Research in Action

Business schools with research-driven missions are building buzz about their faculty’s best work—and promoting their intellectual brands.
Research in Action

In case you haven’t noticed, business research has been getting more exposure lately—and not just in the daily news. Business schools are using print publications, podcasts, electronic newsletters, and even lunch meetings to get their faculty’s best research into the hands of academics, students, business managers, journalists, and laypeople as efficiently as possible. In many cases, business schools are promoting their missions by expanding the reach of their research.

Business schools have long staked their reputations on their educational offerings. But for those schools with an active research faculty, intellectual capital has become another area where they can differentiate their brands in a competitive market. In a world where business needs information at lightning speed, business schools that can prove themselves as “thought leaders” can establish reputations as intellectual powerhouses.

“Our goal is to narrow the gap between supply and demand for research,” says Ale Smidts, professor of marketing research and director of Erasmus Research Institute of Management (ERIM) at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management in The Netherlands. “At the end of last year, we assessed that we still have ‘more to show the world.’ We decided to make this objective a priority in 2007.

Smidts and other business educators are recognizing that, if research is knowledge, then knowledge is power. Many schools already have boosted funding for research, launched new research centers, and made research a central driver in their mission statements. Now they are devising new strategies to advance their missions in the public eye—and “show the world” just how powerful their research can be.

New Perceptions of Research

While research has been predominantly considered an academic enterprise, the ways faculty view their research, and its connection to real-world issues, has changed, says Kathleen Sutcliffe, associate dean of research at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor. Purely theoretical research is still alive and well, she says, but she has seen an intellectual shift among many of her colleagues, from theory to practice.

“In organizational research in the 1970s and ’80s, for example, researchers were much more focused on elaborating on abstract paradigms and understanding basic theories and phenomena,” says Sutcliffe. “But in the 1990s, research became much more problem-driven and increasingly connected to management challenges. Rather than paradigms, studies focused on problems such as why and how socially responsible practices influence corporate finance. There has been a transformation in what is being studied and how it’s being studied.

“We’re encouraging faculty to really look at the big organizational problems, the daily management and public policy challenges that organizations face.”
—Kathleen Sutcliffe, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

Journal publication and the peer review process remains of utmost important to faculty, Sutcliffe notes. But as more business schools base their missions on helping business solve its immediate challenges, business faculty are viewing their research in a larger context.

“Research has changed over time, and business faculty have to think about the impact their research will have,” says Sutcliffe. “We’re encouraging faculty to really look at the big organizational problems, the daily management and public policy challenges that organizations face.”

Acts of Translation

Perhaps the biggest shift in how business schools view—and use—their research is in how they communicate it. Statistical studies and technical jargon are well-suited to academic journals, but less so for public consumption. The challenge for business schools is to translate those studies into a language that is immediately accessible to a large, diverse audience.

Making an effort to translate the technical aspects of research into an accessible form is crucial to “establishing the critical link between real-life issues and research-based management insights,” says Peter Lorange, president of IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. “Too often, even those schools with the best intentions have failed to translate their ambitions into action,” he says. “They have not grasped how to deliver their research findings in more meaningful and interesting ways so that practicing managers can internalize them and apply them to their real-world situations.”

ABOVE: Six times a year, the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business sends out postcards to 1,500 reporters and academics. The colorful graphics and targeted message of the cards are designed to make an instant connection between the school’s research and a current business topic.

Business schools are placing new emphasis on “translating” research into more accessible forms. In a literal sense, many business schools are translating their studies into a variety of languages—especially Chinese. The School of Business and Management at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), for instance, simplifies the technical language of published faculty research and republishes it in both English and mainland Chinese languages. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia now has three region-based editions of its Knowledge@Wharton research e-newsletter which target China, India, and Portugal/Spain and are published in four different languages.

“We also need to unlock the mindset of our researchers, so they acknowledge the importance of reputation-building by making their research more accessible.”
—Ale Smidts, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

Translating research into other languages and for other cultures is becoming easier as business schools hire more international faculty, says Deborah Spar, associate dean of research at Harvard Business School (HBS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A few years ago, we didn’t have faculty who grew up knowing China was going to be important and had the foresight to study Chinese instead of French,” says Spar. “But there has been a natural evolution. We have several Chinese faculty members now, and more of our faculty come from different parts of the world. It’s happening slowly, but it’s happening.

