Inspired by Public Value

All types of business schools must articulate their long-term worth to society if they are to remain viable and relevant. That idea has led Cardiff Business School to adopt a public value mission focused on addressing the world’s “grand challenges.”
Inspired by Public Value

LIKE MANY BUSINESS SCHOOLS, Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University in Wales, U.K., faces a number of challenges, from the reduction of state financial support to increased competition for staff, students, and research funding. We hear critics question the legitimacy, ethics, and relevance of business education and management scholarship. We share the sense that our enterprise is under intense scrutiny, and we perceive a need to revalidate our license to operate by forging a new social contract with the world around us.

To address these challenges, we all first must ask the same question: How do business schools contribute to the economy and society? I have become increasingly convinced that business schools need to more formally develop and articulate the value they provide to world. So, just after I assumed the role of Cardiff’s dean in 2013, I launched a thorough review of our institution—via informal discussions, staff workshops, committee meetings, and interactions with stakeholders—to determine who we were as a school, what kind of school we wanted to be, and why society should support our vision.

The result was the creation of what we call our “public value strategy”—a strategy that “promotes economic and social improvement through interdisciplinary scholarship that addresses the grand challenges of our time.” In the year since we launched that mission, we have worked to ensure that it underpins our governance, research, and teaching.


Our initial discussions were inspired by two sources. The first was the work of sociologist John Brewer of Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As past president of the British Sociological Association, Brewer had become concerned about how social science could make itself relevant to the problems facing humanity in the 21st century. In his 2013 book The Public Value of Social Science, Brewer presents a manifesto for the future of social science, one that contributes both economic and social value through scholarship.

Brewer’s vision combines three features: interdisciplinary cooperation, deeper engagement with society, and focus on the world’s grand challenges. This manifesto struck a chord with us, sparking lively and far-reaching conversations. We realized that as a research-led business school with five large departments, Cardiff was well-positioned to respond to Brewer’s call to develop strategies around economic and social improvement.

Our second inspiration was the work of Mark Moore, the Hauser Professor of Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Moore focuses on how to implement public value strategies within organizations. His key message is this: To ensure alignment with its authorizing environment, an organization must engage with a full range of stakeholders.

That means that a business school must interact with its university’s entire community of faculty, staff, students, university leaders, alumni, advisory board members, recruiters, and employers. After our faculty had opportunities to conduct formal and informal discussions, I established a series of workshops where the entire school, including staff in academic and professional services, worked collectively to articulate a vision. These workshops ran for many months. We debated our strengths and weaknesses, identified internal and external challenges, and began to outline our responsibilities to stakeholders. I wanted the process to be inclusive so that everyone in our community would be invested in the result.

I have become increasingly convinced that business schools need to more formally develop and articulate the value they provide to the world.

My management team and I distilled what we learned in these conversations into a clear, succinct vision and mission, driven by the central philosophy of public value. We finalized our strategy by publicly committing the school and its resources to delivering economic and social value to all stakeholders, via presentations to the university’s executive board and council and at the annual conference of the U.K.’s Chartered Association of Business Schools. We also have built our vision into our student induction and enrollment program, including the creation of an animated teaching video that highlights the importance of interdisciplinary thinking and the role of management in solving social challenges. View the video here. We are placing the delivery of public value at the heart of our school.


As part of our strategic shift, we wish to act as both thought leaders and role models. To this end, we have changed our approach to school governance. First, we created our Shadow Management Board (SMB) to invite more diverse participation in the school’s decision-making process. The 14-member board includes a mix of junior and senior faculty members and professional services staff from across the school.

The SMB scrutinizes the work of our management board and provides a channel for our staff to weigh in on senior management discussions and decisions in real time, whether via its formal reports or through regular discussions with management board members.

For example, the SMB recently conducted a review of our postgraduate teaching portfolio and completed an evaluation of the relationship between the school’s academic and professional staff. The school is in the process of implementing many of its recommendations in both areas. The SMB also provides a development opportunity for our faculty and staff: This year, Rachel Ashworth, a professor of public services management, became the SMB’s first academic member to graduate to a position on our full management board.

