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Research impact at an unusual academic institution: IMD’S journey

Research impact

Concepts of the Purposeful Business School

Is 2030 here already? The influential position paper from the Responsible Research for Business and Management (RRBM) community features a projected future state for research impact within the field of business schools with the end date of the year 2030 (Co-founders of RRBM, 2017). The scenario draws upon a series of principles that demand implementation by diverse stakeholders operating within the business school ecosystem. But what if this future state is already unfolding in the present?

In this article, I assert that IMD, where I have served as the Dean of Research for more than a dozen years, meets many of the criteria outlined by RRBM for their 2030 vision and therefore presents an illuminating case study for other business schools striving to generate substantial research impact that benefits all stakeholders.

IMD: An overview

IMD is an independent academic institution – a not-for-profit, standalone business school operated as a foundation with the status of a Swiss University Institute. IMD is triple-accredited, and our MBA, EMBA, and Executive Education programmes are ranked among the top 10 by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Forbes, The Economist, and the Financial Times.

IMD was created in 1990 from a merger between the International Management Institute, founded by Alcan in 1946, and the Institut pour l’étude des méthodes de direction de l’entreprise, founded by Nestlé in 1957. This is our origin statement and is very consequential to our identity as an unusual academic institution:

“Founded by business executives for business executives, we are an independent academic institution with Swiss roots and global reach. We strive to be the trusted learning partner of choice for ambitious individuals and organisations worldwide.”

Clearly, the research imperatives of an institution founded by and for business executives would differ from those of a conventional business school. IMD boasts a legacy of over 75 years dedicated to the development of executives, a history that has distinctly shaped an ethos of research that is centred around impact.

This commitment to impact is captured in our credo: ‘Real learning, real impact’. Faculty members drawn to IMD are inherently driven to make a difference in the lives of participants and their organisations, primarily through innovative pedagogy and meticulously crafted programmes. This alignment with our purpose, ‘challenging what is and inspiring what could be, we develop leaders who transform organisations and contribute to society’, underscores their passion for fostering tangible change.

IMD possesses distinct characteristics that set it apart as an unusual business school (Manzoni, 2022a). IMD does not compartmentalise faculty into academic departments or disciplinary silos. Instead, all members collectively form a unified faculty body. This lack of boundaries encourages a cross-disciplinary perspective among faculty members, promoting diverse collaboration and innovative thinking.

The faculty titles at IMD are limited to just two categories: Professor and Affiliate Professor. This streamlined structure eliminates hierarchical ranks, fostering an egalitarian culture among faculty members. This simplicity not only symbolises equality but also nurtures an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect.

IMD does not rely on a traditional tenure system. Instead, following an adjustment period, faculty members undergo evaluations for suitability and are offered long-term ‘open contracts’, although without a guarantee of permanent employment. This approach ensures that faculty are consistently motivated to contribute to the best of their abilities with respect to their teaching, research, and service duties, regardless of their duration within the institution.

Fostering research excellence and autonomy

Unlike conventional business schools, when offering an open contract to a faculty member, IMD places less emphasis on external endorsements, referred to as ‘letters’ in tenure decisions, and relies more on internal measures of fit. This independence from external pressures grants IMD faculty greater autonomy in their research pursuits.

The faculty compensation system at IMD incorporates a substantial variable component in the form of a bonus, contingent upon the institute generating an operational surplus (which is most years). The largest chunk of the bonus pool, at 40%, is specifically allocated to individuals’ research performance. In an environment that provides plenty of opportunities for an individual to increase their compensation through delivering more teaching programmes, the bonus system signals the importance of research as a contribution.

At IMD, research activities account for approximately 8% of the annual budget. Roughly half of this amount, all of which is sourced from operating revenues, is allocated to support individual faculty research projects, encompassing articles, case studies, books, and pedagogical materials. The remaining 50% is dedicated to our research centres, primarily financed through the utilisation of chair endowment capital.

One notable practice is that every faculty member, without exception, undergoes an annual review conducted by the President and the Dean of Faculty. This meticulous process ensures alignment and fosters a cohesive agenda among faculty members, reinforcing a shared commitment to the institution’s goals.

To ensure the effective allocation of resources, faculty members are mandated to submit an annual research activity plan as part of their annual review process. These individual plans are then aggregated to determine the required resource allocation. At the conclusion of each year, a comprehensive tabulation of research outputs is compiled. This tabulation plays a pivotal role in determining the research bonus accorded to each faculty member.

