A company has a complex problem which it cannot solve. Believing that only the cleverest of minds can tackle so thorny an issue, it decides to form a research collaboration with a group of academics to use their cutting-edge expertise. The partnership has its ups and downs but ultimately succeeds and the problem is solved to the satisfaction of all involved.
Does this (admittedly simplified) scenario sound familiar? If you are involved in a collaboration between a technology-driven company and academic scientists or engineers, you may well recognise it, or something similar. However, if you are a manager dealing with business challenges or a business school academic, it perhaps sounds like something you think you should be doing, but have not yet got around to.
In the last decades there has been a growing chorus which critiques the relevance of some business school research. Intriguingly, it has mostly come from within business academia, often supported by the business media. Businesses have in general stayed out of the debate, probably because they tend not to think of business and management as domains of academic inquiry and generally perceive business schools more as training providers. The resulting and prevalent business model, which sees business schools piling high on training and investing surpluses into self-indulgent research, hardly incentivises research collaboration.
Critiques have mostly ventured in two directions: business academics should shun the curiosity-driven research suitable for publication in top journals and focus on teaching which is informed by pragmatic consultancy; alternatively, business academics are advised to become almost superhuman and balance inspiring teaching with scientifically elegant research, as well as providing practical solutions for complex managerial problems.
This is a problem which does not go away, no matter how much it is discussed. It is obvious a new approach is needed and a fundamental shift must take place in how business schools and businesses work together. Large, truly collaborative research projects must become the norm.
This approach must be based on three pillars: it must be accepted that studying narrowly defined topics within the different disciplines of business studies – and the theoretical idiosyncrasies underpinning this work – can only take us so far. Academics from the different business disciplines (and beyond) will have to collaborate to tackle the grand challenges facing contemporary businesses and societies.
Second, these collaborations need to involve academics from strong research centres who can bring different theoretical, methodological and disciplinary traditions. Centres would co-ordinate a large number of collaborative projects and insight would be gained through continuous and strategically directed collective research, rather than relying on individual flashes of academic brilliance that occasionally help to inform practice.
Finally, the corporate sector must be intimately involved: company managers need to identify the challenges they face and become more involved throughout the course of the research collaboration. Research centres must act as spaces where academic researchers and managers can define topics and monitor research progress together.
A step change is needed for business schools and businesses in how they view and approach research collaborations. Business schools need to go beyond hiring talent for conducting individual research and become better at building diverse research teams. They need to engage strategically with companies to boost recruitment and to make a better case that research at business schools is not about short-term problem solving. Likewise, businesses must embrace the notion that research carried out in business schools is not that different from scientific research – it requires time, rigour and works best when a solution is not already available before a problem is identified.
Business schools do not need to look far for examples of how this could work. Much research in the science and engineering faculties is already carried out in this way. These disciplines are better at tackling interdisciplinary challenges, more willing to work in large collaborative projects with companies and through this, more likely to have publishable papers that are extensively read. The contrast with the frequently individualistic and idiosyncratic research carried out in business schools could not be sharper.
If large numbers of the best minds are all focused on answering one (albeit multi-faceted) issue the results are magnified and the potential for genuine breakthrough is so much greater.
I know that this approach works. I led a €4m pan-European project that brought together academics from different business schools with expertise in strategy, operations, information systems, economics and sociology. We were joined by innovations managers from companies including Bayer, Intel and GlaxoSmithKline. There were challenges along the way arising from different ways of working and expectations. But I saw how the collaboration between business and academia ultimately benefited both sides.
Business schools and businesses could continue to look for excuses. I understand that business research is not the same as research in science or engineering. But I do not accept – as some cynics will argue – that it is simply too difficult for business schools to form strong institutional links with companies. A new approach is needed, with businesses and business schools forming research collaborations which benefit both parties. If not, this is a problem which will not go away.
The author is professor of strategy and innovation at Leeds University Business School.