In a figurative sense, the act of translating the complexities of business research into simpler forms for a broad audience can be an even bigger challenge, says Smidts of ERIM. “When needed, we will use professional writers to ‘translate,’ unlock, research and make it more understandable for the general public,” says Smidts. “We also need to unlock the mindset of our researchers, so they acknowledge the importance of reputation-building by making their research more accessible.

For Sutcliffe of the Ross School, making research accessible is less an act of direct translation than of interpretation. “A translator conveys meanings directly from one language to another, but an interpreter explains what’s conveyed. An interpreter tells the story in a way that helps an audience make sense of the information,” says Sutcliffe. “If our research is to make an impact, it’s incumbent on us to make its message more accessible and meaningful to a broader audience.
“The world of business is becoming increasingly complex, and knowledge will increasingly be the key to business success.”
—Robert Hansen, The Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College

From Translation to Conversation

In fact, when it comes to business research, the ideas of “impact” and “access” are quickly becoming mutually inclusive terms. After all, say administrators, even the most groundbreaking research can’t effect change if business managers don’t hear about it and understand its relevance to the problems they face.

To that end, business schools have made it a priority to better target and sustain their research efforts. To hone its own research objectives, for example, the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville has recently created the position of “associate dean of intellectual capital” in its dean’s office, explains Jim Freeland, associate dean for faculty. “The associate dean will serve as an advocate for the development and advancement of intellectual capital,” says Freeland. He adds that the new dean also “will help identify areas of overlapping and synergistic research interests among the faculty and facilitate discussion among interested groups.

Darden isn’t the only school seeking to stimulate more discussion about business research. More business schools are creating new opportunities to put their faculty face-to-face with external audiences. They’re tapping faculty to speak about their research not only in the classroom, but also at school-sponsored seminars, conferences, lunches, and other public forums. The goal, say educators, is for faculty to act as veritable “research emissaries” to start conversations about the issues at the forefront of business.

The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, holds regular “research lunches,” where faculty speak to students about their latest work. It also recently launched its Tuck Alumni Lifelong Learning series that sends faculty on the road to give presentations on their current research.

The University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business in Canada, for instance, hosts regular seminars in Toronto and London, Ontario, to share its latest research with its students and alumni. The Stanford Graduate School of Business in California works with its departments of alumni relations and executive education to sponsor events where faculty discuss their research with alumni and business leaders in Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as in the U.S.

Other schools are using seminar formats to launch their research into public forums. HKUST sponsors research seminars throughout Asia, as well as joint seminars with a major national newspaper in China on topical issues. Each seminar showcases a particular faculty member; afterward, the newspaper publishes the seminar’s content as a feature article, explains K.C. Chan, the school’s dean.

The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan also is becoming more active in funding informal seminars where faculty meet regularly with external audiences, says Sutcliffe. The goal is to make research “part of an ongoing conversation” among not only faculty, but also alumni, business leaders, and other educators. “By sparking these conversations, research becomes a part of people’s language,” Sutcliffe says. “They start thinking in different ways, which affects the way they see the world.”

‘Mission Critical’

Business research has become an essential topic of conversation, on the agendas of administrators and faculty at research-oriented institutions everywhere. AACSB International, based in Tampa, Florida, also is engaged in this dialogue, currently conducting a major study on the impact of business research. There is a marked push among business schools to ensure that their research makes a difference.

For institutions like the Rotterdam School of Management, outreach is an essential part of this objective. “Eventually, our quality and relevance will be determined not only by our academic peers, but certainly also by the business community at large,” says Smidts.

To solidify their missions as educators and thought leaders, “research is absolutely mission critical,” agrees Robert Hansen, senior associate dean at the Tuck School. “The world of business is becoming increasingly complex, and knowledge will increasingly be the key to business success.

As Hansen suggests, increasingly complex business environments have given rise to a whirlwind of business research activity. For schools that place research at the forefront of their missions, harnessing that whirlwind—and transforming it into actionable knowledge—has become more important than ever. To fulfill their missions to become thought leaders, business schools must do more than generate groundbreaking research, say educators. They must also set up strategies to disseminate that research effectively, making it visible, accessible, and applicable to the real-world managers who need it the most.