Professor Andrew Stephen, Associate Dean of Research, talks about why business leaders need science-based research to understand complexities and make best-informed decisions for the future.
During the last 25 years, academic research has been central to everything we do at the School. Moreover, as we look forward to the next 25 years, I see the role of research in everything we do becoming even more critical.
As we face a progressively complex future, leaders are increasingly in need of information based on facts and empirical evidence. Hence, the world needs science more than ever. This is very true in the business community. In a sea of uncertainty, a reliable beacon of information is the scientific community.
For businesses to be part of the solution to major world challenges, leaders need to lean on scientific research to help them understand complexities and make the best-informed decisions for the future. Research-intensive business schools, such as this one, have a key role to play. The cutting-edge scientific work conducted by members of the School’s research community has the potential to shape how leaders think and how businesses operate both now and in the future.
Academic-business collaboration is critical and will drive future research impact.
In recent years, the School has invested in improving its research capabilities and facilities, such as making state-of-the-art cloud computing available for AI and machine learning research. New research initiatives across a variety of business areas have been developed, including the Oxford Future of Marketing Initiative, the Oxford Initiative on Rethinking Performance and the Oxford Future of Finance and Technology Initiative.
The School’s research purpose is captured in our research mission statement, which is ‘to produce research of the highest quality that is rigorous, imaginative, and meaningfully relevant to – and impactful on – business practice. As a leading research-intensive business school, we cannot stand still and we have to be distinctive.
We encourage academic research that meets the highest standards of scientific rigour, as well as being relevant to, and impactful on, real-world business problems, because we strongly believe this combination not only is what will set us apart in the future but also is what leaders need from us. To deliver on this mission, I believe there are three essential components to scientific research at Oxford Saïd: excellence, imagination and collaboration.
The world has changed and will continue to change. This is true in many different industries, sectors and regions, and this means that people, institutions, organisations and systems are also changing.
Making sense of these changes, whether they reflect new ways that consumers behave in digital environments, how investors value assets, or how healthcare providers use machine learning to improve patient outcomes, is where scientific research in business schools can play a big role. If we are going to understand how people and systems have changed and how they impact business, then we must bring the best and most appropriate scientific methods to help answer these questions.
Academic excellence is table stakes for a business school like ours, starting with our belief in empirical, data-driven approaches to research problems. While academics of course enjoy speculating and sharing opinions, what we enjoy even more is gathering and analysing data that leads to findings that tell us something new. While our research community bring many different methods and approaches to their research, at the core, it's all about evidence, data, and scientific proof.
Imagination as the secret sauce
An interesting thing about being an academic at Oxford is that in many respects being good at your job requires you to be quite imaginative. Being a great researcher requires one to think outside the box, dream up new scenarios and possibilities, and in general be a big thinker.
Imagination is what researchers sometimes think of as ‘novelty,’ in the sense that world-class research tends to look for new or novel findings, instead of repeating what we already know. However, imagination in research is more than novelty.
Imagination requires us to think about what the future might hold, or how a small yet intriguing current phenomenon might become something big and important in the not-too-distant future. This way of thinking about research is important for the future of business schools as we grapple with complex problems in an uncertain future.
We have to imagine what the future will most likely look like if we want to inform the future of business through research that we are doing today.
Collaboration as force for impact
The last of the three essential elements for rigorous and relevant research is collaboration. There’s no way any of us at the School should sit in our proverbial ivory tower and opine on the future of business without actually engaging with business leaders.
The key to relevant, impactful research lies in tapping into the experiences of people who are at the coalface, to understand first-hand the challenges they're facing. Academic-business collaboration is critical and will drive future research impact.
Rather than simply speculating about the relevance of a research project, it pays to engage with the communities who are relevant to our research – the stakeholders or, if you will, the actual users and beneficiaries of our research outside of academia.
Academics should not just sit in our proverbial ivory tower and opine on the future of business without going out and engaging with business leaders.
This collaborative approach is evident across the School’s research portfolio, particularly within our research centres and initiatives. These projects provide an infrastructure to help facilitate research and impact activities in focused areas such as business taxation, marketing and corporate purpose, and draw on close collaboration with non-academic stakeholders to identify priority areas for research that represent unanswered questions in, for example, industry.
If I want my research on digital advertising, let’s say, to have an impact on how large corporations run their ads and how major digital platforms operate their ad services, then I really should go and talk to people in those types of organisations to find out what their big, unanswered challenges are.
Those conversations will inform academic research projects that will, most likely, produce answers that these organisations have been looking for. This, for us, means that our research has had a real impact and helped businesses operate more effectively and efficiently.
This model of collaboration as a force for impact is something I believe will be increasingly important in the future. Working together to solve complex problems and understand new phenomena in the world is the way to go. Building these kinds of relationships with business networks – in addition to fostering new ones – will be key to developing research that addresses most relevant challenges faced by business leaders in the next few decades.
The importance of education
As academics, we are scientific researchers, but we're also educators. The School’s mission entails educating future business leaders and informing current leaders. However, the sorts of things you'll find in an old textbook are not necessarily going to help tackle the challenges that business leaders or policymakers will face in the future.
This is where research comes in. The next 25 years of the School will see more academic research being brought to life in the classroom. It’s more cutting edge.
While a lot has been written about, for example, artificial intelligence, when we want to bring those technologies to bear on the business problems of today and into the future, we need to use our research to help really figure out what works and what doesn't work, or what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
That’s not to say that research doesn’t have a place in our classrooms already. The Oxford Leading Professional Service Firms Programme, for example, is designed around a research-based model developed by Professors Tim Morris and Michael Smets, which outlines the factors that drive continuous self-development and the components of a ‘winning performance.’ Similarly, the Oxford Executive Diploma in Artificial Intelligence for Business draws on research in disciplines in the School, from marketing, leadership and operations to innovation and entrepreneurship. Research is also at the core of much of our executive education work, and we will be taking this even further in future.
In terms of the challenges leaders will face in the future, I expect that the next few decades of business will be centred on key global issues, such as technological change and responsibility (environmental and social) and, more broadly, how businesses can make a positive contribution to society while still being successful, viable, growth-oriented organisations.
This may well prove to be quite a difficult balancing act for businesses. It is all the more important, therefore, that we use research to actually identify the ways that business can, for example, deliver good financial returns and have a positive impact on the lives of their customers, employees, and partners. Finding the optimal business models and ways of operating for the multi-stakeholder future is an important challenge for academics and leaders.
Looking ahead to the next 25 years of research at the School, I believe that more and more of our work will begin to intersect with these challenges in some capacity. Indeed, the School has identified eight priority development areas for research – including sustainable development and emerging technologies – to ensure that it continues to have a positive impact on the world through business.