Soapbox

February 4, 2013 12:03 am

Business schools need to find a new role

Innovation and growth are as much about leadership as about science and technology

In his recent speech on technology and growth to Policy Exchange, the UK think-tank, David Willetts, the UK minister for universities and science, challenged the continued use of the acronym Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to describe the strength of the UK’s science and technology base.

Instead, he suggested that the equal strength of the humanities and social sciences should be recognised by the adoption of a new acronym to include the arts. “Steam,” he said, might be a more appropriate term. While the minister’s recognition of the contribution of the broad academic subject base to the UK’s potential economic contribution is welcome, I still believe that the new acronym is missing one key letter – an additional M.

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The business school community strongly agrees that the focus on innovation and growth must be seen within the context of a bigger picture – that is, the longer-term enhancement of the position of the business school community in the UK within universities, within business and within government. In seeking to rebalance the economy, to kick-start growth and to provide a platform for sustainable development, policy makers across the political spectrum have elevated science, technology, engineering and mathematics to virtually totemic status as the key academic bases on which to achieve such objectives – the misplaced tyranny of Stem. How many business school practitioners have sat in senior university management forums and gnashed their teeth at the veneration of Stem?

We all recognise that while these disciplines are necessary preconditions for innovation, for a flourishing knowledge-based economy, they are far from sufficient preconditions for innovation. The UK has a proud research tradition in Stem – and unquestionably punches above its weight – yet in commercialising inventions, in business development, in building global scale, industry leaders and brands, the UK lags behind rivals. Simply adding “the arts” into the Stem acronym does not resolve this unbalanced equation. Rather, the UK needs to heed the advice from the US included in the recent “Innovation” report from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The report warns against “a new form of techno-nationalism in which policy makers compare innovative capacity based on input measures, such as the number of scientists and patents generated, without accounting for the ability to convert invention into value”.

Ultimately, innovation – and in turn growth – are as much about leadership and management, the natural domain of business schools, as they are about science and technology. Business schools need to be positioned as “translators of invention”, as agents of innovation and growth in the business and policy communities. This is about defining the very rationale for business schools in the 21st century. It is about the transition from being seen as institutional cash generators to innovation generators for society.

The debate needs to move on from Stem or Steam to being about Stem2 or Steam2 where the M represents management as well as maths and where management is core to the policy discourse.

The writer is chairman of the Association of Business Schools and dean of the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University

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