The Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath School of Management is fortunate to have an international network of affiliate and associate members, who contribute to the breadth, depth and quality of our work. They do so through visits, joint research projects, feedback on papers or simply through informed discussions over a coffee. Over the next few months, we will highlight these affiliate and associate members, and we start with this profile of Professor Frances Bowen, Bath alumna and now Pro Vice-Chancellor for Social Science at the University of East Anglia.
Tell us a bit about your current role, and the path that took you there
I am Pro-Vice Chancellor of Social Sciences at UEA. I started out as an economist, and I’ve spent over 20 years working in business schools, but this role goes right across the social sciences. I’m really enjoying working closely with colleagues in other areas like development, psychology, education and law.
On the research side, I’m also Professor of Strategy in Society at Norwich Business School. There is quite a similarity between my “day job” of Pro-Vice Chancellor, which is really about seeing the bigger picture across the Social Science faculty, and working with research colleagues. In a research team, I’m helping people to understand the research landscape, to figure out where to position conversations and to develop their skills.
I was the first in my family to go to university, and apparently when I was very young I said I wanted to be a Brownie and then go to university. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but I have always thought of university as a home for ideas, a place for people to come and stretch their thinking, to allow what they learn to influence how they think, how they work, how they interact with others, and that’s really part of the social mission of universities.
What are you working on at the moment?
My primary research focus is on corporate water strategy. I’ve always worked on environmental strategy, and previously focused on supply chains. Then I moved onto climate change and corporate responses to climate change. Now I’m looking at the crossover between carbon management and water challenges. One of the important features of this is how companies collaborate to overcome challenges. When it comes to collaboration we’ve found that scale matters. On a regional, and more tangible issue like water, it’s easier for companies to collaborate whereas it’s a much greater challenge to work together to overcome something as large and complex as climate change.
I’m currently working on two papers. One is on greenwashing, and looks at how companies talk about water in their reports. Do they frame it as a health issue, a resource issue, a climate risk associated with floods and drought? What we’re seeing are fairly consistent strategic positions about how companies talk about water.
The other is based on Rafia Afrin’s PhD project based at Queen Mary University of London, which was nominated for the Best Paper Proceedings at this year’s Academy of Management meeting in Boston. It has involved building a database of newspaper reports of corporate water events. We’ve been tracking the key words that are associated with water events – drought, spill, river etc. We have pulled articles dating back to 2003 and that also mention any S&P 500 company, and then comparing market reactions to these events, both positive and negative. We have found that a company’s prior reputation is the main moderator. If a company already has a good solid reputation and then it does something negative, then the effect isn’t as bad. But if you start out with a lower reputation, then impact is worse. The research shows empirically that corporate water actions matter for financial performance.
In terms of business and society, what are you hoping to achieve through the work that you do?
I just want to improve the quality of the conversation. I want there to be more conversation about environmental issues, and for that conversation to be more informed. I want to give people the language and the empirical information to make their arguments.
I wouldn’t describe myself as intrinsically “green”, but I got a job working on an environmental management research project in 1995. Andrew Millington, who was my PhD supervisor and a previous Director of CBOS, was leading on the project, and back then there weren’t that many people talking about green issues in business schools. Andrew and I identified that it was a research area with huge potential and a field that was wide open for original research. It was a bit lonely at the beginning, but now it’s become an important subject in many business schools.
It’s now completely acceptable to talk about the sustainability dimensions of any decision. Most senior people in organisations and in policy-making know what the Sustainable Development Goals are. Sustainability commitments are part of corporate strategy. There is of course a need to move more quickly, the sense of urgency is lacking, but we’re miles ahead now compared to when I started out in the mid-1990s.
Who has been your biggest inspiration or influence?
I’m always looking to the people 3 or 4 years ahead of me, to see where I can go next. In terms of academics, I really admire Tima Bansal for her high quality research outputs and the work she’s done in building networks like the Network for Business Sustainability. I have recently worked on a paper with her and I really enjoyed it – it was great that after talking about working together for many years, we finally did.
If you weren’t an academic, what would you be?
I’ve probably gone too far now to do anything else – I’ve passed the point of no return! But if I was going to do anything else I’d like to be a policy advisor. I previously held an ESRC fellowship at DEFRA and I worked in Whitehall for 9 months. I really enjoyed that. Apart from that, I’d love to be a professional choral conductor!
What’s the best thing about what you do now?
It’s different every day. I work with very smart people, even though I don’t always agree with them. In my current role, I really appreciate the immediacy of being able to make changes and that I can help other people.
What advice would you give to someone who wants an academic career?
First, get your PhD. And then it’s a bit of dilemma – you do need to focus on one thing and get really good at it. But it’s also important to experiment. It’s good to develop expertise, but you shouldn’t be afraid of exploring the edges of that and seeing where that takes you.