The World Needs Design Science Now More Than Ever

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Tuesday, August 29, 2023
By Christoph Seckler, René Mauer, Jan vom Brocke
Illustration by iStock/Flashvector
Management research should be at the forefront of helping society design a better future.
  • For too long, management researchers have focused on explaining existing phenomena rather than devising future solutions, making their work increasingly irrelevant for addressing real-world problems.
  • Management scholars can do more to improve business practices by developing and evaluating solutions and accumulating design knowledge to advance our problem-solving and innovation capabilities.
  • Businesses, business schools, and academic journals can promote design science by teaching its principles in the classroom, rewarding design-oriented scholarship in tenure and publication decisions, and encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration on innovative solutions for real-world problems.


How should companies create responsive supply chains in times of turbulent change? How can we, as management scholars, facilitate the emergence of successful startup ecosystems? How can we help organizations adapt to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence? How can a circular economy be achieved? How can schools tackle major societal challenges, such as those formulated in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

As business professors, we often are asked these questions, whether by business leaders in our executive programs or by members of our local and international communities. The questions are both fair and legitimate, given the dramatic nature of the challenges our society faces. Much of what is published and taught in universities and business schools, however, does not provide answers to these questions.

Problem-Solving Research Is Rare

In recent years, management research has almost entirely sidestepped solving real-world challenges or envisioning innovative solutions. Instead, it has largely limited itself to explaining why things have (or have not) already happened. In other words, our research looks to the past to explain the present; it does not invent new ideas in the present that will shape the future. Why is that?

Ironically, it is largely due to the management system adopted by management research that we are inclined to explain the past rather than shape the future. While the practice is increasingly questioned, a professor’s research performance continues to be evaluated based on the number of publications in selected journals. Since it is mainly explanatory research that is published in these journals, this is what we produce to progress in our academic careers or to advance our institutions in rankings.

Imagine if medical researchers did the same. Their study of the coronavirus would have sought only to explain the disease. They would not have built on current knowledge to develop and evaluate the mRNA vaccines that eventually brought the pandemic under control.

Management research has almost entirely sidestepped solving real-world challenges. Instead, it has largely limited itself to explaining why things have (or have not) already happened.

The consequences of such one-sided research are grave. By focusing so much on explaining existing phenomena, management research is becoming increasingly irrelevant to society, organizations, and business leaders who are concerned with the present and future.

The good news is that many scholars are currently recognizing and discussing the problem. For example, initiatives such as the Responsible Research in Business Network (RRBM) and the U.K.’s REF 2021 advocate and promote more impactful management research. Yet, these initiatives provide little guidance on how to achieve that goal.

We propose that by embracing a design-oriented research paradigm, we can reestablish the relevance and recognition of management research. Obviously, understanding the past can inform future decisions, so we are not against explanation. Our position is to go beyond explanation and introduce the design of innovative solutions to real-world problems.

Design Science Can Shape the Future

Several factors make design science research so important for generating societal impact. First, design science generates and validates knowledge that can be used to guide action. Second, design science draws on the best available scientific knowledge and uses state-of-the-art methods to create and evaluate innovative “how-to” solutions to real-world problems. Third, design science findings improve our understanding of how and why those solutions work in specific contexts.

By embracing design science approaches, management researchers could dramatically increase the practical relevance of their work. Below are just two examples of this relevance in action.

  • For their study published in 2017 in Science, researchers from the World Bank, the National University of Singapore, and Leuphana University in Germany developed and tested a training course for small companies in West Africa. They demonstrated that training based on psychological principles produced better results than a training course provided by the World Bank that focused on teaching business knowledge.
  • In another study, Georges Romme and colleagues tackle the issue that the existing system of global governance is not well-equipped to effectively address the grand challenges (such as global warming, social instability, civil wars, and acts of terrorism). In their study, they design a global governance model aimed at formulating and enforcing decisions that have collective binding authority, recognizing the interests of all stakeholders involved, including future generations.

Such studies show how well our research can solve important, far-reaching, and socially relevant problems. But this happens only when scholars make such work their objective.

Business Schools Can Be Part of the Solution

In practical terms, a design-oriented approach to both teaching and research would have three important implications for business schools:

It would promote cooperation between research and practice. Researchers would work with practitioners to discover new, relevant issues and gain access to previously unavailable data, and practitioners would have far greater access to applicable solutions.

It would foster much-needed transdisciplinary cooperation. Major problems require collaboration between multiple disciplines. A design-oriented approach would lead business academics to work more closely with engineers, computer scientists, and scholars from other fields that already use the same processes and speak the same language as design scientists.

It would re-engage students. Students today don’t want only to sit in classrooms and listen to lectures—they want to make a difference. By introducing the foundations of design science, business schools can teach students to develop solutions to problems, most of which are not yet known, using technological tools, most of which have not yet been invented.

Where We Can Take Action

To support a design-oriented approach to management research, we must adopt several changes in our typical policies and publication criteria. Mainly, we must:

Reward design-oriented scholarship. Business schools should recognize design science work as a valuable scientific approach. Hiring practices, promotion criteria, and tenure evaluation must evolve to ensure that design-oriented scholars are considered on an equal footing with scholars who follow more traditional explanatory research approaches. Likewise, research performance evaluation and rankings should recognize contributions to real-world problems to a greater extent.

