Academia strives for relevance

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Are business schools relevant? Given the expansion of management education in recent years, the question may seem moot. But, with critics continuing to query the real-world value of research and teaching, relevance has remained an issue for school administrators.

This month, David Willetts, the UK universities minister, criticised business schools for focusing on peer-reviewed research at the expense of applied studies. “I am very aware we have inherited a structure of rewarding research excellence in particular that can have a very damaging practical effect on the work of a business school,” he said.

British academics, he added, should concentrate more on teaching rather than publishing research in US journals. “We have created a system in which research has much greater incentives and rewards than teaching, which I think is very bad for our universities.”

Though it is rare for a minister to question the role of business schools, the comments were familiar to deans and other academic staff.

Dan LeClair, senior vice president at the the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which accredits more than 500 institutions worldwide, says deans are under more pressure than ever to justify what they do. “The deans have been telling us that major donors are asking tough questions like ‘you have all these faculty members who you are very proud of, but can you tell me how this research has made a difference?’,” he says.

“It’s also the alumni and even the provosts and presidents of the institutions. They are all asking schools to not only describe what they are trying to achieve, but also to demonstrate it.”

Business schools are frequently criticised for over-emphasing academic rigour over relevance to practice. And many believe the structures of the business school world feed the tendency: that promotion is based on articles few managers read; and that accredition bodies and rankings providers count journal entries, and citations, to assess worthiness.

Mr LeClair says the Florida-based AACSB has sometimes encouraged research that is “narrow and theoretical and more mathematical” because it is easier to quantify. “By focusing on that, it takes some of the uncertainty away about whether a school is accreditable. It gives us something to count. Applied research is more difficult to measure.”

Following a 2008 report calling for schools to have greater contact with business, the AACSB has been studying how to measure the impact of “faculty intellectual contributions on targeted audiences”. Ten schools are taking part in a study where they self-assess their work against five criteria – each taken from mission statements. Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, for example, is assessing whether it meets the needs of “key industries and strategic niches”, contributes to the practice of management and teaching, and upholds its Jesuit values.

Although the exercise is not finished, Mr LeClair said it has helped to develop measures for impact in areas such as executive education and the work of research centres. In future, it may be possible to assess how customised teaching programmes, for example, help companies reach their objectives.

Other schools are framing similar exercises. The Erasmus Research Institute of Management in Rotterdam is introducing a “dual impact” system where it measures both academic influence (through journal articles and citations) and managerial relevance (consultancy requests and advisory board memberships). Erim is also beginning to collect “stakeholder” data from government agencies and even the general public.

Scientific director Ale Smidts estimates that Erim faculty are now appraised 80 per cent by standard academic criteria, and 20 per cent by mangerial relevance. He notes the influence of the national funding agency, the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research. “It used to be that you only had to focus on originality and rigour, and if you had a relevent aspect it counted as a plus. Now it [relevance] is more of a necessity. If you can’t show relevance, you get a negative on that aspect,” he says.

Measuring the impact of research is just one way that schools are trying to justify, or increase, relevance. Olin Business School at Washington University in St Louis has introduced a $10,000 award recognising research with “timely practical applications”.

Mahendra Gupta, Olin’s dean, says the prize, now in its third year, has “created a greater awareness among the researchers into how their research translates into relevance”.

Jackson Nickerson, professor of organisation and strategy, who won in 2008 and 2009, says the award encourages faculty to take a “few extra steps” with research so it can be used in a commercial context.

“There are a very large number of research studies using the language of economics, sociology and psychology, and a lot of people don’t focus on translational activity. The award tries to bridge that gap.”

Initiated by Olin’s executive-in-residence, ex-Monsanto chief executive Richard Mahoney, the award has become increasingly popular, with more than 30 faculty submissions in the latest year. Prof Gupta insists though that the intention is not to shift the underlying direction of research, but to encourage faculty to think about how their work might be applied within, say, a five-year timeframe. “We are pleased by the culture change this is bringing and it is going to give us more ideas for different options,” he says.

Many, like Prof Gupta, believe business schools would be seen as more relevant if they did a better job of communicating their work. Mr LeClair says the AACSB is keen on more translation. He praises the University of Pennsylvania’s Knowledge@Wharton website as an example of communicating research to a wider audience, and says industry associations can play a positive role in mediating the academic-manager divide.

Other schools are trying to increase their relevance in a more direct way: by working more closely with business on research.

Esade Business School, in Barcelona, has developed the Creapolis “innovation park” where companies and faculty work collaboratively on so-called “action research” projects. Esade dean Alfons Sauquet says he is trying to encourage “team-playing in research”, mixing up faculty and companies. “It’s pushing people forward in a transversal area of knowledge, and helping them a lot to become more interactive and balanced.”

Meanwhile, Ipade, based in Mexico City, is encouraging its faculty to mix with alumni at monthly events, and to do more consultancy, believing both help keep research relevant. “We are happy that schools are seeing that relevance is more important than it used to be because we feel that we have always been trying to be that type of school,” says Julián Sánchez, Ipade’s academic director.

However, there remains a lot of scepticism about efforts to increase or justify relevance.

“What seems to be irrelevent research today oftentimes makes it into business practice tomorrow,” says Bob Dammon, associate dean of education at the Tepper School of Business, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Prof Dammon says the perspectives of schools and business may not necessarily coincide. A few years ago, Tepper started a programme in which faculty worked with companies on specific problems. But it became clear that the two sides were interested in different things. “The faculty wanted to have a bigger impact by generalising the solution, whereas the companies wanted consulting-type services. Our experience is that companies are focused on their short-term problems, while faculty are looking more at the long-term,” he says.

Robin Wensley, director of the UK’s Advanced Institute of Management, and professor of policy and marketing at Warwick Business School, says it is vital that academics become “more engaged” with business, seeing business people as “knowledgeable actors in situations, as much as thinking we have all the answers”.

He is also in favour of changing incentive structures to promote more relevant research. But he cautions against academics becoming the “the same people” as the subjects they are trying to analyse.

Mr LeClair stresses that the AASCB’s relevance initiative is designed for schools to meet their own criteria for relevance, rather than a general standard.

And Prof Sauquet argues that it is vital for schools to have a mixture of practice-focused and more theoretically minded staff. “As deans we cannot fall too much into either camp. If we follow the business side position we would end up as consultants. If we followed just the academic research, we would be ivory tower people. I think we have to play both roles, and that’s the tricky thing.”

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