Management research often faces questions and criticism about its practical impact and purpose. A recent Financial Times article stated that professors are increasingly studying “abstract, abstruse, and overly academic topics with little resonance beyond the higher education sector” and summarized the status quo of research at business schools as “underperforming.” Management researchers would mainly write for their peers and thus their work remains largely inaccessible to the corporate world. This situation is even more surprising when considering the significant costs of conducting research at business schools: The bulk amount of $4 billion is spent yearly by AASCB-accredited schools alone on financing research activities.
Most business school leadership teams would probably agree that the system could be improved. However, the status quo seems difficult to change for several reasons, such as tenure and promotion decisions that focus more on research quantity than quality. This may be because the number of (A+) articles is easier to measure than the quality of their content, practical relevance, and visibility within the broader public discourse. The urge to create the RRBM network—which seeks to promote the production and dissemination of managerially and societally relevant management research—can be seen as proof that something is going terribly wrong.
Unfortunately, it is easy to lose focus on this “underperformance” when crafting institutional priorities. Business school deans and university presidents are heavily (pre)occupied with the digital transformation of higher education, which is increasing both competition and financial pressure. In this regard, research is mostly considered a cost center; thus, one could easily be tempted to judge research efforts as overrated and instead allocate funds elsewhere. Such a trend would, however, go in the wrong direction: Management research is essential to creating a durable competitive position in the field of higher education, provided that it is relevant and responsible.
That begs the question: What, exactly, qualifies as relevant and responsible research? One could define it as “the production of valuable knowledge, reached with reasonably rigorous methodology, substantially improving the world of business and society at large.” As management researchers, our work must advance businesses and organizations, but even more critically, it should benefit people and the planet. The relevance and scope of a study should not be disproportionally limited by excessive and unnecessary methodological complexity. Although such research is not always easy to publish in top journals, it is a feasible and worthwhile goal. After all, what good does research published in the best scientific journals do if it is not of (practical) relevance and achieves at least some visibility within the broader (business) community?
Of course, knowledge that is both relevant and responsible can be highly profitable—and as such, might be capable of putting research back on the agenda for business schools’ top administrators. Indeed, relevant research frequently receives high visibility and can strongly differentiate an established institution against new entrants from edtech (e.g., ThePower MBA) and big tech (e.g., Google’s Career Certificates). These educational alternatives became more prominent during the pandemic and their competitive strength should not be underestimated. One study by CarringtonCrisp, a consultancy specializing in higher education, revealed that almost 40 percent of respondents would consider pursuing their studies with alternative educational providers instead of enrolling in a traditional MBA program. However, these alternative providers are typically inactive in research production, which leaves room for long-standing business schools to enhance their academic reputations by conducting high-impact research.
Such research can also be competitive advantage for well-established institutions competing against close rivals. After all, the production of significant management research in a particular field is a signal to students that they should attend one university over another. Case in point: My institution and current employer, the Kühne Logistics University, would have a lot less market credibility as the prime provider of education and training in logistics and supply chain management, combining business administration, data science, and alike, without strong research output in these areas.
To conclude, business schools’ leadership teams should see research as an important asset in the increasingly combative environment of management education. To that end, they should develop incentive systems that encourage academics to publish purposeful and highly visible work—and thereby reframe research as a tool that is underexploited rather than overrated.
About the author: Andreas Kaplan has over 15 years of leadership and management experience in academia and is a widely recognized education expert. Professor Kaplan, President of Kühne Logistics University (KLU), previously served as Rector at ESCP Business School, Sorbonne Alliance.
Further reading: Kaplan Andreas (2023) Business Schools post-Covid-19: A Blueprint for Survival, Routledge, New York.