Are Academics Afraid of Action?

Follow: , , , ,

This post is in reflection of the first day of the UN PRME Global Forum.

“I wonder if academics are afraid of action,” started Claus Pederson, Head of Sustainable Development of Novozyme, to a room filled with 300+ professors, deans and directors of business schools, and other academic participants. The relevancy and impact of business schools is an issue that has recently received much attention and criticism. This comes up in issues of research, curriculum, and responsibility, just to name a few. Are academics really afraid of action, and is it necessarily a bad thing? What does this imply for sustainable development?

Academia is meant to be critical and reflective. Structurally, we are not well equipped to actively apply our research to current business practices. However, what we are equipped with is the support of the academic community, and flexibility in time and subject matter to rigorously pursue what we believe is important and relevant research.

On the other hand, businesses are not equipped to carry out research that may not promise immediate and tangible outcomes. “They are biased towards action-based mechanisms to resolve problems quickly,” Ángel Cabrera, Master of Ceremonies, explained to me. This short-term emphasis can sometimes be at odds with sustainability goals and research, which often need longer time horizons for investments to be recouped and research questions to be answered.

So which one is needed to face challenges of sustainable development? I believe both are critical. Business professionals (or ‘practitioners’, as academics would call them) are needed to implement practical solutions to sustainability challenges. At the same time, they are limited to the interests and needs of the firm, market, and industry. As I stated in my previous post, sustainability is about thinking beyond our own needs, time and borders. In this regard, academics are better positioned to address the deeper sustainability issues that the public or private sector may not regard to be relevant today

The academics’ passive tendency to not confront problems with action does prove to be a problem in large, collective events such as the UN PRME Global Forum. To illustrate, we were asked to very briefly summarize our table discussion results in almost tweet-like fashion. As expected, some presenters took several minutes to carefully explain everything that their table had discussed (of course, there are many academic settings where this is encouraged). But is this productive in an event where specific questions must be answered and an outcome document written?

In reflection of the first day’s outcomes (or lack of), Giselle Weybrecht, advisor to the PRME Global Forum organizing team and author of the PRiMETime blog, tweeted most likely the common sentiment of practitioners in the audience: “…I hope tomorrow this group can collectively come up with concrete steps to move forward. We know what is needed.”

Editor Mike McCullough wrapping up his table’s discussion in the plenary session.

Live twitter feed showing event-related tweets in the background.

11 thoughts on “Are Academics Afraid of Action?

  1. Thanks for the reporting!

    Maybe, academics should be afraid of action sometimes, and there are strong allegations about the role of business school faculty in being linked to investment firms through lucrative consulting contracts, while appearing as independent experts in the media and public discourse. In such situations, we would need at least full transparency of the linkages.

    Also, there has been a proliferation of courses on social entrepreneurship, corporate sustainability etc. at business schools over the last years, especially at leading business schools. But the challenge remains similar as in business – do they stay niche offerings, or do they influence the mainstream as well? In most businesses, CSR is still seen as a nice but negligible decoration (not by the CSR managers you’ll talk about, not by CEO’s in their Rio talks, but by the average mainline manager). So, much more action required on all sides.

    • Martin, I think your first paragraph raises another good example of why academia isn’t best suited for what practitioners consider action. As for your second point, the corporate sustainability forum just started last night! I hope that issues such as CSR and env strategy that are obviously important to companies that attend this event will be brought back to their respective countries and industries as they lead by example. The opening ceremony seemed to strongly stress leadership – so I hope to see practical methods on how this can be done.

  2. Sunmin, thank you for posting this crucial question – Are Academics afraid of action? While we might not be able to provide a clear cut yes / no answer it seems indeed, that the ability of many academics and academic institutions to deal proactively with societal challenges is limited. But is changing a University really like moving a cemetery, as cited in an article on academic entrepreneurship by Dale Meyer (JSBM, 2011)? While there are clear signals, that engaged scholarship and action learning approaches are gaining momentum, we’d be naive to ignore, that most management scholars do not incorporate the profound implications of the rising societal and environmental challenges into their research and teaching.

    Action-oriented learning is increasingly provided outside traditional academia, e.g. in rapidly growing networks such as Sandbox, The Hub or General Assembly. However, many management schools have realized, that the disconnect between theories and practices, rigour and relevance and academia and society erodes the legitimacy of management as a profession. In this context it is e.g. great to see that the Global Alliance for Management Education (CEMS) is teaming up with NGO’s to bring societal relevance into the classrooms. Initiatives like PRME might also play an important role.

    I very much look forward to hearing more from the oikos student reporters in Rio on the discussions how to promote action based teaching and research – and hope to learn more about game-changers in management education. Thank you trendscouts for reporting from Rio!

    • Thank you Jost for your note. In the second (and final) day, the participants came up with specific suggestions that PRME can play role in helping b-schools be more relevant, much like the NBS workshop that we were at in April. Also, I’d say the Student Reporter program is a great example of action-based learning! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Post Digest @Rio+20: June 15th | Studentreporter

  4. Great post!! I was speaking to the president of WBCSD and he pointed out that academia has been very resistant to incorporating sustainability in the curriculum of schools.

  5. Business schools are typically pretty conservative – I think it’s interesting that there is now a divide.. In the US, we have the “sustainability” business schools (Presidio, Bard and Bainbridge) and the traditional ones. I think we will reach a tipping point, but perhaps not for several years. Several of academic institutions need to be revised to reflect new job market realities (such as law, business, and others), but the schools have not needed to change because we students still flock to them in large numbers!

  6. Caroline, I like your final remark as you give some agency to the students, being the consumers of an education product (such terminology might only work for B-school students). At PRIME the student reporter team discussed whether it is the supply or demand side of sustainability oriented programs that make the field moving. We concluded that there is neither on the faculty/administrator side nor the student side sufficient moment to speak of a market.
    Students are not yet socialized before starting schools but mostly get to it quickly after entering schools, they are most likely facing faculty who does not appreciate sustainability. As a result they are hold back by their, what I would assume, natural tendency of young people to strive for smth meaningful, take care of the nature and the community. To make them unlearn what some universities may preach to the socialized students through conventional faculty members and signals such as Ivey, Top, At the Edge, Elite,..
    It needs some action from within (i.e. student movements and faculty training) supported from the outside. oikos offers both, support (financial and organizational) to students changing universities and young faculty training through research seminars that help future faculty to be successful in research in order to be better positioned in the very competitive and not at all sustainability related academic career market.
    Another long story but tightly connected to Sunmin’s article, frequently discussed during the PRIME meeting. Just a little anecdote from an US based Dean at UN PRIME, he told me that their take is to first young researchers should do the mainstream academic career moves until they get tenured. Only then, they can follow the principles of what she or he and the school believe in.

  7. Pingback: Are Academics Afraid of Action? | IGEL @ Wharton

  8. Pingback: Are Academics Afraid of Action? | IGEL @ Wharton

  9. Pingback: UN PRME Global Forum Wraps Up – but Where Are Top Tier Business Schools? | Studentreporter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *