Why business school sustainability research needs a reality check
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If business and management schools are to remain relevant to students, recruiters and decision-makers, they need a more serious approach to research on an existential topic: sustainability.
With clear scientific evidence of human-driven climate change, near daily examples of the economic and social disruption it is causing, and growing technological and political efforts to mitigate its consequences, there is much demand for expertise.
While much academic insight in the field comes from environmental science, engineering and other university faculties, business schools should have a pivotal role to play. They train current and future investors, entrepreneurs, managers and policymakers, and in the process draw on their own and others’ research. The best are rewarding faculty who develop and teach useful insights.
FT Business School Insights: Sustainability
Research by leading professors, features and academic and business opinion. Read the report here.
But it is sobering that sustainability remains a modest if not token subject for many business schools. Much work that is produced is highly theoretical, esoteric and difficult to generalise or distil into practical recommendations.
Furthermore, academic output with potential insights for a broader practitioner audience often remains inaccessible: it is written in largely impenetrable theoretical language, hidden behind the paywalls of academic journals and with scant attempts at dissemination or promotion.
As highlighted by the authors in this report — FT Business School Insights: Sustainability — there is nonetheless some excellent research being produced with both rigour and relevance. Most of the articles we have shared were written by academics drawing on their peer-reviewed research published within the past three years.
We showcase reflections, analysis and original findings on the macroeconomic effects of climate, and on ESG investing — including its long-term financial returns and whether divestment or activism is a better policy.
Some researchers offer insights on specific industries, including insurance, fishing, food processing and recycling, highlighting best practices or ideas for change by business leaders and governments. Others scrutinise social media to analyse sentiment and explore carbon pricing, and assess the work of ESG rating agencies.
Separately, we share opinions from business and academia on what is required to bridge the gap between the two, with ideas on new models of partnership. These include efforts to work more collaboratively, from the development of initial projects, through the conduct of research to the sharing of findings — while preserving integrity and independence.
It was relatively easy to get academics to propose research for inclusion in this report that they consider important. There are some excellent groups that generously offered insights and recommendations, including the Network for Business Sustainability and the Academy of Management.
Others produce periodic reading lists of journal articles, such as the Responsible Research on Business and Management honour roll and the top academic resources listed by the Principles for Responsible Investment. There are also awards such as the Moskowitz prize and those run by the Alliance for Research on Corporate Responsibility.
Yet, for too many within academia — including those faculty committees appointing and promoting staff — impact is defined reductively: primarily as a measure of the “impact factor” of an academic journal in which the work is published, in turn determined by the citations previous papers have received over time.
Far less frequently do academics receive attention or reward for considering the impact of their work outside universities, such as efforts to produce and “translate” research into useful and readable insights, or to engage with business, let alone seek to measure the outcomes of their ideas.
It is therefore no surprise that identifying work read and valued by practitioners is difficult. Despite surveying several thousand business school alumni, the FT received just a handful of recommendations of papers they found useful. Few seem to read much of the literature being produced.
The Social Science Research Network, a platform to which many academics upload a draft of their research ahead of its publication in a journal, provided the best — if still imperfect — proxy. SSRN shared download information including from organisations outside academia. The most widely read papers, which we describe, did have practical — and sometimes controversial — findings.
Overall, there are three troubling conclusions in our survey of business school research on sustainability. The first is that, despite some notable exceptions, there is not enough being done. The second is that much of what is written is irrelevant to decision makers. The third is that useful research emerges painfully slowly. A paper analysing data from a number of years ago may take several more years from analysis through production to publication.
Researchers need freedom to focus on multiple areas, and balance theory against practice. But changing incentive structures, fostering relevance and encouraging clear dissemination of ideas including “practitioner summaries” of journal articles would all help.
Given the pace of global warming, much academic effort risks otherwise delivering too much hot air — and too little actionable insight — too late to make a difference for the planet.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor