On subjects from climate change to knife crime and racism in recruitment to kidney transplants, business school professors are conducting research geared towards making a positive impact on society.
Despite criticism that much of their activity focuses on abstract, abstruse and overly academic topics with little resonance beyond the higher education sector, a survey by the Financial Times shows a rich and varied range of research by faculty on topics with strong social value.
Bill Glick, professor of management at Houston’s Rice University, maintains, however, that such examples remain too rare. Much business school research, and public funding for it, is “underperforming”, he claims.
He argues that talent and resources are too often channelled into theoretical work read by few people with limited application: “There is an emphasis on quantity over quality and novelty over replicability.”
Prof Glick helped found the Responsible Research in Business & Management Network (RRBM), which at its inaugural conference in Rotterdam last year hosted more than 60 academics determined to make business schools’ research more relevant to society. It will hold a second event in London this summer.
The virtual network’s vision for 2030 spells out the aspiration that by that year business and management schools worldwide will be “widely admired for their contributions to societal wellbeing”. Their “timely and cutting edge” research, it adds, will produce “well-grounded knowledge on pressing problems”.
Some observers suggest that the often esoteric orientation of research is partly a legacy of reforms in US management education after the second world war. The changes were designed to bridge a gulf between the practical work of business schools and more traditional academic disciplines.
Over time, this has led to a divergence between the needs of business for hands-on training and academia’s preference for peer-reviewed theory. The result has been publication of research in a limited range of specialist journals with limited readership.
Today, many business schools in emerging economies, founded with a more practical focus and strong links to companies, have joined the chorus for reform. “We need research that is relevant to business,” says Konstantin Krotov, head of the graduate school of management in Russia’s Saint Petersburg university.
There is growing pressure for change and accountability from government and philanthropic funding agencies. UK regulators have introduced the Research Excellence Framework, for instance, which requires universities to provide evidence of their impact. Similar systems have been launched in Australia and the Netherlands.
Yet the science of measuring the impact of research remains in its infancy. Most performance measures rely either on: inward-looking validation by academics citing each other in journal articles; broader references in the media or social networks, or anecdotal case studies of success.
It may take years after publication before academic research finds practical applications in changing policies in the private or public sectors. The original authors, meanwhile, may never be credited.
Moreover, top researchers may not be the best teachers to share their work effectively with students. Mike Taylor, head of metrics development at consultants Digital Science, argues that intermediaries such as bloggers can play a bigger role in bringing academic work to the attention of decision makers.
Academic publications alone are a reductive way to assess the broader impact of business school research. Wilfred Mijnhardt, policy director at the Rotterdam School of Management, suggests taking into account a fuller range of “outputs”, including dissertations, grants awarded and patents.
He is among those exploring ways to weight the value of total research by analysing whether articles refer to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet that approach still falls short of judging the quality of the ideas themselves, since it may represent “box-ticking” rather than providing important new insights.
To aid the debate, the FT asked business schools to select up to five papers by their academics, published in the past five years, that they considered to have social impact. It then used Altmetric, a service owned by Digital Science, to quantify the online resonance that each had with the wider world beyond universities, drawing on references ranging from academic citations to social media posts.
The top 100 results, broken down by Altmetric’s individual categories, some of which are set out in the columns below, were striking for their variety.
The highest scoring paper overall was Brain Drain, submitted by the Rady School of Management at the University of California in San Diego. It sought to test whether carrying a smartphone, even without looking at it, can impair cognitive performance.
The work that received the most references in policy documents produced by governments and organisations outside academia was from the University of Exeter in southwest England. It was on the use of therapy and cash payments in Liberia to reduce violent crime.
The most references on Mendeley, a platform that hosts discussions among academics, came from a paper submitted by Corvinus University of Budapest on the conceptual framework of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
While such early measures are unlikely to gain universal approval, they feed a growing debate on how research can help improve society.
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