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Business schools: relevant research will benefit us all

By Peter McKiernan - Posted on 9 February 2021

As we have seen throughout this Covid-19 pandemic, responsible research is more important than ever. Here, Peter McKiernan outlines what constitutes responsible research and how it’s being promoted.

The year 2020 will be remembered as a moment of omni-crisis at the intersection of public health, politics, and economics. A global pandemic on a scale not seen in a century struck tens of millions and left a wake of devastation.

Governments around the world responded in divergent ways, from competent and well-organised to chaotic and inept, with predictable consequences for their citizens. Their economies suffered the consequences, with many facing skyrocketing rates of unemployment and business failure. Those at the low end of the income spectrum fared the worst: in the US, employment in the foodservice industry dropped from 12 million to 6 million in a single month, leaving the equivalent of the population of Denmark out of work.

A key lesson from the pandemic was that policy response rooted in credible science yields better outcomes. Countries in which governments paid attention to scientific expertise and adjusted their actions in response to systematic evidence were much more effective in keeping their populations safe than those driven by whim or anecdote.

Like governments, businesses also stood to benefit from relevant expertise rooted in research and were keen to find answers to questions such as: How should workplaces be organised to limit the spread of a virus? What are viable alternative sources of distribution if face-to-face contact is not possible? How can employees be kept engaged and connected when they are working from home? How can manufacturing facilities be rapidly re-configured to make emergency medical equipment? Moreover, how could we build back better once the virus is vanquished?

It’s clear that research in the business and management arenas could provide crucial guidance. Business schools hold a unique vantage point between academia and practice – they stand between the worlds of intellectual enquiry and societal solutions. Given the wealth of expertise that resides in business schools, we might think that executives would be beating paths to our doors to gain our advice. There is little doubt that this advice could be more widely spread in society if it had the undivided attention of business faculty.

But it has been argued that the pressures of rankings, ratings, accreditation and administration have led business school faculty to conform to a specific kind of research and to common standards of research evaluation embedded in KPIs around top-ranked journals. In the last decade, this approach has attracted deep criticism as such pressures may have damaged the scientific quality of some of this research and lessened its societal impact. In response, we (24 global academics comprising of Deans, Editors, Academy Presidents and influential researchers) founded RRBM (Responsible Research in Business & Management) in 2016 - a multidisciplinary network aimed at championing both excellent science and broad utility. This group was supported strongly by the EFMD, AACSB, PRME and the Aspen Institute Business and Society at its foundation.

We had a vision that by 2030 business and management research will be used widely in business and non-business organisations to improve the lives of people in our societies. We set up Seven Principles - service to society, multidisciplinary collaboration, sound methodology, stakeholder involvement, impactful research for stakeholders, valuing all contributions, and broad dissemination to help guide sound and useful work.

In the five years since its founding RRBM has made encouraging progress. Many leading journals have published editorials on increasing the transparency of research and many have introduced special issues to encourage research on critical societal issues.

Many of the grand challenges in the contemporary world – like Covid-19, poverty, inequality, injustice and so on – are complex and demand multi-disciplinary collaboration. The significant challenges that confront societies today do not respect the tidy boundaries of academic disciplines: as we have seen with Covid-19, economics, public health, medicine and science are all elements of potential solutions to a world dealing with a pandemic.

Some business schools that were doing little before the outbreak of the recent pandemic have responded to their Governments’ calls for grant-aided research into the disease’s impact on, for instance, manufacturing output, the homeless, care homes and front-line workers, and most of this work involves combinations of academics from different disciplines often in conjunction with medical scientists, spurred on by a national consciousness to pioneer solutions for the good of society. Covid-19 has triggered a portfolio of multidisciplinary activity that is likely to become a norm in the future Hopefully, practical relevance has returned on a large-scale taking business and management research back to its roots.

As a Strathclyde professor, I am delighted to witness so much responsible research being carried out around me. In the last year, my colleagues’ research has had, or will have, direct impacts on business and organisations – such as modelling for NHS critical care beds in light of Covid; the recovery of manufacturing after Covid; workplace safety during the pandemic; innovations in workplace; social care; improved funding allocation in health organisations, energy and environment; and infection prevention in care homes.

As a Strathclyde academic and as a founder of RRBM, I’m gratified that this relevant research has been recognised by RRBM with the award of a “Pioneering Institution” to Strathclyde Business School at the start of this year. It illustrates our commitment to its principles and recognises our contribution to society.

I hope to see many more business schools become Pioneering Institutions as they join our work with all organisations on research which is truly relevant to the world we live in.

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