By committing to public value, b-schools serve a much greater good.

Our second major change in internal governance was to make interdisciplinary and challenge-led scholarship an essential part of our hiring criteria for all academic appointments. When we use the term “challenge-led scholarship,” we are referring specifically to research focused squarely on improving or solving social problems. So far, we have hired six full professors and five other faculty on that basis.

Third, we have made sure that our public value mission is increasingly influencing our external engagement activity. Specifically, we have publicly committed ourselves to external initiatives that align with our public value mission to promote economic and social improvement. These include 50-50 by 2020, a Welsh campaign to encourage organizations to increase women’s representation in leadership positions to 50 percent by the year 2020. We also have adopted several initiatives related to diversity, including efforts to improve the representation of women on boards and committees, policies to help new parents return to their careers after maternity and paternity leave, and the appointment of a full-time equality and diversity officer.

The Equality Challenge Unit, which promotes diversity initiatives in higher education institutions in the U.K., recently recognized our school with its Athena SWAN Bronze Award for gender equality. Currently, Cardiff is one of only two business schools in the U.K. to hold this distinction. We now are preparing a submission for the Silver Award based on the outcomes of these initiatives.

We have developed new relationships with other organizations committed to social improvement. For example:

  • We are partnering with Business in the Community, a charity that enables businesses to work together to tackle key social issues. The BITC is part of The Prince’s Charities, a group of not-for-profit organizations led by Charles, Prince of Wales.
  • We are developing a partnership with Enactus, a global community of student, academic, and business leaders “committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world.”
  • In January 2016, just after we launched our public value strategy, Cardiff Business School became a signatory of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative. As a PRME signatory, Cardiff must submit and post “Sharing Information on Progress” reports at least once every two years. These reports outline our activities related to sustainability in our teaching and research.


We have made a commitment to produce graduates with a strong moral sentiment and empathetic imagination that they can apply to solving the social and economic challenges of our time. That has meant designing a curriculum that encourages students to question the status quo, provoke change for the benefit of society, and become ethical leaders with the confidence and critical capacity to work differently and think holistically.

As one example, we recently revised the management consulting elective of our MBA program to focus on local charities—or what we call third sector organizations (TSOs). We have made this change primarily because many TSOs lack leaders with key business skills; at the same time, they cannot afford to send their leaders to attain quality management education and often are unable to compete on salary for experienced managers. To help compensate for that, our MBA students now complete eight-week consultancies during which they help TSOs identify manageable projects and decide on courses of action.

Through their work on these projects, we hope that our MBAs are developing the characteristics of ethical, thoughtful leaders equipped with the skills to tackle social challenges. While helping to upskill TSO leaders, our MBAs are immersed in worlds that many have not encountered before; they interact on a personal level with alcoholics, the homeless, the poor, and the bullied. As students observe and analyze the economic and social contexts for these disadvantaged communities, social problems are made real to them. In the process, our students develop a moral and sympathetic view of disadvantaged populations—as well as a desire to make a difference.

As another example, our faculty have arranged for our undergraduate international human resource management students to participate in projects related to the Decent Work Agenda of the U.N.’s International Labour Organization (ILO). Under this agenda, the ILO works with employers, government agencies, and workers to design programs and policies that provide decent jobs and livable wages for all workers. Our students investigate contexts where people do not have access to meaningful employment; they then present their findings in poster presentations to other students and faculty. The objective of the project is to help students develop a greater understanding of, and sympathy for, workers who face impediments such as wage stagnation, poor working practices, and a lack of social protections.

In addition, we are currently generating a searchable “resource bank” of teaching case studies, which we plan to make available to our colleagues this summer. This bank will offer public-value-relevant resources for learning and teaching that have been created by faculty from both the business school and other parts of the university.


