Revisiting a business school’s impact agenda in an ecosystems environment

The impact of business schools is a much-debated topic both within the academy and more broadly. As academic institutions, business schools have a vital role to play in advancing the academic discipline of management education and its various subsidiaries and representing these areas in inter-disciplinary research tackling significant global challenges.

Following Thomas and Starkey’s proposition of business ‘at the heart of a global society (Thomas/Starkey, ‘What should business schools be for?’ in EFMD Global Focus, 13(3), 2019, 41), we believe of equal importance is the impact business schools have on the policy environment that drives societal impact and the practice of the profession of ethical, sustainable, and responsible business. An ecosystems approach allows us to integrate these various societal and business-led elements of our impact agenda and achieve deep, sustainable positive impact across local, national and global platforms.

Developments such as increased competition for students and faculty, significant uncertainty in funding and governmental support, changing expectations of our stakeholders as to the legitimacy of the study of business and significant technological changes are all challenging business schools beyond the more immediate challenges of a global pandemic. Where there is challenge, there is opportunity.

Schools are revisiting their missions and purpose and increasing the transparency of their operations, resource scarcity is leading to a focus on quality and differentiation, and technology advances are opening up new markets for those who can truly demonstrate their point of difference. As schools revisit what they stand for and want to achieve in advancing societal issues, questions will arise on how such impacts will be achieved within resource-constrained environments, and alternative approaches will be considered.

Where there is challenge, there is opportunity. Schools are revisiting their missions and purpose and increasing the transparency of their operations, resource scarcity is leading to a focus on quality and differentiation, and technology advances are opening up new markets for those who can truly demonstrate their point of difference

University planning and accreditation systems have focused attention on impact agendas which are often characterised by the work of our faculty and students resulting in short term changes that can be identified and reported upon. How many organisations have implemented a new process developed by co-operative research? How many faculty have presented to government inquiries and helped write/rewrite government legislation? How have student projects helped community groups and those most vulnerable in our society?

Such questions frequently arise under these approaches and privilege the work of the university, its faculty and students in influencing others. An ecosystems approach allows us to reconsider our impact agenda as one of “impact with” as well as “impact on”, capturing the true spirit of inter-organisational collaboration for innovative outcomes while still recognising the needs of different partners. It has the potential to support our schools to do more with less and to expand the reach of our impact while still allowing for our differentiation in a crowded space.

This approach aligns closely with a number of the keys of ecosystem advantage identified by Williamson and de Meyer (‘Ecosystem advantage: How to successfully harness the power of partners’, California Management Review, 2012, 55(1), 24-46; see also the contribution by de Meyer in this supplement). To be effective under the ecosystem model, schools will need to make long-term commitment to their impact agendas, however defined, as working in partnership is complex, time-consuming and will require experimentation along the way.

Importantly, this approach privileges the needs of all parts of the ecosystem in achieving sustainable impact while still recognising the central role of the orchestrator as outlined by de Meyer in this supplement which could be taken by the business school or one of its partners or shared in different contexts as different parts of impact agendas are enacted.

Williamson and de Meyer outline the need to be clear of the added value that each potential partner brings to the ecosystem table to ensure appropriate complementarities are achieved. Schools can revisit their existing partner rosters using this parameter as a new lens to review the value of existing ecosystem members as well as gaps in their roster for those areas needed to achieve the stated mission and purpose.

Ecosystem members could be sourced from a wide range of stakeholders including other business schools as discussed by Greeven and Turpin in this supplement, within a spirit of collaboration over competition to ensure that bigger goals can be achieved. For example, a long-term, seven-year relationship among three Business Schools in Australia, Queensland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, and Griffith University in collaboration with government and industry fostered the creation and continued support of the Global Business Challenge (https://globalbusinesschallenge.org).

The Challenge annually activates hundreds of PhD and graduate students from around the world to develop novel and sustainable technological solutions to major global problems such as food and water security, resource recovery, and the circular economy. The partnership has enabled globally relevant cross-border and cross-discipline solutions to flourish. The joining of collective networks, specialist expertise and limited resources through an ecosystem model has resulted in larger and more impactful outcomes than any of the individual business schools could have achieved by acting independently.

The joining of collective networks, specialist expertise and limited resources through an ecosystem model has resulted in larger and more impactful outcomes than any of the individual business schools could have achieved by acting independently

Business schools often display their extensive list of university and industry partners in accreditation reviews but it is less clear in these presentations how each partner is engaging with the school and vice versa to achieve sustainable impact across the learning and teaching and/or research agendas. Interrogation of such lists often reveals the significant challenge placed on academic leaders regarding how to manage large partnership rosters with little differentiation of outcomes over long periods of time. All partnerships are not, and should not be the same if the school is to best utilise its scarce resources in partner interaction and achieve its impact agenda in the most efficient manner.

