the more gravitas that research seems to have. In this context, citations could be considered a reasonable measurement of impact, especially when considered a form of academic currency.
The causal chain of events that create substantial forms of societal impact can be so complex that it sometimes is difficult even to tell what data to use. The true impact of research can become almost impossible to quantify.
Over time, academia has extended its use of citations as a measure of impact. Schools have begun to include citations of studies outside of academia, such as in patents or within policy arenas. More recently, they’ve begun to count mentions in media and social media and the use of Altimetric scores. But as academia’s view of impact has become increasingly complex, it makes sense to explore whether these expanded metrics are valuable or impactful.
The increased call for research with societal impact would imply that they are not. Accrediting bodies, for example, now expect business schools not merely to engage with society, but to contribute to its positive transformation. If impact now means that schools must “have effects on society,” then normative metrics—such as citations and media mentions—become less reliable.
But the causal chain of events that create substantial forms of societal impact can be so complex that it sometimes is difficult even to tell what data to use. In this wider sense, the true impact of an initiative or research study—whether it’s focused on mitigating poverty or on changing government policy—can become almost impossible to quantify. We can end up facing a conundrum as we try to determine what is relevant and what is measurable.
Impact for Whom?
One way that a school can solve this conundrum is to come up with well-anchored and mission-driven strategic answers to three questions: Why does the school want to achieve a certain impact? How can it demonstrate that desired impact? And for whom? Which constituencies will benefit most from the business school’s work?
For example, if a school wants to transform companies, in what ways? Does it want to shape how companies are formed, how they develop products, or where they relocate? If a school wants to transform individuals or communities, should it focus on job creation, salary levels, income levels, or human health and well-being? If a school wants to transform economies, should it focus on inflation, GDP growth, or currency value? The more precisely schools can define these whys, hows, and for whoms, the easier it will be for them to achieve and assess their impact.
Another way for schools to solve the problem of translating their activities into societal transformation is to adopt a broader understanding of scholarship. But, yet again, administrators will need to shift their mindsets to identify active change.
For instance, let’s say that a researcher publishes a paper and makes media appearances discussing an urgent matter, and important action is later taken to address that matter. How do we know to what degree the paper spurred that action? It requires a skillful narrator to help stakeholders understand the chains of causality that lead to actual impact. Some academics are better at providing this narration than others.
For instance, studies show that gender bias can affect how and whether academics describe the importance, relevance, and impact of their work. For these reasons, it’s important for schools to provide faculty with ample resources and skills training in both pursuing and communicating the impact of their research. Through such training, faculty can gain the confidence to highlight how their work is leading to positive societal change.
The Folly of Bean Counting
Finally, as business schools are exhorted to show tangible societal impact and transformation, they might be tempted to heap initiatives and actions one atop the other and report these as evidence of impact. But it is wise to avoid this strategy. While this kind of “bean counting” can show ambition, it rarely measures sustainable and meaningful impact.
We now live in a time when our current and future students—primarily Millennials and Generation Z—are described as the “sustainable generation.” They are looking for schools and employers that display authenticity and responsibility. With these students in mind, business schools can conduct gap analyses or use other diagnostics to reveal and build upon their key impact areas. In this process, they can choose the benchmarks against which they measure their impact more deliberately and show prospective students how these benchmarks relate directly to their raison d’etre.
It is somewhat ironic that by reflecting on where they stand—and revisiting what they stand for—business schools can actually reduce the need to engage in rote measurement in their impact assessments.
Too often, schools allow their external ambitions to eclipse the effect of those ambitions on their internal stakeholders. To avoid this outcome, it also is vital for schools to involve faculty, students, and other stakeholders in their conversations around impact. They must gain the buy-in of key stakeholders if they are to achieve their mid- and long-term goals.
Only through inclusive conversations can schools ensure that their chosen strategies are relevant, needed, and important to the individuals, groups, communities, and societies they serve. Indeed, affecting society through its students and alumni can, in itself, be a key goal for any business school.
Linking the Past to the Future
It is somewhat ironic that by reflecting on where they stand—and revisiting what they stand for—business schools can actually reduce the need to engage in rote measurement in their impact assessments. Instead, they can anchor their assessment strategies in their past histories and identities, while linking those strategies to the current and future needs of stakeholders.
From our experience, schools that achieve the most successful and transformational societal impact do so not by looking externally to other schools and standards for guidance. Rather, they look closely at their internal strengths, capacities, and ambitions, and let societal impact evolve from there.
A school cannot be everything, everywhere, for everybody. To achieve true societal impact over time, schools must know where they are coming from and be true to who they are. More important, they must understand what they want to do, how they want to do it, and who will benefit most from their actions.