When I was hired by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management 29 years ago, my first assignment was to teach a course called “Business, Government, and the Macroeconomy.” It highlighted business’ and governments’ necessary interdependence and partnership, and the role of institutions in strengthening business and society. It reinforced my belief that scholars need to understand the institutional contexts in which they operate. It supported my own views on research that, in order to address questions that matter to business, to policy makers, and to society, we need to ground our work in a deep understanding of the internal and external factors that affect the organizations we study and operate within. My own research at that time on the impact of national and organizational contexts on risk-taking by currency traders, was very much a reflection of this belief.
Over time however, as a market-forces-drives-all and a flat-world mentality dominated, that pedagogical and scholarly approach to the shared interests of ethical business and responsible governments, and their effects on each other, faded. Our research agendas shifted as more and more work ignored the political and socio-cultural environments in which businesses operate, and ignored the broader impact of business activity on society.
We, as business school deans, faculty, and supporters need to talk about how we help our students and future faculty get there to again understand those critical contexts.
I was inspired by a commentary last month in the Harvard Business Review by Professor Rebecca Henderson. She wrote it amid the frightening divisions over the U.S. presidential election. It applies to us.
“For years, American business has taken American institutions for granted,” Henderson wrote. “It has assumed that someone else would ensure that democracy, the rule of law, and the kind of robust, respectful discourse that keeps societies healthy would simply survive—and that the role of business was to keep its head down and maximize profits in the meantime.”
She added: “In this moment of crisis, leaders can support democracy by what they say and what they do. The key here is to focus on civics, not politics—to stress that it’s about the process, not the outcome . . . Business must step up. Our democracy needs us.”
We are the leaders in and advocates for the business schools that shape the next generation of business leaders and that drive critical research to inform policymakers and the public. We, too, must step up at this moment of opportunity. We are in a stronger position than most in higher education to challenge our faculty and our students to learn how to partner across sectors to address societal challenges, and to encourage meaningful, influential research.
The grand challenges facing us, whether it is in global health or in dealing with climate change, or in beginning to address income inequality or systemic racism, require business, government, and non-profits to work in partnership on shared goals, to come up with solutions. And it requires scholars to tackle these wicked problems with a deep understanding of context in their research.
Around the world, business schools have been researching myriad issues resulting from the global pandemic. At the Carlson School, some of our faculty members have been mapping the complex COVID-19 care supply chain, end-to-end. Other faculty and a team of students looked into new uses for excess catch from fisheries in northern Minnesota, which faced demand declines from restaurants due to the pandemic. And our faculty-led COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project collects, tracks, and publicly reports daily COVID-19 hospitalizations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All of this work needed grounded insights from the field, and partnerships with public and private entities, as the researchers identified gaps in our understanding of the problem and collected data to answer the critical questions that came up. These data have uncovered important insights that can help states and hospitals better manage infection rates and patient caseloads. It has also earned hundreds of media mentions around the world – the type of impact that only happens when the work is grounded in a deep understanding of the context in addressing the problem.
Applying the tools and skills of business disciplines to advance scholarship with a social purpose can strengthen our ties with government agencies and other institutions by enhancing our relevance to policymakers and the public. Such actionable research can fuel confidence in what we do as business schools, and the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer provides us with hope on why we can lead many important efforts. The Trust Barometer shows that just about every institution globally is operating at a historic trust deficit. Governments, the media, NGOs. But it’s business, with a 61 percent trust level globally (versus 53 percent for government), that’s rated the highest of all institutions for ethics and competence, and it is perceived that business leaders alone can be trusted to tell the truth and find solutions to problems — all kinds of problems.
How can we as schools of business and management leverage that trust to recruit students and teach and prepare them for that position of trust among consumers, shareholders, and other community and government leaders? Is that not part of our role? How can we engage in scholarship that informs businesses, policymakers, and the public about how business can be harnessed to work in partnership with government and non-profits to deliver on its promise to be a force for good?
Ironically, as I seek a path to prepare our students to embrace a stronger relationship between business and government, one analyst recently called CEOs the “fourth branch of government.” Felix Salmon wrote in Axios, “A new political force is emerging, one based on centrist principles of predictability, stability, small-c conservatism, and, yes, the rule of law.”
We are producing the next cohort for that political force. But I challenge you to find the words “governments” or “democracy” in most business schools’ literature, be it for prospective students, donors, or even in your course catalogs. It is an even rarer piece of scholarly work that seeks to understand the institutional context and the interdependencies across sectors, although new journals like the Journal of International Business Policy are beginning to change that.
I know that most of our schools offer courses or programs that link our students and faculty to non-profits, local governments, and social justice. I know we all focus on ethics. For students going into the real world, experiential learning that crosses sectoral boundaries and is grounded in solving real problems, is key to helping them get ready to lead with purpose and humanity, as Hubert Joly underscores in his book, The Heart of Business, and with the deep understanding of context required to have an impact.
Even more critically, what are our business schools doing to prepare our PhD students – our future faculty — to examine the relationships between business and the institutional context rigorously and systematically in their work? Do we encourage our PhD students to delve into understanding the context and do the needed field-work in order to identify the gaps in our understanding of critical problems? Do we help them understand public-private partnerships and governmental entities’ pressures and challenges, and the policy implications of those pressures for business? Do we incentivize our faculty to conduct the sort of grounded research that uses the best tools available to find solutions to the most pressing problems our society faces?
I applaud the Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) group for taking the first steps in tackling those kinds of questions. By focusing on research with impact, business schools can better deliver on our promise. We need to prepare our students— and particularly our future faculty—to do high-impact research to understand the mutual impact of institutions and industry, and that requires us to encourage the kind of deep understanding of context that can provide the background and the impetus for high-impact scholarship. In that process, we, as scholars, can ensure that our business schools, with our curricula and research, lead the way as forces for good.