Medium shot of Prof Daniel Beunza. In the background are buildings
‘Academic rigour’: Professor Daniel Beunza, of Bayes Business School, was hired by the Financial Services Culture Board to conduct ‘ethnographic research’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

Most business school professors earn their corn by delivering training programmes to students and executives on campus. But Daniel Beunza, a professor of social studies of finance at Bayes Business School in London, takes his expertise beyond the classroom through a consulting practice that applies academic knowledge directly in the business world.

Bayes Consulting, based at the school, is an advisory service that provides bespoke solutions to corporations, including those on its doorstep in the city of London. It is one of several academic consulting practices that bring business schools into more direct competition with traditional firms, such as the Boston Consulting Group.

Prof Beunza’s work has included advising the Financial Services Culture Board (FSCB), a membership organisation set up in the aftermath of the financial crisis to prevent conduct failures. He taught executives at several FSCB member financial institutions how to carry out on-the-ground cultural analysis, or “ethnographic” research.

This revealed different problems in their approaches to reforming culture. For example, making compliance training videos mandatory simply turned them into a “tick-box” exercise, leading to disengaged viewing. The clients are now seeking to diagnose other problems. “You cannot regulate good culture into existence, but ethnography can help raise banking standards,” says Prof Beunza.

His proposals spring from his studies on the social interactions of derivatives traders — research prowess that proved a decisive factor in the FSCB hiring him. “Rigour was incredibly important to us — in terms of the way we collected data and how we used it,” says Kate Coombs, head of insights at the FSCB. “That’s why academics were naturally our first point of call.”

Several other business schools have set up consulting practices, though it remains a niche activity. Germany’s Frankfurt School of Finance and Management has run an international advisory business since the early 1990s. Durham University Business School, in north-east England, also offers academic knowledge on a consultancy basis.

Some academics hope that these services can increase the take-up of academic concepts in business practice. Research is often criticised for failing to penetrate beyond academic journals to the corporate sector, but consulting helps professors bridge the gap between theory and practice.

“We are not sitting in an ivory tower,” stresses Santi Furnari, associate dean for executive education at Bayes (formerly Cass) at City, University of London. The boundary between advisory services and executive education, creating custom and open-enrolment training courses for corporate clients, is becoming increasingly blurred.

The question is, how much does one cannibalise the other? “There needs to be one face [presented] to the customer but, internally, it can create some turf wars,” says Nils Stieglitz, president of the Frankfurt School. He adds, however, that the advisory business can complement executive education through cross-selling, if the offerings are distinct.

The rise of academic consulting comes as business schools face increasingly stiff competition from consulting firms such as Korn Ferry and McKinsey & Company, which are muscling into the executive education market at a time of high demand for non-degree programmes for senior managers.

Some business schools are now taking on the consultants at their own game. Fiona Czerniawska, chief executive at Source, a consulting sector analyst, says academics can bring specialist expertise to the industry. “Consulting is very competitive: you can compete on scale or with a special proposition. What doesn’t work is launching a business school consulting firm that is generalist,” she adds.

Some academic leaders see more room for collaboration than rivalry with consulting firms. Patrick De Greve, the director-general at Vlerick Business School in Belgium, says consultants are important strategic partners, often funding research projects and stepping in to help teach programmes that need industry expertise. Providing advisory services would put these commercial relationships at risk, he argues. “We’re not going to bite the hand that feeds us.”

Still, the idea of branching out into advisory is alluring at a time when demand is holding up despite economic pressures and some layoffs at consulting firms, according to Source. From digital transformations to sustainability strategies, there are ample opportunities to sell advice to clients. But, for some schools, this is not purely a business opportunity; it is also a way to deliver on their social mission.

At the Frankfurt School, academics have been working to improve access to financial services in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the past decade, they have been advising FPM, a financial inclusion fund, on how to support institutions in targeting small and medium-sized companies, and low-income populations in the central African nation.

“What we have done is help with the reduction of poverty and the improvement of living conditions,” says Jean-Claude Thetika, managing director of FPM. The Frankfurt School designed courses for the fund, which trained 3,500 managers at Congolese financial institutions in offering microfinance and banking for small and medium enterprises. The school also helped FPM devise digital products for these institutions, including mobile banking, to extend the reach of financial services.

Despite the clear potential for real-world impact, schools say that some professors still see consulting as a mere distraction from their core teaching and research activities, underlining a recruitment challenge that can limit the scale of schools’ offerings.

“All my academic colleagues are absolutely flat out,” says Joanna Berry, associate dean of external engagement at Durham’s business school. “So making a case to devote time to consulting is very hard to do. It’s intensive in terms of cost and labour, but it’s important.

“The aim is to deploy that intellectual capital that we generate in ways that benefit society,” she adds. “We can generate all the theories we like but, if we’re not making a difference in the real world, then that research is wasted.” 

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