Collectively, these attributes ensure that faculty do what they are passionate about, which is to have a ‘real impact’ on IMD’s stakeholders – executives, organisations, academics and management educators, policymakers, and shapers of entrepreneurial activity in Switzerland and elsewhere (Manzoni, 2022b). As I show below, at IMD, thought leadership contributions of all kinds are valued for the impact created – practitioner articles, case studies, and books – not just peer-reviewed academic publications.

From practice to research

In recent years, IMD has been the institution with the most published articles in Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review (barring the ‘editor institutions’), the two practitioner-oriented outlets in the Financial Times’ influential list of journals comprising their research index. The research content for the articles comes from closeness to practice, but behind the scenes, there has been a considerable effort underway to collectively master the intricacies of breaking into these top journals. Faculty members who achieved success willingly shared their insights with their colleagues, fostering a culture of shared practice that promotes excellence in writing for practitioners.

Budding scholars in management disciplines are advised to be clear about the question, “What conversation are you joining?” (e.g., Huff, 1998). This means reading research literature closely and being aware of which researchers your forthcoming work aligns with. The research literature itself serves as a foundation for further development. But what if the realm of practice were to ignite fresh research dialogues?

The IMD article titled ‘Put purpose at the core of your strategy’ (Malnight, Buche and Dhanaraj, 2019) is consistently referenced in recent research articles, thereby shaping the emerging research domain of corporate purpose within the strategy literature. The origins of this article are deeply rooted in the world of practice, and the tale of how it was crafted serves as a demonstration of how practitioner articles can significantly influence the trajectory of academic research.

Over the years, we here at IMD arrived at a significant realisation that there exist two distinct routes to influencing organisations. The initial route, pursued by business schools through their executive education endeavours, entails effecting change by nurturing individual growth. The second route, harnessed by consulting firms, centres on driving extensive transformations at the organisational level.

This led us to question whether a middle-ground approach existed – one that encompassed advisory efforts facilitating large-scale transformations, paired with executive education programmes equipping individuals to independently spearhead transformations, thus reducing reliance on consulting firms (refer to Figure 1).

It was our colleague Tom Malnight who uncovered the solution through a methodology he termed ‘Pathfinder’. Pathfinder revolves around empowering company executives to create opportunities for enduring, sustainable growth. A pivotal facet of Pathfinder entails engaging in targeted discussions with handpicked external companies on specifically identified topics. This approach facilitates the extraction of insights from external sources, fostering innovative ideas and dismantling internal obstacles that hinder growth.

The IMD team used Pathfinder to help our client Mars Petcare with their objective of growing their pet food business significantly. The initiative engaged 20 high-potential executives from different sectors within the company. They collaborated with 30 high-growth companies across diverse industries, as pinpointed by Malnight, for valuable learning experiences.

Purpose-driven strategies

Through the Pathfinder programme, participants identified four key themes with potential for business advantage: addressing broader stakeholder needs, exploring new markets through ecosystems rather than conventional industry definitions, introducing disruptive innovation, and, notably, embedding purpose into core strategy. This fourth realisation led Mars executives to understand their mission as more than just boosting pet food sales; they aimed to actively pursue their ‘better world for pets’ purpose.

This clarity prompted Mars Petcare to enter pet health by acquiring veterinary services in the USA and Europe. These acquisitions propelled Mars Petcare to become one of Mars Inc.’s largest and fastest-growing divisions, ultimately elevating the president of the business to the CEO role of the entire company. The programme clearly had a significant impact on both the executives and the organisation.

The Pathfinder initiative was replicated with the Finnish oil-refining firm Neste. In 2009, the company grappled with the dual challenges of low oil prices and restrictive regulations. The CEO of Neste engaged IMD to explore fresh avenues, eventually zeroing in on renewable energy as a promising direction. The company’s purpose was defined as ‘creating responsible choices every day’.

Employing a strikingly similar approach to that applied with Mars Petcare, the executive participants of IMD’s programmes had by 2015 helped to establish Neste as the world’s largest producer of renewable fuels sourced from recovered cooking oil and comparable forms of residual waste. In the course of this transformation, the company’s market valuation surged fivefold. Another remarkable impact narrative.

