Serving Society Through Scholarship
How are business schools promoting research that improves business practice and changes society for the better? What does such research look like in real-world contexts? And how are schools quantifying its true impact?
Business school administrators and scholars are still working out how to respond to these complex questions, but the answers are becoming clearer. Not only have revised accreditation standards encouraged schools to place stronger emphasis on engagement and societal impact, but the pandemic has underscored, on an even larger scale, the important role that business research can play in helping humanity solve seemingly intractable problems.
We recently asked five business schools to share examples of their faculty’s research having true impact. These schools include Aalto University School of Business in Helsinki; the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis; Hong Kong University Business School; Cornell University Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, New York; and the Surrey Business School in Guildford, England.
As the examples below suggest, more business faculty are dedicating their scholarly careers to solving real-world problems—and more business schools are making it a priority to produce research that makes a difference.
Harnessing the Power of Knowledge
Business and management scholars are translating their research into real-world solutions in myriad ways, by focusing on small slices of larger problems. Examples such as the following underscore the power of incremental innovations in every area of society:
Making textiles more sustainable. Researchers at Aalto University School of Business are leading The Finix Project, which is producing studies on the environmental and societal impact of Finland’s textile production and consumption. According to the project’s website, researchers aim to “enable upcycling [of] textile waste, using agricultural and other waste for fibre-making, and closing chemical loops.” On the site, visitors can explore a “challenge map” that offers a pictorial representation of the biggest sustainability challenges facing the textile industry, such as the spread of microplastics or human rights violations. Visitors also can read studies and view videos of Aalto faculty discussing potential solutions in more detail.
Increasing access to childhood education. Ritva Reinikka, professor of practice at Aalto, has spent more than 25 years studying how to make education more accessible to children in developing countries. Early in her career, she and her fellow researchers studied “whether state aid to schools was reaching its intended targets in Uganda. We also looked for reasons why that did not always happen, and what could be done about it,” Reinikka notes on the university’s website. “School attendance has increased vastly in the past few decades. Nearly all children in the world are starting school today. It is a huge effort and achievement on the part of humanity, and it has happened in our lifetime.”
However, problems still persist, she emphasizes, which means that scholars can still make a huge difference. “In many developing countries, students do not learn as one might have expected. UNESCO even calls it a ‘learning crisis.’ Many students leave school without being able to read, write, or count,” says Reinikka. “We need to recognize that attending school and learning do not always mean the same thing. Therefore, the focus in our research has shifted from access to schooling to learning.”
Holding companies responsible for recycling. At the Carlson School of Management, Ximin Huang, assistant professor of supply chain and operations, is working with the State of Minnesota to study how legislation can encourage and optimize electronics recycling. In an article published in 2018 in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, Huang and colleagues studied policies that task companies with recycling or disposing of their products responsibly when those products reach the end of their life cycle. The goal of Huang’s research is to increase the rate of electronics recycling in the state.
Improving learning outcomes for children. In 2016, Aaron Sojourner, associate professor in the department of work and organizations at Carlson, received a grant of 400,000 USD from the U.S. Department of Education to fund a two-year project focused on improving learning outcomes for young students in the Minneapolis Public Schools system. Sojourner and colleagues analyzed data involving 16,000 applicants and 2,000 hired teachers. Their objective was to discover how the school system could attract and retain effective teachers, as well as place them in schools where they are most needed.
Reducing the cost of healthcare. David Tse, Stelux Professor of Marketing at Hong Kong University Business School (HKUBS), has helped regional startups improve their chances of breaking into established markets through his research on breakthrough innovation (BI). For example, the founders of Time Medical, a startup selling lower-cost magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, changed their strategy on Tse’s guidance. Rather than go head-to-head with larger players such as General Electric and Siemens, they instead customized their technology to serve two niche markets: pediatrics and mammography. After applying BI to its business model, Time Medical is now planning its initial public offering on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2021, with a valuation of 1.5 billion USD.
“We are committed to knowledge co-creation and research excellence through partnering with nonacademic communities,” says Kristy Mok of HKUBS.
Improving healthcare outcomes. Haipeng Shen, the Patrick S.C. Poon Professor in Analytics and Innovation at HKUBS, has been helping physicians use big data to analyze existing research to create a model that will lead to quicker diagnoses and better outcomes for victims of strokes, the leading cause of death in China. As a result of this research, “new stroke events were significantly reduced in the intervention group at three, six and 12 months,” the school notes. “Based on a 2013 estimate of 2.4 million new stroke events per year nationwide, the reduction corresponds to 33,600 fewer strokes at three months, 36,000 at six months, and 64,800 at 12 months.”
