Research Re-Examined

AACSB’s Impact of Research Task Force generates much dialogue and debate as it issues a report that calls for new ways to measure faculty scholarship.
Research Re-Examined

Academic research is one of the key functions of business schools, but its importance sometimes goes unappreciated. On the one hand, the general public often is unaware of the advances that have been made possible because of academic research. On the other hand, members of the academic community sometimes voice criticisms about the relevance of business research in the real world.

Because research is so essential to the part that business schools play in society, AACSB International has recently re-examined the role of research and management education. Last year, the association released a preliminary report that proposed changes to the way business schools and accreditation committees evaluate research. The report calls for schools to align their research outputs with their missions, while finding ways to increase the value of their research to students, practitioners, and society at large.

The report, written by members of the Impact of Research Task Force, was released in draft form last August. AACSB invited comments from members before producing a final version, due to be published in late January. If, as expected, its recommendations are implemented by AACSB’s Board of Directors, the report eventually could have a profound influence on the way business school research is conducted, measured, and shared with the world.

While many hurdles still lie ahead, they are all surmountable, according to Joseph Alutto, who chaired the task force. Alutto is executive vice president and provost of The Ohio State University in Columbus. Here he offers responses to the concerns of AACSB members who shared their observations about the report.

The Impact of Research

The report’s first and most controversial recommendation is that AACSB change accreditation standards to “require schools to demonstrate the impact of faculty intellectual contributions to targeted audiences.” In essence, the task force suggests that existing guidelines be amended to focus on outcomes, not inputs. Schools would be required not just to keep track of refereed journal articles published by their faculty, but also to demonstrate the impact of all types of scholarship. It wouldn’t matter what forms that scholarship took or whether the impact was on practice, theory development, or teaching and learning.

Under this system, schools would tie scholarship more closely to their own missions, a notion that aligns smoothly with AACSB’s mission-based accreditation. However, the report acknowledges that it would not be easy to switch to such a model. Schools would need to find ways to gauge the impact of research; they also would have to convince faculty and administrators that various forms of scholarship are equally worthwhile, not only as part of the accreditation process, but as part of the tenure and promotion process.

“Administrators need to think ahead of time about what information they’ll need to demonstrate their faculty’s scholarship and to show how that scholarship is appropriate for their schools’ missions.”
—Joseph Alutto, The Ohio State University

While many members applaud the move and are supportive of the recommendation, many also foresee difficulties in implementation. In fact, early readers of the report had a number of questions and concerns, most of which fell into several broad categories:

The burden to schools. Many members felt that supplying the data would be difficult and expensive for schools—particularly small schools that focus more on practice and pedagogy. But Alutto believes the burden would not be nearly as onerous as some fear.

“We’re not asking for any more information than the schools should normally be collecting,” he says. “The reality is, we all have to have mission statements, and those statements all have to include some reference to faculty scholarship. We then have to measure the impact of that scholarship to judge if we’re achieving our missions. This is exactly what we tell corporate officials they should do—identify objectives, identify metrics, and then translate them to individual contributions.”

Once deans think it through, most of them will realize that their schools “already have much of the information in hand,” Alutto believes. “And it isn’t that difficult to collect the rest. It does mean administrators need to think ahead of time about what information they’ll need to demonstrate their faculty’s scholarship and to show how that scholarship is appropriate for their schools’ missions. This recommendation is all about alignment.”

Measuring results. Members who read the early draft also worried about how difficult it would be to actually measure the impact of research. They pointed out that it is nearly impossible to quantify the long-term effect of research on teaching and management practice, and it is equally difficult to gauge impact if research leads a practitioner not to follow a certain course.

The authors of the report anticipated this worry when they wrote, “Clearly, AACSB must take the lead in helping schools develop useful and appropriate measures of impact, as well as systems for collecting and maintaining the data.”

Alutto adds, “If we’re serious about schools identifying specific missions and then aligning faculty scholarship with those missions, then we must expect accreditation review teams to make judgments based on that set of objectives as well as on other metrics for measuring institutional and individual performance. This approach gets to the heart of the mission-based accreditation process.”