The IMD team that worked on several Pathfinder programmes wrote up their insights, highlighting the importance of purpose in helping organisations redefine their playing field as a means of achieving sustainable business growth. They sought advice from colleagues who were seasoned at publishing in top practitioner journals, and they found success in placing their article in Harvard Business Review.

Just as the article was published, the field of strategy had identified purpose as a key topic of future research, and so the article became influential in helping researchers shape their ideas. In this manner, the Pathfinder programmes at IMD have made an impact across a diverse spectrum of stakeholders, including executives and their organisations, fellow practitioners, and management scholars.

Combing research and teaching to address emerging challenges

In 2020, IMD formalised a sustainability strategy from which it was clear that we needed to prioritise research and business education on the topic of sustainability. Two years later, IMD inaugurated a Center for Sustainable and Inclusive Business with the aim of bringing together researchers and practitioners to collaborate on solutions to ensure the transition towards a more sustainable world. IMD’s thought leadership on sustainability has grown steadily in all formats, including top-tier journals such as Harvard Business Review, books, and award-winning case studies.

On the education side, we introduced the Leading Sustainable Business Transformation (LSBT) to support senior executives in the challenge of making their organisations more sustainable. Led by Professors Knut Haanaes and James Henderson, the open-enrolment course attracts senior executives from various industries across the world.

LSBT addresses the challenge of translating knowledge into action, offering a comprehensive business transformation journey through the lens of sustainability. It includes live case sessions with industry experts, enabling executives to develop smart and sustainable business models to future-proof their organisations and benefit society. The programme also fosters a supportive peer community, promoting a renewed sense of purpose and expertise.

Participants engage with cutting-edge research on the interaction between business and sustainability, real-world examples of sustainability transformation, themed masterclasses, deep dives into current themes, and discussions to drive their own sustainable business transformation. Business and leadership coaching are provided to enhance the impact of their learning.

The programme’s success and impact are measured through tangible outcomes and feedback. Participants in the LSBT programme indicate that the most valuable aspects of the course are the blended learning approach, the supportive community, and the insights gained from industry players. Individual participants benefit from deepening their understanding of sustainability, applying best practices, and developing communication and leadership skills.

The programme has already started to make a positive contribution to business and society. The rapid creation of both a centre as well as an executive education programme on the topic of sustainability is an example of IMD’s responsiveness to the learning needs of the business community.

Writing the case for impact

At IMD, organisations that serve as our learning partners have always played a central role in faculty members’ thought leadership activities (Lorange, 2002). Case studies serve as a crucial medium for bringing intricate business issues into the classroom. Commencing in the early 2000s, IMD faculty members leveraged their strong relationships with executives and organisations within our ecosystem with the aim of developing cases that enabled students to immerse themselves in contemporary management challenges faced by leaders and executives.

Notably, case studies delving into Nestle’s implementation of an enterprise resource planning system and Nespresso’s endeavours to innovate in the coffee market emerged as blockbuster hits in terms of adoption across global business schools, maintaining their status as our top-selling cases to this day.

Beyond their influence on the management education community, the close connections forged with executives and organisations that become subjects of our case studies yield additional forms of impact: our students gain from this network through mentoring, internship opportunities, and placement options.

In return, executives are motivated to sustain this association, exemplified by their engagement as executives in residence during career transitions, thus infusing IMD’s sphere of influence with their valuable experience and expertise. This reciprocal interaction between the worlds of executives and management education aligns well with our mission of cultivating leaders and organisations that effect positive change in society.

We assess the impact of our case study efforts by tracking indicators of dissemination and prestige. In 2022, we distributed close to 220,000 copies of IMD cases to 1,300 institutions in 111 countries, a creditable feat from a small Swiss school. Our case studies and authors consistently win awards in major case competitions, including those by the Case Center and EFMD.

Six of our faculty members were top case writers, according to the Case Center, and 12 of our cases made it to their bestsellers list. We communicate our success, celebrate our case writers’ achievements publicly, and reward them through variable compensation.

Impactful social innovation

Our recent experience of the case study ‘Angaza: A Silicon Valley Journey’, which clinched the Case Center’s 2022 Outstanding Case Writer competition, provides a valuable lesson in deepening and broadening impact through case writing. This case narrates the challenges confronted by Lesley Marincola, a Stanford University graduate who developed a solar lamp intended for use in Africa.