Making the business case for philanthropy. Sachin Gupta, the Henrietta Johnson Louis Professor of Management at Cornell’s Johnson School, was the lead author on a paper that questioned whether healthcare nonprofits must use revenues generated by wealthier patients to subsidize free care to lower-income patients. After examining nine years of historical data from an eye hospital in India, Gupta and his co-authors determined that the hospital’s marketing of its free services to lower-income patients also increased the number of patients who could pay for services. The data show that the additional revenue that these patients generated exceeded the cost of the hospital’s free outreach services. The paper, published in the Journal of Marketing Research, was among the inaugural recipients of the Responsible Research in Business and Management network’s American Marketing Association-EBSCO Award for Responsible Research in Marketing.
Reducing rates of infectious disease. Christopher B. Barrett, an economist at Cornell's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and SC Johnson College of Business, studied the impact of infectious diseases on global food production. Barrett worked with a multidisciplinary team of 13 scholars, including biologists, an infectious disease ecologist, an environmental health scientist, and a veterinarian specializing in disease ecology. In a paper published in Nature Sustainability, the team noted that nearly 50 percent of all zoonotic diseases are the result of agriculture, with 75 percent of deaths due to infectious diseases occurring in developing countries. The researchers sought to identify actions by agriculturists, policymakers, and researchers that could counteract this growing public health crisis.
Boosting employee well-being. Ying Zhou, reader in resource management at Surrey Business School (SBS), uses data from European labor market surveys to inform policies that will improve employee engagement and well-being. Government agencies in the European Union and the United Kingdom have cited Zhou’s work in their own policy documents, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development cited her research in its Guidelines on Measuring the Quality of the Working Environment. In November 2020, Zhou was part of a research team invited to present its findings on the future of work—from the effects of automation to the disadvantages of universal basic income—to the Department for Work and Pensions Committee in the U.K.’s House of Commons.
Designing more sustainable mining operations. Gavin Hilson, professor and chair of sustainability in business at SBS, is focused on measuring the impact of “artisanal and small-scale mining” (ASM) in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hilson has found that although the industry provides much-needed livelihoods for workers, out-of-date government policies are allowing mining operations to use unsustainable methods to extract materials and put their workers at risk. So far, Hilson’s work has helped shape ASM policies throughout the region aimed at making ASM operations more sustainable and worker-friendly. His scholarship has been used to inform the UN/ACP/EU Development Minerals Programme, the World Bank’s DELVE platform, and guide for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) now being implemented in Ghana.
These are just 10 of thousands of studies now ongoing across all business disciplines. The challenges for business schools, then, are threefold: how to harness their faculty’s efforts to generate impact, how to track their influence on societal problems, and how to sustain and amplify their progress over the long term.
How Can Schools Create Cultures of Impact?
When it comes to encouraging faculty to pursue more impactful research, the schools mentioned here emphasize the importance of creating open, collaborative, and supportive research cultures. So far, their administrators have taken several steps to design such cultures on their own campuses:
Strengthening industry partnerships. Kristy Mok, administrative director of the Research and Knowledge Exchange at HKUBS, emphasizes the importance of fostering strategic long-term relationships with corporations. These connections yield not only financial support, but also access to proprietary data and broader industry connections. “We are committed to knowledge co-creation and research excellence through partnering with nonacademic communities,” she says.
At the Carlson School, each department has at least one corporate board, in addition to the board of advisors for the larger school. The Carlson School currently is planning initiatives that will increase this engagement, such as encouraging more input from Executive Leadership Fellows, executives who work with faculty on a variety of projects; and hiring Professors of Practice, senior executives from major companies who will deliver courses and engage with tenure-track faculty.
“An organic push for this type of research is much preferred, and that can be encouraged by setting the right tone at the top that this research is valued and important,” says Carlson’s dean, Sri Zaheer. She also encourages other deans to “walk the talk in your own research and government or community engagements.”
Encouraging cross-disciplinary interaction. HKUBS has adopted what Mok calls an “open architecture” in its research centers to encourage the cross-disciplinary collaboration that impactful research requires.