We now encourage our faculty to address society’s grand challenges through their scholarship, and to do so in novel, interdisciplinary ways. Here is just a sampling of their work so far:

Reducing alcohol-related violence. A team of researchers from the business school, led by economist Kent Matthews, is working with colleagues from medicine, dentistry, and public policy to address alcohol-related crime. Prompted by a maxillofacial surgeon who was seeing a considerable increase in the number of jaw and cheekbone injuries in his practice, the research team developed what is called the Cardiff Model, in which emergency departments record details of patient injuries caused by violence, including the geographical location of the event and the type of weapon used. Our researchers combined this information with police, economic, and environmental data to create an econometric model that shows that the rate of violence-related injury is negatively related to the real price of beer. They concluded that increased alcohol prices would result in substantially fewer violent injuries and reduced demand on trauma services.

Ensuring a living wage for low-income workers. Edmund Heery, professor of employment relations—with Cardiff colleagues Deborah Hann and David Nash, lecturers in human resource management—has carried out research on the U.K.’s Living Wage, a voluntary wage standard that has been adopted by more than 3,000 employers.

Working closely with the Living Wage Foundation, the organization that promotes the standard, the Cardiff team has surveyed all living wage employers to identify the benefits and challenges that are associated with applying an ethical wage policy. This work has been widely reported in U.K. media and has directly shaped the campaign to further spread the living wage across the U.K. economy.

Promoting sustainable development in Africa. Tim Edwards of our Responsible Innovation Network has been working with a charity in Eritrea, Africa. Together, they are building a research program with a local college to assess the community impact of climate resilient agriculture systems. These efforts will support women-run microbusinesses in agriculture.

We want these types of research projects, focused on identifying and addressing economic and social challenges, to be the norm at our school. We already have several interdisciplinary collaborations and active research groups that are addressing issues of mutual interest, and we want to inspire more such work across the university. By introducing an explicit public value imperative within existing and new research, we can make the best use of our resources for the greatest good.


We have developed an ambitious roadmap for the expansion of our public value strategy within the business school, across the university, and beyond to the local and global community. The lessons we’ve learned so far might provide a blueprint for other business schools:

Lesson No. 1: It takes time, effort, and patience to achieve an organic revolution. To be successful, a school cannot rush the process of completely changing its culture, practices, and attitude.

Lesson No. 2: Bring faculty, staff, and stakeholders along at every step. We have been careful to include their input as we reviewed and revised our processes and activities. We secured the support of the university executive board, and we articulated our new direction and strategy to stakeholders. We encouraged input to our strategy at all stages. That has led to a natural, user-led engagement with our public value proposition. Once we earned the buy-in of our staff and students, we could accelerate our work.

Lesson No. 3: Build a community of collaboration dedicated to translating research into effective solutions for society. To achieve this goal, we have worked with colleagues across the university—in an initiative led by our dean of research, innovation, and enterprise Rick Delbridge—to develop our Social Science Research Park (SPARK). The new facility will provide a collaborative environment that crosses disciplines, sectors, regions, and nations. When completed in 2018, SPARK will bring together more than 300 social science researchers to address society’s grand challenges.

SPARK will be housed alongside an Innovation Centre that will host and support startup and spinout businesses in a 12,000-square-meter facility. There will be events and exhibition spaces, as well as technical facilities to support interdisciplinary research. The goal is to engage practitioners, policymakers and the public in the work we undertake.

Lesson No. 4: Dare to be different. Variety once was a celebrated strength within global business education. However, in recent years, multiple forces have encouraged business schools to converge around a limited set of models. I fear that, left unattended, these pressures could lead us to sleepwalk into an increasingly homogeneous future, in which business education becomes sanitized and diminished to such an extent that it is no longer socially relevant. By committing to public value and interdisciplinary scholarship, business schools not only can maintain their diverse perspectives, but also serve a much greater social good.

We know we have set a bold agenda, but we are playing the long game. We are fully invested in helping to solve some of the major economic and social challenges of our time. We’ve made this change because we believe that the purpose of business schools goes far beyond one defined by abstract theories and purely economic concerns. This is an exciting time, not just for Cardiff Business School, but for business education. We hope that our strategy might inspire other schools, and we are eager to work with colleagues across the globe to help develop a new social contract between business schools and the world around us.

Martin Kitchener is the dean of Cardiff Business School at Cardiff University in Wales, United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2017 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].