The role of business school research is changing as management professors come under pressure to demonstrate the real-world impact of their academic studies beyond the sheer quantity of publications in top-tier journals.
As these bright ideas find a wider application in policy and practice in the business world, MBA students will be looking to evaluate the academic excellence of their chosen institutions, which are a key factor in a business school’s overall reputation.
“The scholarly productivity of the faculty contributes greatly to the school’s reputation and therefore the long-term value of the student’s degree,” says Don Moore, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
He says academic research can inform what faculty teach in the MBA classroom, whether that’s lessons on leadership, decision-making, marketing, finance, and other areas drawn directly from the very latest research.
“Identifying what causes individuals, groups, organizations and economies to succeed is the most useful knowledge students can acquire in their business studies,” says Moore. “Being at an institution that is generating these scholarly insights means students can benefit from learning from faculty whose knowledge is at the cutting edge.”
In competitive industries, where staying a step ahead of the competition is key to success, this knowledge can have great benefits for students, graduates and alumni. “Business school research directly benefits organizations, leads to improvements in public policy, and helps guide economic policy,” says Moore says.
New research fields and new approaches
Research is also changing in big ways. “Recent years have seen greater integration across fields, wherein prescriptive research based on theoretical models of perfect rationality are being enriched with more realistic behavioral theories that incorporate quirks of human psychology,” Moore says.
One field arising in this intersection is behavioral economics, which combines elements of economics and psychology to understand how and why people behave the way they do.
The standards of research are also going up, he says, with scholars providing greater openness to their work process than ever before — including public posting of data, materials and analysis code. The result of the “open science” movement is that published results are more reliable and replicable than ever before, he adds.
Also, there is now a sharper focus placed on business school research that delivers real-world benefits — to governments, companies and individuals — rather than to produce research only for the academic community.
“The focus has only become stronger in the digital age because tech tools now make it easier to measure reach and impact,” says Vincent Mak, vice-dean for programs and research at Cambridge Judge Business School.
“Business school research does make people better managers, and it makes organizations more efficient and responsive to the needs of employees and wider society — in part through promoting enlightened ESG (environmental, social and governance) guidelines,” he says.
He adds that MBA students at Cambridge Judge learn lessons from past successes and failures to help them in their own future careers, whether that’s about cryptocurrencies or hybrid working arrangements. “MBA students want to make a difference as they forge their careers, and academic research provides guideposts on what has worked and what hasn’t in offices, factories, and various organizations around the world,” he says.
The issue of measuring impact in practice is difficult, however, points out Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “We measure impact in scholarly communities through A-level publications, citation counts, and H-index,” he says, referencing the author-level metric that measures both the productivity and citation impact of the publications.
“But in the world of practice, we are trying to capture measures such as: book sales; social media presence; practitioner articles; practitioner conference presentations; TV, print and radio interviews; and government testimony,” Hoffman says.
Nevertheless, he believes academic output is very important to the MBA student experience. “Even if you don’t read a professor’s academic papers in the syllabus, you are learning from that professor’s depth. The best business schools have professors who are teaching students from the depth of their work. Students are learning straight from the source, so to speak.”
Hoffman says prospective students would do best by going to schools where the faculty are doing cutting edge research and bringing that research into the classroom, in addition to the real world. “That way you are getting the best and latest knowledge that is available.”
George Andrews, associate dean of degree programs at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, agrees. “A deep dive into the research that faculty are producing at a particular business school could be a game-changer for a prospective student,” he says.
“If that student wanted to get into financial modeling or creativity in organizational behavior, then understanding what groundbreaking research their professors are publishing could help them in their career journey.”
MBA students can benefit from academic research
Even if the research may be on highly specialized topic, MBA students benefit from being exposed to the kind of critical thinking and interpretation of evidence that is used in high-quality business school research, particularly in the context of addressing societal challenges, says Markus Perkmann, academic director of the Imperial College Business School MBA program.
“Business school faculty who teach on the MBA are not only thought leaders and top experts in their own field, but are also very good teachers and communicators,” he says.