Unfortunately, the lamp’s cost rendered it unaffordable for her target customers, leading Marincola to ponder her next steps. The creators of this case study are Vanina Faber, the holder of the elea Chair for Social Innovation, and research associate Shih-Han Huang, an alumnus of Harvard University and INSEAD, who acquired case-writing skills during their time at IMD.

elea is a Swiss impact investment foundation whose stated purpose is ‘to fight absolute poverty with entrepreneurial means, leveraging the opportunities for globalisation’. The foundation proudly sponsors the elea Chair at IMD. Through strategic support and philanthropic investment, the elea foundation champions entrepreneurially-led ventures that bring about enduring social impact.

When unable to secure venture capital backing for her entrepreneurial endeavour, Marincola sought assistance from elea. With their guidance, she adeptly shifted her focus toward a software-based pay-as-you-go model for smartphones, enabling customers to access the lamp while progressively covering its cost. This pivot allowed her to step away from lamp production, transforming her company, Angaza, into a preferred partner for numerous manufacturers and a range of pay-as-you-go devices. Consequently, Angaza successfully secured “Series A” funding from venture capitalists.

Alongside the IMD case study, the Angaza narrative found its place in a book titled “The elea Way,” authored by Farber and Peter Wuffli (2020), a co-founder of the elea Foundation, and published by Routledge. This publication has been warmly embraced by the impact investing community, thanks to the outreach initiatives spearheaded by the IMD elea Social Innovation Center. Furthermore, the book serves as the foundational underpinning for a social innovation programme designed for entrepreneurs, jointly conducted by IMD and the elea Foundation.

Creating and sharing the case study allows IMD to engage with and influence various stakeholders. The field of management education benefits from a well-constructed case that covers topics like social innovation, entrepreneurship, impact investing, and strategic management.

At IMD, participants get first-hand exposure to the business challenges related to poverty alleviation. By offering a social innovation programme, IMD contributes to enhancing the skills of entrepreneurs working towards social progress. In the realm of impact investing, the case study serves as a practical example to learn from. Especially for the elea Foundation and other sponsors, the case study becomes a clear representation of the positive outcomes achieved through research funding.

Impact by the book

Book ideas arise when faculty members’ academic knowledge meets the practical experiences of participants. In the introduction to his book on bottom-up change, Strebel (2000) acknowledges, “The genesis of this book occurred during a session managing accelerated change in IMD’s programme on Orchestrating Winning Performance. The managers in those sessions argued that the biggest obstacles to faster change are a lack of energy on the frontline and/or a lack of focus at the top among proliferating change projects.”

At IMD, book-writing for practitioners is a strong and much-appreciated tradition. For executives and leaders in our programmes, books are valuable both substantively and symbolically. Books encapsulate the essence of a programme, and when participants return to their respective contexts, these books serve as tangible markers of their takeaways. The core content of IMD’s highly regarded open-enrolment executive programme, High-Performance Leadership, is grounded in two books: Kohlreiser (2006) and Kohlreiser, Goldsworthy and Coombe (2012).

Books have been especially useful in engaging the audience of many of IMD’s research centres.

The World Competitiveness Center

One of the most eagerly anticipated publications in IMD’s calendar is strictly not a book but a ranking of the competitiveness of nations. The World Competitiveness Yearbook has been keenly scrutinised by governments near and far for over 35 years to make sense of how the ground for national competitiveness shifts from year to year.

The rankings have a huge impact on government officials and public policymakers connected to the economic ministries of all the major developed economies. The Center’s faculty director and the research team are frequently consulted by various nation-states for advice on how to improve their competitiveness. These activities expand the reach of IMD’s impact beyond the realm of industry and business.

Digital Business Transformation Center

IMD’s digital business transformation centre was set up in 2015 with initial funding and support from Cisco. The Center has built up a stakeholder group of chief digital officers and other executives involved in the digital transformation of their organisations and published four books capturing changes in this fast-moving field: Digital Vortex (Wade et al., 2016); Orchestrating Transformation (Wade et al., 2019), ALIEN thinking (Bouquet et al., 2021), and Hacking Digital (Wade et al., 2021). These books are also closely tied to the programme on digital business offered by IMD.

The Global Board Center

IMD was one of the first institutions in the world to offer dedicated programmes for board members. The Board Center counts board members of listed companies, family businesses, private conglomerates, and sovereign wealth funds as its stakeholders. The models and methods of governance discussed in the Center’s open enrolment and custom programmes have been codified in two books: High-Performance Boards (Cossin, 2020) and Inspiring Stewardship (Cossin and Hwee, 2016).

The Global Family Business Center

This IMD centre has been offering programmes for family business owners and executives for over 35 years. Sensing the need for philanthropic families to be helped in their giving activities, centre director and holder of the Debiopharm Chair Peter Vogel co-authored a book (Vogel, Eichenberger and Kurak, 2020) for this important stakeholder community.

As can be seen from these examples, books written by IMD authors impact a wide range of stakeholders – not just students and executive participants in our programmes, but also the constituency that is catered to by each research centre, such as board members, family business owners, policymakers, and government officials, chief digital officers, and the like.

Nearing RRBM’s vision 2030?

To broaden our impact on society at large, IMD has joined forces with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Haute École Commerce of the University of Lausanne (HEC-UNIL) to create the Enterprise for Society Center (E4S) with the vision of building bridges between academia, business and civil society in order to tackle the great challenges of our time. There is active collaboration in research projects among the three institutions with a view to realising the vision of E4S. The outcome of these activities will result in fulfilling RRBM’s principle of service to society.

IMD already fulfils RRBM’s remaining principles. The institution values both basic and applied research. The faculty values plurality and multi-disciplinary collaboration. We involve a diverse set of stakeholders in our thought leadership activities and are conscientious about acknowledging and rewarding our impact on them. The scholarly training of IMD faculty ensures that the entire portfolio of our research activities is based on methods of sound quality.

And so, going back to John Elkington’s quip at the start, this article seeks to show that there are ways in which business schools can strive to multiply their impact on the business community and society at large. What has hampered efforts thus far can be traced to field-level and organisational incentives that overemphasise peer-reviewed academic articles along with the socialisation and development of scholars within relatively insular discipline-based communities of practice.

Breaking the barriers to real impact requires schools to take the courageous steps of sincerely valuing all forms of high-quality thought leadership, genuinely encouraging cross-disciplinary collaboration, and actively sensing the needs of the business community that supports their institution and responding to their learning needs.

Research Impact at an Unusual Academic Institution: IMD’S Journey


References

Bouquet, C., J-L. Barsoux and M. Wade (2021) ALIEN thinking. New York: Public Affairs

Co-founders of RRBM. (2017, rev. ed., 2020). A vision for responsible research in business and management: Striving for useful and credible knowledge. Position paper, accessible from www.rrbm.network

Cossin, D. (2020) High performance boards. London: Wiley

Cossin, D., and O.B. Hwee (2016) Inspiring stewardship. London: Wiley

Elkington, J. (2023) Responsibility, resilience, and regeneration … the three R’s and the new triple bottom line. IbyIMD, September issue

Faber, V. and P. Wuffli (2020) The elea way: A learning journey toward sustainable impact. London: Routledge

Huff, A.S. (1998) Writing for scholarly publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Kohlreiser, G. (2006) Hostages at the table. San Francisco: Josey-Bass

Kohlreiser, G., S. Goldsworthy and D. Coombe (2012) Care to dare: Unleashing astonishing potential through secure base leadership. San Francisco: Josey Bass

Lorange, P. (2002) New vision for management education. Oxford: Elsevier

Malnight, T., I. Buche and C. Dhanaraj (2019) Put purpose at the heart of your strategy. Harvard Business Review, September-October, pp.70-79

Manzoni, J-F. (2022a) Leading an (unusual) academic institution through a crisis: A personal reflection. In Cornuel, E. (ed.) Business school leadership and crisis exit planning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.311-330

Manzoni, J-F. 2022b. Striving for meaningful impact in and through management education: The IMD perspective. Global Focus Annual Research, 1, pp.74-80

Strebel, P. (2000) Focused Energy: Mastering the Bottom-Up Organisation. London: Wiley

Vogel, P., E. Eichenberger and M. Kurak, (2020) Family philanthropy navigator. Lausanne: IMD

Wade, M., J. Loucks, J. Macaulay and A. Nornha (2016) Digital vortex. Lausanne: IMD

Wade, M., J. Macaulay, A. Noronha and J. Barber (2019) Orchestrating transformation. Lausanne: IMD

Wade, M., D. Bonnet, T. Yokoi and N. Obwegeser (2021) Hacking Digital. Lausanne: IMD

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