Business schools’ impact aspirations are a joke

Social impact, public purpose and responsible management are almost becoming the mantras of business schools worldwide. This is no longer the stuff of fringe dwelling radicals determined to instigate change from the margins. It is mainstream.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the largest international accrediting body of business schools, has the explicit strategic vision “to transform business education globally for positive societal impact”. Gone are the times when “greed is good” capitalism should dictate business school curriculum, we are told. These days, you can head to Yale to connect your MBA with environmental management or join the social impact initiatives at Harvard and Wharton. The University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School has a whole specialism in social impact education.

What does this all mean for the research that goes on in business schools? Earlier this year, I attended a conference in my field of management and organization studies. I was in a track focused on inequalities and organizations. Could there be a better place to look for real social impact than where academic research meets one of the most urgent global challenges?

But I was disappointed – albeit not surprised. As we presented papers on various dimensions of how economic and social inequality is perpetuated or can be addressed, one overwhelming theme was not discussed: how scholars can actually use and develop knowledge to contribute to addressing the scourge of inequality. What dominated the discussion instead was how the presenters could get their papers published in top-tier, preferably American, academic journals.

When I say dominated, publication strategies were not just a central theme of the discussion; it was as if the purpose of researching inequality had nothing at all to do with reducing inequality. The real resolve was to publish elite papers about inequality to advance one’s academic career and be a marketable labor commodity to the “best” business schools.

This event cemented my conviction that the real barrier to business school social impact is the research culture we have developed, especially over the past 20 years or so. This culture is obsessed with the publication and ranking systems that give deans bragging rights. In the Western world, it also fuels schools’ marketing collateral to attract lucrative international student revenues.

Our research has become so marketed that knowledge creation has been reduced to a process of exchange whose value is linked to university income generation and professorial salaries. There is impact, for sure, but the beneficiaries are business schools themselves and the pumped-up professors who have the networks and know-how to write articles that so-called top-tier journals will publish.

Business schools as a “force for good”? I don’t think so. Self-interest of the narrowest kind rules the roost. If business schools want to truly dedicate their purpose to social value and benefits to others, then a fundamental change is needed in research culture and practice.

Whether you hitch your wagon to the list of 50 journals used by the Financial Times to rank business schools, the list of 24 “leading business journals” published by the University of Texas at Dallas, or the Australian Business Dean’s Council “Journal Quality” list, you will get the same thing: an exclusionary approach to preserving the privilege of elite institutions of Western knowledge. These rankings dominate individual scholars’ performance objectives because they dominate tenure and promotion criteria. They are the data that feed into the systems that compare business school “quality” globally. They inform government audit regimes that claim to measure how “world-leading” our research is.

All of this has created and perpetuated a research culture in business schools worldwide that idolised elite journal publications to the point of fatal distraction. On the current trajectory, the end game is that we are only relevant to ourselves.

I am not saying that publication in academic journals vetted by the rigors of peer review is not important. Quite the contrary: this is the system, no matter how imperfect, that provides an indispensable check on the process of knowledge generation. But if social impact is what you want, journal publication elitism is not the end goal.

When I talk to people outside universities, they find what I am saying to be blindingly obvious, if not banal. Of course what really matters is the difference research makes or will make on the troubled world beyond the ivory tower. We should be embarrassed that, for all our rhetoric, we still can’t seem genuinely to get our heads around that.

Carl Rhodes is dean of the UTS Business School at the University of Technology Sydney.

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