Recognizing Socially Relevant Research

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Monday, October 10, 2022
By Ronald Paul Hill
Photo by iStock/DNY59
The Responsible Research in Business Management network creates an honor roll to showcase work focused on the common good.
  • The RRBM Honor Roll currently recognizes 50 works dedicated to responsible research; it hopes to eventually display 1,000.
  • Five topics have drawn interest from scholars in multiple disciplines: diversity, the intergenerational workplace, discrimination, the environment, and artificial intelligence.
  • Academic leaders can encourage more interest in responsible research by providing resources, revamping PhD programs, and breaking down educational silos.

In recent years, a growing number of business faculty have chosen to conduct their research on topics of social relevance. Many of these professors have joined the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) network, which supports credible and useful research in the business and management disciplines. RRBM works with many partners, including AACSB, EFMD, the United Nations’ Principles for Responsible Management Education, the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, and business schools worldwide.

In 2022, the organization launched the RRBM Honor Roll with the goal of finding, recognizing, and publicizing work that sustains values of ethical and developmental business practice. We want to showcase examples of such research to give it a better chance of being heard and implemented. Currently, we display 50 scholarly works, and we hope to recognize 1,000 within the next two to three years. Authors on the list are allowed to append our logo to their published works.

As the editor-in-chief of the RRBM Honor Roll, I am constantly impressed by the wide variety of topics that researchers address with the goal of making the world a better place. And I am eager to help put the spotlight on their efforts—because I know from experience that it is not always easy to receive support for nontraditional research.

My Own Story

I was a visiting faculty member at a prestigious university when my research suddenly veered off into a new direction. One day, after I had spent a class period focusing on how AIDS was changing marketers’ approaches to products like condoms, a young MBA student came to my office. When I opened the door, he put his arms around me and cried into my chest. He had just received the news that he was HIV-positive.

In that moment, I decided I would pivot from conducting typical marketing research to exploring how the vulnerable across societies acquire and use the goods and services necessary to survive. Given that only about 15 percent of people in the world live the way many of us in the professoriate do, I thought it was unlikely that our theories and practices would hold for the remainder.

Making this strategic turn, especially as an untenured visiting assistant professor, was an invitation for criticism. Such work was for aging researchers who had reached the pinnacle of their careers and now were “safe” to do whatever they wanted. One caring but adamant senior marketing colleague told me I was destroying my career. I was surprised, even grateful for the input, but undeterred.

Fast forward nearly 35 years, and my career lies before me like a tapestry of concern for impoverished and vulnerable consumers. While I might have enjoyed more prestige if I had conducted more mainstream research, I also would have developed fewer meaningful relationships with diverse persons. I would not have had the pleasure of writing about them or working on their behalf to raise their quality of life.

For example, my research allowed me to meet with homeless teens in Portland, Oregon, who were using heroin or selling their bodies to survive. I also got to know the community of social workers, church leaders, politicians, and businesspeople who were seeking to help these teens. I was deeply involved in their deliberations, and I admired the sense of togetherness that was one result of their efforts.

I decided I would pivot from conducting typical marketing research to exploring how the poor across societies acquire and use the goods and services necessary to survive.

I also had the opportunity to teach classes and mentor several men at a maximum security prison. I developed a deep appreciation of their tenacity as they worked to improve their lives under difficult conditions. In numerous cases, I went to court or provided documents of support for their ultimate release, even though their sentences disallowed parole. More than half a dozen men have been set free.

In recent years, I have seen more and more business professors commit to conducting research aimed at solving some of society’s most pressing issues. I feel like my portfolio is an old suit hanging in my closet so long that it has come back in style.

Calling All Disciplines

As I review the articles that have been recognized so far on the RRBM Honor Roll, what interests me most is how certain topics can be studied by scholars in a wide variety of fields. Five subjects have been particularly fruitful for multidisciplinary research:

Diversity, equity, and inclusion. Consider the fact that major accounting firms have been seeking ways to keep their female auditors on the partnership track while recognizing that this time frame overlaps with their child-bearing years. Males in the same firms are asking for time off to be with their infant children, so many of them are also absent from the firm during crucial career-building years. This phenomenon has been studied by scholars in fields that range from finance to accounting to marketing to management.

Intergenerational shifts in the workplace. Research indicates that millennial employees do not distinguish between the personal and professional in ways that workers from previous generations did. Instead, millennials want to live fully integrated lives where they seek the same meaning and hold to the same values whether they’re at home or at work. This generational shift has implications for the way the workplace is organized and the way individuals conduct themselves both in their professional and private lives. It’s a topic that’s of interest for scholars in every field from marketing to organizational behavior.

