“Quantity or sustainable impact? For a business school, it's a choice you have to make."

Learning lessons from the annual Vlerick Research Day

10 June 2022

At times an outsider's opinion can come in handy for a business or organisation that wants to take a leap forward. It could be said that this is what Wilfred Mijnhardt did for Vlerick recently.

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On 1 April 2022 Wilfred Mijnhardt was the keynote speaker on the Vlerick Research Day. Mijnhardt is Policy Director for the Rotterdam School of Management, and in that capacity is regularly asked as a keynote by business schools and academic networks around the world. On the Vlerick research day, in a talk entitled Towards responsible impact: impact reporting meets sustainability - An external perspective on knowledge creation and impact at Vlerick he shared his original take on recent trends that hold potential strategic breakthroughs for Vlerick Business School.

Narrative

So what were a few of the suggestions brought forward?

  • Should Vlerick's knowledge creation strategy rest on output to mainstream academic journals, or should it focus on an interdisciplinary approach to garner even more international recognition?
  • How does Vlerick help shape, even change entrepreneurship in Belgium, and, to do that what position should it take in the Belgian science ecosystem and the (local) start-up ecosystem?
  • What position does the school intend to adopt in the future, and what narrative will it present to the outside world?

"Obviously, this is just my opinion as an outsider", Mijnhardt stressed as he concluded his talk. But he did not leave without presenting good arguments for his sometimes bold statements.

New international context

To begin with, we have the evolving context in which business schools exist. In the last few years attention has shifted to interdisciplinarity, which ties in with society's demand to create knowledge that has a positive impact on tomorrow’s challenges. Quality, often measured as publications in leading, discipline-specific journals, isn’t the only barometer, although it has been for a long time. Impact is equally important: what level of transformative power do you exercise in business, in society, on the planet? And, as a third key dimension responsibility: what are your (ethical) standards and principles, and are they supported by external organisations (such as AOM, EURAM, PRME and RRBM) or scientific trends (like Open Science)? Coming to grips with these three dimensions is what Mijnhardt describes as the main challenge of the coming decade for business schools.

Publish or perish

Mijnhardt makes the important observation that, in research, quality has long been associated with publications, and more particularly... the quantity of publications. The number of academic articles published annually has escalated in recent years: more than 12,600 pieces appeared in four-star journals alone in 2020, of which there are a mere 138 (according to the rankings of the Chartered Association of Business Schools UK Academic). Imagine how vast the tide of publications must be aside from the journals on that list … Irrespective of how you look at it: a global article factory has come into being, says Mijnhardt.

What about Vlerick? Vlerick hasn't escaped the pressure to publish in top journals either, given their importance in accreditations, rankings and academic reputation in general, but, that aside, it takes a broader view that allows it to reach the broadest audience possible, and to collaborate as a means to relevant research. In terms of international collaboration on published articles (an equally important barometer besides quantity for its own sake) Vlerick is even number 1 in Belgium, and is beaten in Europe only by INSEAD. In terms of output in the 10-percent most quoted articles (also a measure of quality), the school ranks 3rd in Belgium and 26th in Europe. And that's quite remarkable, stresses Mijnhardt. “You could safely describe Vlerick as small but beautiful", he adds.

Alternatives

That said, a measure of caution is advised. Alternative ways of knowledge creation should be given at least some consideration. While the advantage with the current, so-called relevance model is that it involves the 'real world’ in the research, the emphasis still lies on the academic publication, and less on translating the research into and with practice. Perhaps the catalyst model is an option here? In that model, business schools shift the emphasis away from so-called linear valorisation (where the schools and academics are the main beneficiaries of the research) towards dual valorisation. It recognises that business and management research are social sciences that require schools to set up their research in collaboration with key stakeholders in society. Taking this route would create a welcome space for close(r) collaborations between PhD and DBA researchers.

Impact

And what about the impact dimension? Here, Mijnhardt thinks mostly in terms of strategic, mission-driven impact. And you tend to get that when you evolve away from a transactional impact (what do we do?) towards a transformative one (how do we do it?), and away from an anecdotal approach (quantity of individual studies and cases) towards a systematic one.

This transformative impact on system change around the world, especially in the increasingly important context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is gradually shaping up, Mijnhardt tells us, as the actual purpose of the business school. As opposed to a variety of separate SDGs, we might find that a transformative approach on six fronts (education, gender and inequality; health, welfare and demographics; carbon reduction and sustainable industry; sustainable food, land, water and oceans; sustainable cities and communities; digital revolution for sustainable development) is mutually reinforcing.

Again: what about Vlerick? From this context, as Mijnhardt sees it, the school can acquire a unique position in the business school landscape and develop a narrative of its own. How? By engaging in very targeted knowledge creation, by leaving its own 'footprint' in this way, and by identifying the impact on these SDGs in other institutions and taking that as a benchmark. This context too provides opportunities that can be exploited through the complementarity of Vlerick's PhD programme and DBA programme.

Looking back, the Vlerick research day provided good inspiration. The outsider opinion of Wilfred Mijnhardt provided food for thought for the attending DBA and PhD students and professors, including research dean Filip Roodhooft and dean Marion Debruyne.

Find out more about research at Vlerick Business School. 

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Eva Cools

Eva Cools

DBA Manager & Research Manager