Under Williamson and de Meyer’s guidelines, schools should ensure they establish an appropriate structure for differentiating partner roles to achieve ‘specialisation and focus’ (p. 33) as well as manageability of the ecosystem. A deliberate partnership with defined roles, responsibilities and timeframe consolidates the focus and impact of the ecosystem’s collective intelligence. In 2015, for example, QUT in collaboration with a small group of four future-focused industry and government partners created a five-year initiative for a Chair in Digital Economy (https://chairdigitaleconomy.com.au).

Each party to the agreement brought specialist expertise and dedicated resources working within agreed roles for the five-year horizon. All of the parties had worked together prior to this venture but the relationship management structure was elevated for this initiative. As explained by Kreutzer and Neudert in this issue, the ecosystem benefited from the use of proto-visions rather than having one clear vision of the entire five-year journey given the significant pace of change in the environment.

The ecosystem was established to explore the unknown and to facilitate an understanding of the impact of the emerging digital economy concept on business, technology, and society. Fast forward five years, and the ecosystem has developed into a respected research centre showcasing global insights through innovation and ideation sprints, policy and research reports, corporate education, CEO roundtables, industry events, podcasts, as well as traditional academic publications and keynote presentations. Different partnership structures are being utilised for the next stage of development recognising the evolving nature of the ecosystem.

The ecosystem was established to explore the unknown and to facilitate an understanding of the impact of the emerging digital economy concept on business, technology, and society. Fast forward five years, and the ecosystem has developed into a respected research centre showcasing global insights through innovation and ideation sprints, policy and research reports, corporate education, CEO roundtables, industry events, podcasts, as well as traditional academic publications and keynote presentations

Both of these steps – designing a roster of appropriate partners and clarity of roles – strongly support the third key element recommended by Williamson and de Meyer which emphasises ‘flexibility and co-learning’ (p. 33). This approach is designed to encourage continuous interaction to accelerate knowledge creation for all partners, thereby allowing the school to tackle more complex projects with wider impact.

Of course, the use of ecosystems for the co-creation and generation of knowledge is not limited to University and industry research initiatives or innovations hubs. Industry and government partnerships with universities for teaching and education have a long history. Employers are often quick to recognise the benefits of education for workforce capability development, with some seeking the generation of specific and long-term relationships with universities to enhance the talent and capability of their employees.

The Public Sector Management Program at QUT is an example of such an ecosystem. The programme is a business school collaboration with the Australian Public Service, providing co-created postgraduate education for mid-level managers in Australian government and non-government organisations. The program has enjoyed an impactful thirty-year history demonstrating that sustainable partnerships to co-create and collaborate on educational initiatives can continue to evolve and support talent enhancement and innovation.

However, the growth and concern over management education is greater than any single business school and is a global conversation incorporating the economic and social challenges of responsibility and sustainability. The deliberate global ecosystem established by the UN Global Compact’s Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative provides an open global platform for debate, knowledge sharing, and for catalysing change in management education.

PRME has now also developed an ecosystem blueprint with examples and frameworks to support business schools with the integration of the UN’s sustainable development goals into curriculum, research, and partnerships (https://www.unprme.org/resources-1). The recommendations included in the PRME blueprint enable business school leaders to ‘broaden horizons’ as recommended by Starkey and Thomas (‘The future of business schools: Shut them down or broaden our horizons?’ EFMD Global Focus, 13(2), 2019, 44-49) and redefine their quality and impact.

Engagement with initiatives that provide access to ecosystems of networks such as PRME or the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (https://grli.org) provide an additional pathway and links for business school leaders to build partnerships that inspire action.

Greeven and Turnpin’s article in this issue emphasised digital technology as a way forward, enabling business school ecosystems to expand content and change the format of business education. Indeed, digital transformation has been the refrain throughout the 2020 global pandemic with business schools and industry accelerating global collaboration to meet stakeholder needs. Globally, business schools have worked with international education partners to enable students to participate in digital international experiences.

Discussions of partnership and co-design often lead to questions surrounding the ownership of the designed agenda – whose impact agenda is it? The orchestration goal of the purposefully established ecosystem is to establish a mechanism to add more value and impact than can be achieved through current systems. As de Meyer noted in this supplement, ecosystems are advantageous because they bring together unique capabilities, knowledge, and the ability to learn faster, while offering flexibility over the inclusion and removal of partners.

This will require cultural change within our business schools to capture the benefits of the ecosystem approach while minimising the negative effects of ceding direct control. Will the business schools of the future become focused and specialised, embracing the spirit of co-opetition and partnership with other stakeholders to generate ecosystems for innovation, research and education? This may not happen quickly and there may be some false starts – just like all new things we try.

For schools that are currently achieving all their impact goals, perhaps the investment is too great. But for others with ambitious impact agendas in ever-increasingly complex environments, harvesting the benefits of a different approach in purposeful collaboration will allow our schools to truly demonstrate their current and future value both within and outside the academy.

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