Training requirements. Members pointed out that school administrators weren’t the only ones who would have to learn to judge the impact of research accurately. Accreditation review teams would also need to be trained to make those judgments. Alutto concedes that retraining will be required if this recommendation is accepted, but he believes many teams will welcome the chance to weigh diverse forms of scholarship instead of limiting their review to research published in top-tier journals.

For instance, he says, accreditation teams might visit an urban school that does an excellent job working with the regional community; there, they’ll expect to find faculty research focused on local economic development. “It’s very frustrating for the accreditation review team when the administrators have to pretend that they have this broader function of developing new theories when that’s not really their strength,” he says. “The new approach would allow those schools to define their comparative advantage and then remain accountable in terms of how well they fulfill that mission.”

Institutional acceptance. Some members had questions regarding the buy-in of university officials. Even if business school deans embrace a new approach to measuring impact, will university administrators be as easy to convince? Will they agree that business schools should be allowed to weigh contributions to practice and pedagogy as much as they would weigh other kinds of intellectual contributions?

A commitment to research will continue to define management education in the years to come.

Alutto believes that top administrators at certain universities will be much quicker to accept the proposed recommendations than others. “Administrators at large institutions among the top 30 schools already recognize that there’s a mix of scholarship,” he says. “They know that some faculty are committed to top-tier research publications, while others provide research that has an impact on practice. For these institutions, this approach is really nothing more than a verification of what’s already happening. At other institutions, acceptance of these recommendations will take some education on what the purpose of a business school really is.”

That’s where AACSB comes in, he adds. “We believe that AACSB must be more active in accurately portraying the role of a business school in a university setting. Presidents of universities have to learn to say, ‘What is the mission of my business school? If it’s teaching, we ought to be rewarding scholarship that supports that mission. If it’s to work closely with regional firms, then the scholarship of the faculty should be consistent with that.’ That’s the point AACSB will need to make as it plays this advocacy role.”

Diversity of Scholarship

The other six recommendations listed in the initial report have not been nearly as controversial as the first one. Nonetheless, the second recommendation, which encourages schools to reward more diverse approaches to scholarship, is regarded by some business school leaders as unrealistic. These respondents consider it virtually impossible to overcome the powerful incentives created by tenure and promotion committees, academic job markets, and journal editors.

Again, the authors of the report anticipated this concern, and they admit that changing the incentive structure will be challenging. They note that AACSB will have to support such efforts by helping to develop these new models or advocating for them with university administration.

Several of the report’s other recommendations address the divide between practical and theoretical research—that is, between research with an obvious application in the business world and purer research that is not designed to have an immediate impact on practice. While the authors of the report argue for both rigor and relevance, it’s clear they believe there needs to be more communication between academics and practitioners—and more ways to publicize the value of research.

One of the task force’s recommendations encourages schools and executives to work together to identify research areas of the greatest common interest. Another promotes the idea that AACSB should work with existing journals, or perhaps create new knowledge portals, to more widely disseminate faculty research and “translate” it for practitioners. And to make sure vibrant new research is getting the attention it deserves, the task force makes two recommendations: that AACSB develop an awards program to recognize high-impact research, and that the association disseminate information on best practices regarding the links between research and practice.

It’s not yet clear how some of these recommendations might become reality. For instance, Alutto notes that AACSB might consider allying with some of the major research journals to find ways to translate and publish scholarly research in more accessible terms. Nonetheless, the intent of the task force members is plain: They want business school research of all kinds to be more diverse, more visible, and more accessible. And they want business schools to work with AACSB to promote these goals.

Facing the Challenges

It’s clear that there are significant challenges and changes ahead in the way business schools conduct, measure, and share research. “Yes, these recommendations mean changes for business schools,” says Alutto. “Yes, they mean that not all schools would be required to fit one mold. But we gave up the one-mold approach years ago with the mission-based accreditation process.”

The plan to tie research requirements to a school’s mission is a strategy that will be successful for institutions both inside and outside the U.S., Alutto believes. “Schools that are embedded in very different sociopolitical settings have clear differences in mission,” he says. “This approach allows us to focus on the quality of impact that faculty scholarship is having, regardless of where the school is located.”

Schools and individual faculty alike are known by their research and honored for their contributions to the world’s expanded pool of knowledge. There is no question that a commitment to research will continue to define management education in the years to come. But how management educators define research could have a profound effect on the future of business schools—and their place in the world.