We Must Redefine Our Thought Leadership
To rise above the noise of social influencers, business schools need a different approach to sharing their best business insights in the public domain.
In a race to build their brands, enhance their reputations, and engage with external audiences, business schools have turned thought leadership into a competition. Their efforts to capture attention—primarily through the expertise of their faculty—have only been magnified during the pandemic.
Think about all the invitations to seminars and conferences that professors receive. Before the pandemic, they would not have had the time or budget to attend them. But since the world moved online in March 2020, these events are now far more accessible as live webinars and podcasts. With so many new opportunities available, many professors are seeking out new ways to connect with each other, communicate with wider audiences, and enhance their public profiles—as well as those of their business schools.
Even before the pandemic, we saw the rising omnipresence of thought leaders worldwide, each seeking to capture the attention of audiences not only through their scholarly publications, but through their blogs, videos, webinars, podcasts, infographics—and, indeed, articles such as this one. That trend has led to a proliferation of global business experts and social influencers who are disseminating information at an increasing rate.
But what impact does such a model for thought leadership have on the world? And why should business schools care? One can argue that there is a problem with how we view thought leadership in our industry—and that our definition of the concept needs to change.
A Catchall Term
The idea of thought leadership was made popular by an influential 1997 book by Joel Kurtzman. At that time, thought leadership was associated with a small number of practitioner and academic gurus, from American management consultant Gary Hamel to the late Japanese Mitsubishi Corporation chairman and CEO Minoru Makihara. These gurus focused primarily on promoting organizational learning, sharing best practices, and helping leaders apply those practices in their own contexts.
Business schools continued to produce work by well-known thought leaders, including Michael Porter, who writes on strategy; the late Clay Christensen, who explored disruptive innovation; Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim, who introduced blue ocean strategy; and Roger Martin, who focuses on integrative thinking.
Unfortunately, over time, the term “thought leadership” has been bastardized. It has become a catchall term for virtually any kind of knowledge-based content, within and beyond academic circles. Seemingly anyone who shares insights in the public domain can be considered a thought leader.
I recently published an open-access paper on this topic with co-authors Vince-Wayne Mitchell of the University of Sydney Business School; Alessandra Almeida Jones of Baker McKenzie, a law firm in Chicago; and Eric Knight of Macquarie Business School in Sydney. In it, we note that “the sheer demand for thought leadership puts pressure on people and organisations to find ways of delivering quantity at the expense of quality.”
This view of thought leadership is highly problematic, because such a broad definition has contributed to misinformation and disinformation—erroneous rumors and anecdotes have been shared under the guise of scholarly expertise. This disinformation has involved elections, the COVID-19 vaccine, and the economy, to name a few recent examples.
The Problem With ‘Influencers’
Exacerbating this problem is the fact that much of the excellent peer-reviewed academic research conducted by business academics is not easily accessible to the wider business community. Too often, it is hidden behind paywalls or its content is written in esoteric scholarly language.
It’s true that more academics are writing shorter executive summaries of their research for practitioners in a narrow set of business magazines. But even these summaries are targeted at a select and often elite group. They do not capture the attention of a wider group of stakeholders.
Many social media influencers have capitalized on the absence of evidence-based accessible business insights, building reputations for their knowledge and expertise on specific subjects. Their areas of interest include starting businesses, managing time, mastering emotions, and achieving work-life balance. Some promote equality, diversity, and inclusion practices in the workplace, while others provide self-help guides on personal health and well-being. Social media influencers can have thousands to millions of followers, engaging with their audiences as bloggers, podcasters, and YouTubers.
The rise of social media influencers is a missed opportunity for business school faculty who can provide the world with evidence-based insights.
Many discuss the very issues explored in business research, but in ways that often confuse. They spout words and phrases such as “deliverables” and “going forward” and “best practice" that, without evidence to back them up, amount to nothing but empty business talk. That's one of the points made in a book by André Spicer of the Business School (formerly Cass) at the City University of London. Questionable voices, he argues, only louden the noise and undermine the credibility of high-quality business school research.
The rise of social media influencers is a missed opportunity for business school faculty. Business schools can play a vital role in providing the world with evidence-based insights through our teaching, engagement, and impact activity. We could be using the same platforms to share actual evidence-based research. We simply have to change our definition of thought leadership and direct our insights to wider audiences.
Redefining Thought Leadership
In our research, we found that, whether produced by academics or practitioners, today’s thought leadership combines the following three elements:
Inputs, or the resources and conditions required to develop thought leadership. Schools might draw from scholarly expertise and apply research-led methodologies. They might elicit ideas from stakeholders and tap the creativity of their larger community for insightful ideas.
Processes, or the mechanisms through which research can be created and shared. Such processes for disseminating knowledge include publishing articles; posting information on social media; and building relationships among scholars, practitioners, and the public.
Outcomes, or the benefits individuals and their organizations reap from thought leadership. Potential outcomes related to research, shared via publications or other media, include enhanced institutional reputation, brand awareness, and influence; market differentiation; and prospects for new research and partnerships.
These different dimensions do not encompass what should be the most important aspect of thought leadership—its beneficial effects on end users in business and society. These dimensions also are separate from the core elements of what thought leadership should be.
Building on our research, my co-authors and I propose the following new definition of thought leadership, with emphasis on its essential attributes:
“Knowledge from trusted, eminent, and authoritative sources that is actionable and provides valuable solutions for stakeholders.”
What Can Business Schools Do?
If our definition is the correct one, how can business schools engage in true thought leadership without adding to the noise? By taking a more reflective and thoughtful approach in the way they consider, design, and present their thought leadership activities. Such an approach encompasses three factors:
Focusing on quality over quantity. A 2019 survey of 1,200 U.S. businesses by the public relations firm Edelman found that only 18 percent of respondents thought that the thought leadership they consumed was “excellent” or “very good” in quality. And a full 30 percent rated the content they consume as only “mediocre to poor.” This finding is an unfortunate reflection on today’s thought leadership activity. Business schools must not fall into the trap of generating large volumes of mediocre, inauthentic content that audiences find at best unhelpful and at worse intrusive.
Less frequent publication of high-quality, accessible content is far more desirable than more frequent, lower-quality content that no one can apply to real-world practices.
I realize that if business schools are to differentiate themselves in the market, they have to maximize their impact and stand out from the crowd. But a constant stream of content will not accomplish these goals—especially if the content is so esoteric that audiences do not know how to apply it. Less frequent publication of high-quality, accessible content that connects with target audiences is far more desirable than more frequent, lower-quality content that no one can apply to real-world practices.
Identifying target audiences. Schools should carefully identify whom they want to engage with their content—and, more important, they should know why. With this information, schools can create useful content that helps them build deeper and more meaningful relationships—and more clearly demonstrates their wider economic and social impact.
Soliciting wide-ranging feedback. Schools should continually take time to ask people within and outside their communities to evaluate the quality of their content. These groups include faculty and students, marketing and communication staff, select alumni, advisory board members, and trusted colleagues outside the business school. These groups can provide honest, objective feedback on how the content lands for them.
These three steps can help business schools redefine how they view their own thought leadership, identify who can best benefit from it, and understand when and how they should be engaging with these audiences. Even more important, they can clarify the messages they wish to convey.
By increasing both the quality and accessibility of their content, business schools can return to the original, more authentic meaning of “thought leadership.” In the process, they will ensure that the content they share delivers genuine value to the audiences they most want to reach.
William S. Harvey is associate dean, global, and professor of management at the University of Exeter Business School in the United Kingdom.