Revise publishing criteria. Most academics are under pressure to publish their work in top-tier journals, many of which are less receptive to design-oriented studies. This straightjackets scholars—young business scholars especially—to work on projects that they believe are most likely to be accepted by traditional journals, because their tenure clocks are ticking.

To break this cycle, the editors of these journals should signal that they are open to design-oriented work. This includes revising their evaluation criteria for articles and appointing senior editors as well as reviewers with expertise in design-oriented research methods and approaches. By making these changes, journal editors will help maintain the quality and integrity of the review process for design-oriented submissions and ensure that the unique aspects and contributions of such research are properly evaluated.

Encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. Management scholarship has historically been rooted in disciplines such as economics, psychology, and sociology—all disciplines that, as we’ve noted, emphasize explaining the world as it is, not as it could be. Embracing a design science approach will require scholars to go beyond established research traditions.

Doctoral programs can raise awareness of and lend legitimacy to impactful research early in academics’ careers by including courses or modules on design science.

With this in mind, business schools should encourage and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, by establishing partnerships with other departments such as psychology, engineering, law, and other relevant disciplines. They also could support joint research projects, cross-disciplinary seminars or workshops, and collaborative funding initiatives.

Provide design science education. It is essential to ensure that scholars receive a sound education in design science. To harness the full potential of design science, business schools should provide learning opportunities to help researchers at all levels—not only early-career researchers—become proficient in rigorously exploring real-world challenges and designing and testing solutions.

Empower doctoral students to embrace design science approaches. Doctoral programs can raise awareness of and lend legitimacy to impactful research early in academics’ careers by including courses or modules on design science. Today, a rich methodology is available for rigorously planning, conducting and communicating design science. There are many resources available that offer guidelines for teaching design science, including those outlining an open design science proficiency model.

Design Science Is a Win-Win

Businesses can advance design science at business schools in two important ways. First, they can establish partnerships through which they provide students and faculty access to real-world challenges, data, and resources. Such academic-industry collaborations can lead to immediately relevant, impactful, and actionable outcomes. In the best case, these partnerships will contribute to a virtuous cycle that sustains relevant innovation ecosystems.

Second, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to innovation, problem-solving, and organizational development by investing in effective design science research. This includes funding research projects; sponsoring design-related conferences and workshops; and establishing grants, fellowships, and labs dedicated to design-oriented research.

For those not yet convinced, we offer these two examples:

  • Siemens reached out to ESCP Business School in Berlin for support in sparking entrepreneurial activity within the company. Siemens aimed to explore and seize the opportunities of digital technologies (such as blockchain)—specifically among the 400 members of its finance department. Yet, like many other firms, Siemens was finding it difficult to increase entrepreneurial activities within its well-established structures.
  • Drawing on effectuation theory, a concept first introduced in 2001 by Saras Sarasvathy of the University of Virginia, we worked with the company to co-create a format called the market-of-makers. This format enables members of Siemens’ finance department to start a grassroots movement of innovation activities. Beyond designing and evaluating a product that delivered tremendous practical impact for Siemens, we published the results in academic outlets. The partnership created a win-win situation.

  • Then, there is the case of Hilti, a multinational company based in Schaan, Liechtenstein. Hilti, which manufactures products for the construction industry, teamed up with The European Research Centre for Information Systems (ERCIS), to garner support on its digital transformation journey. Like many other companies, Hilti was trying to more effectively maintain a process-oriented organization based on state-of-the-art knowledge.

    We proposed a context-sensitive design based on contingency theory. First, we developed a measurement tool to empirically assess the diversity of process requirements. Next, we created a 2x2 matrix aggregating the factors that most determined the success of digital transformation in different contexts throughout the company: process variability and process frequency.

    Hilti now uses the resulting four clusters to choose the most appropriate digital technology for specific business requirements. The approach was published and awarded the BPM 2021 Case Innovation Award. Based on Hilti’s success using the matrix solution, many other companies are now using this approach, which is, in turn, inspiring further research.

Explanations Are Only Halfway to Solutions

We believe management research can and should be at the forefront of designing desirable futures. For that reason, we want to encourage more discourse on the type of research we do as management scholars.

Research that focuses solely on explaining problems only gets us halfway to solving them. That’s why design science is more important than ever in our increasingly complex and fast-moving world. We hope we have convinced you to join us in designing a more desirable future, together!

Christoph Seckler
Co-Founder of the ESCP Center for Design Science in Entrepreneurship, Junior Professor and Chair of Entrepreneurial Strategy, ESCP Business School Berlin
René Mauer
Co-Founder of the ESCP Center for Design Science in Entrepreneurship, Professor and Chair of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, ESCP Business School Berlin (Photo by Mook Photography)
Jan vom Brocke
Co-Founder of the ESCP Center for Design Science in Entrepreneurship, Professor and Chair of Information Systems and Business Process Management, University of Münster
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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