Providing dedicated support. SBS has a dedicated research administrator, as well as a business development officer who works on building links with industry and alumni. SBS also has designated a special position, Research Impact Lead. The person in this role is responsible for “supporting researchers to achieve business, third sector, and policy impact,” says MariaLaura Di Domenico, director of research and professor of entrepreneurship, work, and organization. That support, she explains, includes training faculty in how to cultivate relationships with businesses and other stakeholders as a pathway to achieving greater research impact.
Rewarding, recognizing, and supporting impact. Each year, SBS showcases faculty’s work in research seminars and bestows several awards on faculty for outstanding research, including an Impact Award. At the Carlson School, faculty can apply for small grants to support research with social impact. The school also displays large posters showcasing faculty research throughout its building. “This makes it clear that we highly value research with societal impact, perhaps subtly influencing faculty choices of research problems,” says Zaheer.
Most of these schools also have created publications that highlight their faculty’s best research. The Johnson School is now putting out an annual report, Research with Impact, that showcases the strength of its research. “We’re rolling this out in the form of video-based passion pitches,” says Andrew Karolyi, acting dean, dean of academic affairs, and the Harold Bierman Jr. Distinguished Professor of Management at Cornell’s Johnson School. “It’s about elevating the strengths that we have … and amplifying them to the broader community.”
HKUBS has set up a webpage that highlights its "impact stories," which touch a range of sectors, from government policy to healthcare to fintech. The Carlson School publishes Discovery at Carlson, a biannual magazine that showcases research that is creating real change in business practice or providing solutions to social issues. The Fall 2020 issue of Discovery at Carlson focused on faculty’s research related to COVID-19.
Andrew Karolyi of Cornell University advises business schools to “start somewhere," whether by asking faculty to produce impact reports or by designing formal rewards that recognize faculty for impactful research.
Mentoring early-career faculty. At SBS, for example, all early-career researchers and doctoral students are provided mentors with an interest in impact. In addition, faculty meet regularly to identify opportunities for research and collaboration, share business and enterprise contacts, offer peer review, and monitor progress.
Karolyi of Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management points out that good mentorship for early-career researchers is critical, because more experienced mentors “have a nose for what is responsible research in business and management and what will have relevance for society at large.” When mentors encourage graduate students and young faculty to plan their research around impact today, he says, it’s more likely these next-generation scholars will select topics with social relevance throughout their careers.
Tracking progress. Two years ago, the Johnson School began asking its faculty to self-report their activities other than publication and citations—such as social media use and blogging, engagement with internal or external organizations, service to discipline-specific associations, or other types of community outreach. In these reports, faculty are encouraged to link their activities to the mission and value statements of the college.
“Step No. 1 toward managing something like the greater good is to measure,” says Karolyi. “We’ve got to start collecting data.” In many ways, he adds, business schools should view today’s research “like planting some young trees—some of them could grow to make a big difference.”
The Important Part Is to Start
One organization that is heavily pushing business schools to produce more impactful research is the Responsible Research in Business and Management network (RRBM). In late April, educators, editors, and others with a stake in business research attended the virtual Responsible Research Academic Summit, where they shared best practices on transforming business scholarship.
Maureen O’Hara, the Robert W. Purcell Professor of Finance at Cornell’s Johnson School, is a founding RRBM member. She would like to see RRBM’s message take an even stronger hold among business schools worldwide. “I think everybody wants to write papers with impact,” she says. “We all aspire to do work that’s meaningful.”
For this to happen, O’Hara stresses that schools must create as many pathways as possible for faculty to interact with business leaders, whether by teaching in executive education courses, engaging industry through campus research centers, spending time with alumni to learn about their businesses, or serving on corporate boards where they’ll hear firsthand about the challenges the companies are facing. “Academics have to start with small problems, and to understand that each small problem is part of a bigger problem that is part of a bigger problem,” she says.
Karolyi calls on business schools to “start somewhere with something that lays the foundation of responsible research in business and management.” That could mean asking faculty to produce impact reports for their annual reviews; designing formal rewards that recognize faculty for impactful research; or highlighting the implications and impact of research findings in print, on websites, and at school events.
“We all can start with something and hope that it turns into something useful,” says Karolyi. “I think that’s the message: Start!”
May 3, 2021—This article has been modified to include an additional comment and clarification from Ritva Reinikka of Aalto University.