Although it may come as a surprise, research was not initially a component of business schools when they were first established, says Andreas Kaplan.
Originally, business schools were designed as vocational institutions to train students for a new profession: management. For instance, at the European School of Commerce Paris (ESCP), the world’s first business school, founded in 1819, the curriculum was predominantly, if not entirely, focused on practical learning through exercises and simulation games. From their inception, business schools, particularly those in the United States, faced criticism for their highly practical approach to management education. While European business schools were mostly independent institutions, their American counterparts were often university-affiliated and were consequently accused of diluting the universities’ academic standards by faculties of established disciplines. The creation of the now-renowned Harvard Business School in 1908, for instance, was met with significant resistance. One alumnus even voiced his disapproval in lyrical form, buffooning the decision by saying, “Fair Harvard! I hear that you have been such a fool as to start a ridiculous Business School.”
In response to these critiques, American business schools endeavored to adopt a more scientific approach, laying the groundwork for modern business research. This pursuit of academic recognition was further emphasized by the 1959 Gordon-Howell Report, which bemoaned the low academic standards of business schools. The US government allocated substantial funds for scientific business studies to aid management schools in their transformation. In return, top US schools committed to reforms, such as requiring faculty members to hold a Ph.D. and produce a substantial amount of scientific output. As publishing led to additional government funding, a direct link was forged between a professor’s research output and the respective institution’s budget. The primary motivation for research thus became external recognition and financial support, resulting in research production driven mainly by extrinsic factors. By the end of World War II, the Americanization of management education in Europe had begun. European schools felt compelled to emulate the US model, striving to publish in top US-based academic journals. Once again, the impetus to produce research was not driven by intrinsic motivation but rather by the need to comply with external pressures.
Today’s management journals
Little has changed today, and some might argue that the situation has even worsened. Many top management journals have become increasingly rigorous and scientific, often sacrificing relevance in their pursuit of excessive rigour. To gain respect from their peers, researchers worldwide employ overly complex methods to address questions of (too) little managerial significance. They prioritise mathematics and economics, the subjects most closely related to the hard sciences, in an effort to demonstrate that management is a science. Consequently, the realism of assumptions takes a backseat to the elegance of mathematical equilibrium models. Some leading business schools have even based their entire faculty recruitment strategy on hiring only those with PhDs in foundational (i.e., non-management) disciplines such as mathematics, econometrics, or psychology. These qualifications seem to enhance one’s chances of being published in top-tier journals more than having a solid background in management studies or (heaven forbid) practical work experience. Rigour has, in many ways, eclipsed relevance, not to mention reach.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that management research regularly 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 summarised the status quo of research at business schools as “underperforming.” Management researchers would write primarily 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: An eye-watering $4 billion is spent yearly by AASCB-accredited schools alone to finance research activities.
The challenge to change
Most business school leadership teams would likely agree that the system is heading in the wrong direction and should be reformed. The urge to create the RRBM network—which seeks to promote the production and dissemination of managerially and societally relevant management research—serves as evidence of this sentiment. However, while the status quo is unsatisfactory, it appears challenging to change, and the reasons for this have been widely discussed. One argument is that there simply has not been a strong enough incentive to modify the system. Professors write for their peers to secure tenure and promotions. League tables and quality labels prioritise publication outlets and article quantity over content and managerial significance, which are inherently difficult to assess and evaluate, especially on a large scale. Above all, attracting students was largely unrelated to professors’ research relevance. If anything, potential candidates examine where their (future) faculty earned their PhDs but rarely consider the relevance or importance of their research.
As management researchers, our work should advance businesses and organisations, but even more critically, it should benefit people and the planet.
Today, for better or worse, the situation has shifted. The rapid digitalisation of the sector, greatly accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, appears to be a game-changer for management education and research. The pandemic not only changed learners’ attitudes towards online courses, which they had previously been reluctant to embrace, but also intensified competition and introduced new players from edtech (e.g., ThePower MBA) and big tech (e.g., Google’s Career Certificates). These educational alternatives, attractive due to their shorter program lengths and lower tuition fees, gained prominence during the pandemic, and their competitive strength should not be underestimated. One study by CarringtonCrisp, a consultancy specialising in higher education, revealed that nearly 40% of respondents would consider pursuing their studies with alternative educational providers instead of enrolling in a traditional MBA program.
However, these alternative providers typically do not engage in research production. This opens an opportunity for established business schools to compete and enhance their academic reputations by conducting high-impact research, thereby signalling the superiority of traditional, research-active schools, also justifying their high tuition fees, over academically weak educational alternatives. This transforms research from a quality signal for peers to a quality signal and differentiating factor for prospective students and their parents. Research must be relevant, responsible, and create reach and visibility to serve this purpose. In this new role, research becomes a top priority for business schools’ senior administrators. It can help attract potential students by convincing them to study where knowledge is created and where they can gain exposure to it firsthand, before everyone else—instead of at a competitor that relies on other institutions’ knowledge creation.
What constitutes relevant and responsible research?
This begs the question: What constitutes relevant and responsible research? One could define such research 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 should advance businesses and organisations, but even more critically, it should benefit people and the planet. The relevance and scope of a study should not be constrained by an excessive focus on unnecessary methodological complexity. Although publishing such research in top journals is not always easy, it is a feasible and worthwhile goal. After all, what good does research published in the best scientific journals do if it lacks practical relevance and fails to achieve visibility within the broader (business) community?
Such research must not only help to distinguish traditional top-tier business schools from new entrants from ed and big tech, but also be a competitive advantage for well-established institutions against close rivals. After all, the production of significant management research in a particular field signals to students that they should attend one university over another. Case in point, my institution and current employer, the Kühne Logistics University (KLU), would have far less market credibility as the world’s leading provider of education and training in logistics and supply chain management—integrating and combining management, data science, sustainability, and related fields—without strong research output in these areas.
In conclusion, business school leadership teams should view research as a valuable asset in the increasingly competitive landscape of management education. They should develop incentive systems that encourage academics to publish rigorous, purposeful, and potentially highly visible work with significant reach beyond academia. The expected reach of a research project should be considered when selecting research questions. An A+ publication should not be the end goal. Instead, after publication, a new process should begin to disseminate the content to the broader public, the business world, and potential candidates and their parents. This responsibility falls not only on the researcher but also on the institutions, which should support dissemination efforts through their communication and marketing teams.
Undoubtedly, many professors already conduct highly relevant research, and most of us would like to see the current system changed. However, in the end, one needs incentives to act, and it takes considerable strength to challenge an entire ecosystem. A focus on reach is not entirely new. Senior researchers especially, after achieving tenure and a full professorship, often care deeply about the visibility of their work beyond their peers by focusing on writing books and more managerially-oriented articles published in HBR, CMR or SMR. What’s new is that such behaviour should not be the exception but the norm, and it should not only be important in the later phases of a professor’s career but become a formal criterion in promotion and tenure. As we have now seen happen in the music, movie, and gaming industries, we may have no choice—the sector’s digitalisation may finally compel us to change the way things work.