Recently, I had the distinct privilege of talking to and mentoring PhD students from all over the world at a PhD Consortium on service research held at the School of Management at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. I talked to this group of nearly 100 business school PhD students and junior faculty about doing problem-based, relevant and rigorous research. My talk was focused on a published study on cross-disciplinary research priorities for the science of service (Ostrom et al., 2015). The study was interdisciplinary – co-authored by 5 leading scholars from 4 business disciplines.
In my jet-lagged state, I spontaneously said at one point “life is too short to focus on research that has no potential for impact.” This phrase really resonated with the audience, and I heard “life is too short” repeated over and over throughout the consortium and on into the QUIS 14 conference that immediately followed at CEIBS, also in Shanghai.
What this anecdote and numerous individual conversations I have had tell me is that many, if not most, of our doctoral students and young faculty want to do research that is meaningful, impactful, and responsible. Yet, many forces in our business research and publishing ecosystem work against these goals. The RRBM position paper lays out these issues and challenges us to focus on a vision for 2030 with related principles and actions of how we, as a community of individuals, schools, and institutions, can change the trajectory of these forces over time.
The actions needed to even begin to change the research ecosystem span all stakeholders (businesses, government, professional associations, universities themselves, deans, leading journals and editors). Yet, we cannot point a finger at others or to the complexity of the system and wait for them to change. There are things that we, as researchers can do. If we don’t change ourselves, who will?
In particular, there are responsibilities that we, as senior faculty and scholars in our disciplines, bear and serious questions we should ask ourselves. For example:
Should we encourage our graduate students to take on big problems and/or potentially impactful projects that might have long time horizons and uncertain publication outcomes?
- As individual researchers, we cannot change the system on our own, but we do have the relative freedom to choose what we study and how we advise our students. Ultimately, it is what we choose to focus on that will define our disciplines.
- While we don’t want to derail our students’ careers by steering them to work against the system, unless we and our students want to focus on these types of issues at some point, we are doomed to repeat history or worse.
- During this transition time, perhaps students need to have a portfolio approach having a mix of projects including some aimed at traditional goals, journals, and narrow questions. They can also allocate “some” time to bigger questions and problems as another element of their repertoire, hopefully growing this part over time.
Research takes a long time and can be costly. Therefore, isn’t it our responsibility to spend our time and resources on things that will ultimately matter?
- In all our disciplines, there are those who have made this choice and whose careers and research has had profound impact. However, we need more of us to commit to this vision. They are currently the exceptions rather than the rule.
These are just two of many questions we should ask ourselves. Unless we senior researchers, along with other key elements of the ecosystem change, our research overall will continue to have little impact.
There are too many big and important issues to let this happen, and “life is too short” to not aim for impact in our work. Our current students agree!