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How Does Sustainability Research Fit Within Business Schools?

Image credit: Epic Learning Institute

This is the fifth of six questions from a roundtable discussion with the directors of sustainability research centers at six top business schools.

So there are a couple different ways that we support the research process as an Initiative.

One is that we bring in funding and then disperse it to faculty for research on sustainability. We’ve done that with some corporate funding, as well as philanthropic individual donors or foundations. We put out those calls for proposals, and it helps us to identify who among the faculty is doing research and sustainability.

This Q&A is part of a sponsored series of articles running on Sustainable Brands this month, called: “Academic Engagement: How Business & Business Schools Partner to Drive Sustainable Innovation.” Download the complimentary series to read the full discussion and feature articles.

We’ve also tried to identify spaces of collaboration among faculty where there are compelling needs for industry engagement, and where there are some real world problems to solve. We try to be a bridge builder between those different pieces.

For example, there are several faculty members working on alternative fuel vehicle diffusion and what it takes to create a market for alternative fuel vehicles. We’ve built some modeling and simulation tools and we’ve done some policy analysis. Then we gather the key industry players like GM and Ford and Toyota to help fund the research. But more importantly we want them to use the simulation tools and other research outputs to help shape strategy and policy and thinking.

And so our tagline for all of that is “changing the conversation” about sustainability. We do that through translational or bridge building work. And we have five different focal areas for that work with multiple faculty and industry engagements.

We’ve mapped out the value chain as our framework for research.

We focus on integrating sustainability risks and opportunities into business decision-making throughout the value chain, starting from supply chain to internal production, and finalizing with the consumer experience.

We rely heavily on our cohort of Erb faculty, students, and post-doctoral fellows in achieving this. This year we have five fellows that we selected according to their interests to align with our long-term research goals. We support them in developing new research around, for example, consumer motivation, communication, and consumer response to climate change.

As I mentioned earlier, going forward we’re looking at how to find the opportunities to bridge from our own research to research with other schools at the university. We see a lot of opportunity, for example, with public policy and how to take the sustainability conversation from the enterprise level to industry, and then how to promote a new perspective on lobbying — from lobbying for individual company interests, to responsible “business advocacy” for shared sustainability goals across industries and sectors of society.

As a Center, we look to bring unique value to Johnson and Cornell that might not exist without us.

In line with that, the Center provides a mechanism for focusing on applied research directly involved in solving problems facing companies and other organizations in the marketplace. That’s in line with the school’s strategic objectives to produce intellectual capital, innovate programs, increase our global footprint, and develop more robust connections outside the school.

The Center’s work also allows Johnson to not only publish in academic, peer-reviewed A-journals, but also in journals, newspapers, and other media outlets that speak directly to practitioners. To do this, we don’t just engage tenure and non-tenure track faculty, but we provide a home for extension associates and others with deep field experience combined with rigorous training in research, who deliver significant intellectual value to the school but would otherwise not have a role at Johnson.

We're also unique because we are more integrated and connected across the broader campus.

We’re not only involved in university-wide initiatives in sustainability, entrepreneurship, and engaged learning, but through those efforts we’ve built strong relationships with researchers across campus whose work bumps up against the business and sustainability domain. In those cases, the Center has been positioned to join multidisciplinary research teams where we bring expertise in applied management science to a broad array of questions — from technology commercialization to livelihood development.

And now we’re being pulled into unique research projects done by others across campus where they’re realizing, “It would be really helpful to have faculty members who are coming from a business perspective to look at these environmental and social issues.” So they’re not working purely from technical, natural, or social science perspectives.

This increases the influence and impact the business school has around campus on a number of topics in a way that has not been typical in management education.

With project-based opportunities as the focus, we attract faculty who are actively engaged in research.

They want to be involved in the teams and have access to MNCs (multinational corporations), regional small enterprises or even area NGOs that they haven’t worked with before. So our small program has a relatively large regional reach on this, but not a big national reach.

These opportunities provide our faculty with case study development, journal articles, and presentations within professional associations.

Our program and institute fit within the business school research efforts by hosting a sustainability symposium where we bring in academic researchers and seminal authors in sustainability. This also gives our business school partners better access to thought leadership in sustainability.

We also engage in sustainability projects in our study abroad trips within our one-year program. Here, we put students into a new country context and integrate this learning into the school of business curriculum with faculty opportunities for case studies development.

For a small cohorted program, we take pride in having successfully completed over a hundred projects in the last five years. These have provided primary research experiences for students, as we developed publications, case studies and consulting opportunities.

We’ve identified three methods or three strategies around research.

The first piece is to promote research and make resources available for it. So, we have instituted an academic venture fund for our faculty to draw on.

We now have faculty leveraging it to do joint research involving experimental subjects. We have two faculty members — one from finance, one from accounting — talking about writing a book and we would provide support for that book. We have another faculty member who was going to co-edit a book on sustainable operations, but because this funding was available he’s creating a junior faculty network and the first workshop will be held at Georgia Tech as part of the writing of that book.

So with small funding, small grants opportunities, we are encouraging faculty to be entrepreneurial and think beyond what they would normally do, and we’re starting to have some traction.

The second piece is network building and this is both academic — within Scheller, within Georgia Tech and with other institutions — and with industry, through breakfast meetings with industry professionals, high-profile events, and so on.

The third piece is enhancing the visibility and reputation of research.

We are using Center funding to make faculty research be more visible through a stronger web presence, translational articles, and through series such as this one on Sustainable Brands.

So in addition to investing in the research itself, we are strongly investing in its visibility.

The first thing I want to say is, our research faculty at Kenan-Flagler are housed in areas or the school’s departments.

They’re not part of our Center per se, but the business school's research faculty are publishing sustainability-related research in A-journals. So whether that’s organizational behavior, faculty, marketing, finance, strategy — it’s one of the reasons we have a high-ranking for our sustainability research by Aspen Institute in their last Beyond Grey Pinstripes report.

But that’s not faculty that have the tag ‘Center for Sustainable Enterprise’ in their signature line. So it’s just an example of sustainability being mainstreamed. Our researchers are doing sustainability-related research separate from the Center.

We, like Cornell, are focused more on applied research that is practitioner-oriented. The other thing we do is focus on case study writing, and the development of teaching materials based on applied research.

And then bridging research and practice: We have a seminar series that has one of the research faculty present a paper, and we ask that faculty member to invite (or we help them find) someone in industry, who their research could apply to.

For example, in operations, a faculty member recently published a paper about servicizing and the sharing economy. So we brought someone from Interface to talk about how they encountered problems when they tried to rent carpet.

The audience could thus hear the practitioner’s perspective and then hear the academician giving some insights from the cutting edge of research as well as a dialog between them.

Lastly, we do a lot of interdisciplinary work.

We have partnerships with and work on projects with the law school, the school of government, the Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology, the Institute for the Environment and City and Regional Planning. Thus, the research that we do, I think Monica was saying this as well, is more interdisciplinary across campus.

Download the full series here to read the entire round table discussion.


Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also Associate Editor of Sponsored Content for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_king [Read more about Bart King]


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