Discrimination against women and people of color. This is a topic that has been studied for a long time by economists, who have drawn a stark picture of how unfair and illegal practices can negatively impact quality of life. Now marketing scholars such as David Crockett and Sonya Grier are also investigating the effects of discrimination in areas such as healthcare. Other marketing researchers are studying how diverse consumers buy and use products and how discrimination diminishes their relationships with marketplaces and spaces. Many African Americans describe the effects of “shopping while Black”—that is, feeling unwelcome in retail contexts or paying a premium simply because of their skin color.

The environment. Concern for the environment has been part of business research for decades. For instance, the journal Organization & Environment has been around more than 35 years, thanks to scholars like founding co-editor John Jermier. But in recent years, the topic has gained added prominence because of the dire threats posed by global warming.

Management scholars are exploring how to incorporate social goals into novel frameworks as a way to serve stakeholders beyond owners and the corporate elite. Finance and accounting professors are developing new models to pay for and report on ventures dedicated to eliminating carbon emissions. And marketing researchers are seeking to craft messages that encourage consumers to become part of the solutions rather than the problems.

In fact, when it comes to the environment, there are many questions about the role of consumers. Why do they show little disposition to help solve ecological crises? Is it because they don’t have enough information, so they’re not motivated to act? Or is it a problem of the commons, in which individuals selfishly pursue their private rewards over the larger good? These questions could prove to be plausible research directions for scholars from a variety of fields.

Information technology and artificial intelligence. Businesses are inundated with information about their consumers, but how are they using that data? Professors across disciplines are seeking to answer that question.

Concern for the environment has been part of business research for decades. But in recent years, the topic has gained added prominence because of the dire threats posed by global warming.

Some marketing scholars have studied the ways businesses are focusing on individual consumers, while others have looked into the ways our data are being shared without our permission. As artificial intelligence overtakes devices throughout our homes and offices, scholars in business ethics consider privacy violations, while IT researchers investigate how humans interact with computer-generated voices. A recent article in the Journal of Service Research appears to advocate for using robots as sexual partners, with each robot being equipped with a variety of sensors to feign appropriate responses. Clearly, this is a rich field of study as we learn more about the porous boundaries between people and AI that have replaced many human-to-human connections.

Moving Forward

I find it exciting to see how many different disciplines are engaged in researching these vital topics. As the RRBM Honor Roll starts to showcase a bigger corpus of work, we hope to institute a set of descriptive themes that are easily searchable by all interested parties. These themes will be grouped by discipline as well as by topical areas, such as discrimination and equity, environmental concerns, ethical and legal issues—and some we haven’t identified yet.

Some articles will be controversial as they attempt to define what is right or wrong with current contributions to business theory and practice. We will not hide from these controversies. Instead, we hope to create a forum where members of our profession can listen to the voices that would challenge them. Doing anything less would be an abdication of our larger responsibilities as a scholar community.

How can the field of management education move toward the goal of creating more responsible research? I see three key steps.

First, deans, department chairs, journal editors, donors, and other stakeholders should provide resources and support to scholars who want to make this research part of their life’s work.

Second, schools should encourage their PhD programs to create greater awareness of and expertise in socially relevant fields. This will be especially important as the next two generations join the ranks of the professoriate, because these scholars instinctively see social impact and the common good as appropriate subjects for research.

Third, academic leaders should attempt to break down the silos of education. How would most business schools react if a new doctoral student had a combined set of interests in finance, public health, and developing economies—or in global business, the sociology of poverty, and applied ethics? Would academic advisors encourage this student to embrace an unconventional path, or would they tell the candidate to stay on a predictable course and wait to do meaningful research later in a long career? Societies struggling with poverty, discrimination, natural disasters, and privacy invasions need our attention now. Schools need to smooth the path for multidisciplinary scholars.

Taking Part

RRBM plans to become a ready partner for everyone who has an interest in making the world a better place. Authors from any discipline can go to our website to submit articles for consideration. Submissions are reviewed by two board members who determine if the works are truly focused on social impact. We are in the process of building our board of reviewers, with the goal of identifying 100.

Faculty can submit their work or learn more about our goals and procedures at our website, or they can email me directly. Either way, we can all work together to improve the world, one article at a time!

Ronald Paul Hill
Dean’s Professor of Marketing and Public Policy, Kogod School of Business, American University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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