The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

The rising tide of social impact in business research

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The most recent version of social impact in business research is an extension of the history of what it means to be a scholar within the fields typically represented in our domain, says Ron Hill.

After WWII and prior to the late 1960s, business education was considered vocational training that existed largely on the periphery of the academic pursuits of scholars in the arts and sciences. At that turning point, business scholars sought to have internal status among their faculty peers, seeking as well as developing outlets for research that mirrored more prestigious academic professions.

As time passed, many journal editors and review board members became less interested in their ability to impact day-to-day problems of practitioners in fields like marketing and more interested in pursuing theoretical foundations using complex empirical designs suited to scientific discovery. Some critics, both within and outside the academy, complained that this output was no longer of value to the people we were invoking in our studies. In many cases, the titles alone suggested a lack of connections. What these critics failed to realise was that faculty performance, tenure, and promotion were based mostly or even entirely on research productivity, something that external business stakeholders rarely influenced.

Over time, different foci came and went, depending on the shifting emphases of journal editors and subfield interests. During my tenure, I have seen movements to and from international or global phenomena, ethical practice and moral maturity, entrepreneurship and an entrepreneurial spirit, social and ecological sustainability, and a host of others. While each of these subdisciplines will continue over time, they wax and wane according to their popularity at the present moment.

RRBM works with most of the major organisations and associations across business disciplines to award exemplary scholarship that supports positive change for one or more constituencies.

Not surprisingly, outside constituencies occasionally raise the spectre of relevance, with the underlying premise that our research should be pertinent to some subset of practitioners. This perspective has at least some merit, and there are outlets for research that look at applied issues in virtually every field. Still, application can be broadly defined and pursued such that company owners are only one group of important stakeholders within only one type of organisation. For example, we might also consider consumers, employees, complementary organisations, and local communities, along with other entities like nonprofit organisations, government agencies, social enterprises, and non-governmental operations.

Now consider the current research climate. We have a coming together of forces that are modifying the landscape for the foreseeable future. When the major accrediting bodies in Europe and the US are asking for indications of the impact of our scholarship as part of their processes, deans, department chairs, and other administrators listen. However, this requirement is different than previous machinations that looked more broadly at impact. Here they are asking for what we do that has a meaningful influence on the larger common good, under the rubric of social impact.

It is this climate that Responsible Research in Business and Management (RRBM) offers a way of understanding this novel dictate. RRBM works with most of the major organisations and associations across business disciplines to award exemplary scholarship that supports positive change for one or more constituencies. The Honor Roll is also a way to recognise and disseminate articles, books, and book chapters that meet the criteria for inclusion that also tap into one or more of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals; examples follow.

The first goal is to end poverty around the world in all its manifestations. Clearly, certain fields are more aligned with this objective, especially work in Transformative Consumer Research that was originally organised by David Mick at the University of Virginia. One example is from Chris Blocker at Colorado State University and a diverse set of scholars (Journal of Consumer Psychology) that combines the scarcity and poverty literature in marketing to model the material lives of the poor and suggest possible remediation. A related goal is zero hunger, ensuring that all humans have an opportunity to access and consume enough healthful foods and potable water. Retsef Levi at MIT and his colleagues have examined the welfare of smallholder farmers (PNAS) and the positive impact of the Unified Market Platform on prices and profitability, with important implications for stimulating agribusiness in developing nations that supply foodstuffs to more impoverished consumers.

Honor Roll - SDGsGood health and well-being are also tied to the first two goals, and this mandate should promote health across age categories, genders, and social classes. An interesting foray into health and healthful behaviours is offered by Martijn de Long and Rik Pieters (Erasmus and Tilburg Universities, respectively; Journal of Marketing Research), who provide an accurate research tool for determining sensitive behaviours that may have negative consequences like cigarette smoking by pregnant women. The implications for public policy are important and expansive. Gender equity is associated with all previous goals and represents a historical problem that has defied significant change in many parts of the world. It comes as no surprise that business academics have opined on this challenge, especially as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations that impact business in the developed world. An example comes from Timothy Kundro at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his research partners (Journal of Applied Psychology) and their investigation of customer sexual harassment and its relationship to financial dependence on tipping and the subservient service culture.

Another set of UN goals include responsible firm and consumer behaviour as well as specific issues related to climate change. The former has been investigated across disciplines in innovative and meaningful ways. For instance, Anthony Bucaro at Case Western University and his colleagues (Contemporary Accounting Research) looked at how corporate social responsibility impacts investors when CSR information is integrated into financial reports versus being provided in a separate document. They found that their inclusion together had a more pronounced impact. Finally, climate change has become important in the developed world as businesses realise and seek to improve their carbon and other ecological footprints. Patrick Bolton and Marcin T. Kacperczyk (both Imperial College of London) attend to carbon disclosure and the cost of capital (SSRN). The results suggest important implications for voluntary versus mandatory emissions disclosures on stock prices and subsequent volatility.

Much more could be written across other goals and a wide variety of disciplines and contexts. The RRBM Honor Roll is working with the two major accrediting bodies to both help us collect and disseminate research within this portfolio, and we expect to have about 250 pieces organised by US SDGs by early summer. One hoped-for outcome is to have accreditors send deans and other interested parties to our website to help them understand what types of research fit into the social impact category. I have personally been impressed with the depth and breath of the work completed in the last three years across the top 50 or so journals worldwide. Getting scholars to review this work will surely result in ideas for collaborative scholarship across constituencies.

Further, it is not enough to just organise this research and hope interested parties come to view the resulting corpus. The next phase of this endeavour is to make it widely known and widely available to other researchers, business executives, nonprofit organisation managers, NGO officials, governments at all levels, and citizens globally who have an interest in topics related to well-being, broadly defined. If readers have ideas and connections in this regard, they will be warmly appreciated.

I close with a final suggestion for the many deans and other administrators who are reading this essay. As you look to advance your accrediting discussions around social impact, there may be a tendency to gather a few supportive journal articles from among your faculty, and showcase them as evidence of your progress in this arena. This tactic may be enough, but it fails to address the larger issue of relevance. I happen to be in an institution that has made sustainability and DEI centrepieces of how we organise community and conduct ourselves, including with our research. No one is demanding fidelity to social goals, but resources are moving in directions that support the greater good. As I told my deans recently, a friend and former dean was asked how he managed faculty since it was like herding cats. My friend replied to the search committee: “Herding cats is easy; just shake the box of Kibble and Bits and they come running!” With your attention, direction, and resource emphases, you can do well in your social impact evaluations and do good in society. This seems like a sound plan to me!

 The rising tide of social impact in business research

Professor Ron Hill, Kogod School of Business, American University.

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