We need a new voice in the debate about business and society

Posted in: Business and society


In our increasingly polarised times, there is fervent debate over whether business is a force for good or bad in our societies. We believe it is high time that university researchers took a more active role in this debate, providing much needed evidence to inform popular opinion. To do so, we need to speak in a new voice, say Veronica Hope Hailey and Andrew Crane.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So starts Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities, a book which describes in stark comparison the cities of Paris and London at the time of the French Revolution. Today, we too live in divided times. We are divided politically, geographically, culturally, into the skilled and unskilled, the 99% and the 1%. Is your daily working life about Sports Direct or Goldman Sachs? About desperate migration or upward economic mobility? About zero hours contracts or business class flights?

Your answer to these questions will also undoubtedly inform your opinion about whether globalisation is a good thing or not and about whether business is largely to blame for many of the ills of the world. It will also colour your views on whether “sustainable business” is simply a hopelessly optimistic oxymoron or a genuinely realistic prospect in the coming decades. But these are not just matters of opinion. Behind the answers to these questions lie important empirical facts that can meaningfully shape the path we take.

What is clear, however, is that in times of uncertainty, trust becomes more important. But in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and never-ending corporate and political scandals, public confidence has been profoundly destabilised. The result has been a breakdown in trust in government, business, and so-called experts more generally - and a seeming turn to a “post-truth” society where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Irrespective of whether you believe we are really heading down a post-truth path, the message for those of us who might claim some degree of expert knowledge in the debate about business and society is clear. We cannot simply expect to be a trusted source of knowledge. And, to inform opinion, we need to do things differently from how we have in the past.

Most of us in the academic world are in our comfort zone when doing our research and speaking about it to our fellow scholars. A lot of our research is impenetrable to even an informed layperson. Even when it is not, our publications are usually locked behind the paywalls of academic publishers.

Too rarely do we actively bring our knowledge out to the world in a way that truly engages with non-academic audiences. And when we do, the results are sometimes catastrophic. As one recent article put it, “business schools play a significant role in reproducing the values, skills and mindset of much of what is wrong with contemporary capitalism, such as opportunism, greed, a focus on shareholder maximisation, and economic short-termism.”

Things are beginning to change. Our research suggests that the movement to embed sustainability in business school teaching and research is making progress. The Conversation is leading the way in bringing journalistic style to academic research. But in terms of accessible research specifically on business and society, we still have a long way to go. There remains a clear need for a trustworthy source of credible research to inform decisions about how business can best contribute to a sustainable society.

With the launch of the Bath Business and Society blog, we want to bring a new voice to this debate. In fact, we believe that the Bath School of Management is uniquely positioned to bring not just one new voice but a whole range of new voices. Our aim is to inform the conversation in a variety of ways through a variety of lenses. A focus on business and society is a core value of our school and nearly one third of our faculty do remarkable, world-class research addressing this theme.  Our students too, inspired and informed by our research, are impassioned, future leaders, looking to make a difference in the world.

Over the coming months, then, our faculty and students will be drawing on their unique vantage points to bring fresh insight and new knowledge to the debate about business and society. Whether it is climate change, fair trade, inequality, modern slavery, boardroom diversity, food waste, or employee wellbeing, they will have something novel, interesting, and informed to say.  And if they say it in enough different ways, maybe at least something will stick with our post-truth audience out there. Time will tell.


Header image by Ann Roth under licence CC BY 2.0




Posted in: Business and society


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  • Great to learn about this attempt to bridge the gap between academia and wider society - wishing you well with it, and looking forward to reading the results.

    P.s nice lucid 'journalistic' style to kick off with - although opening with Tale of Two Cities' quote & ending with 'Time will tell' may be veering a bit too close to Fleet Street cliché, methinks

    • Thanks for the positive response Oliver - and for the friendly criticism too! We should hire you as our subeditor!

  • Might it not be that 'climate change, fair trade, inequality, modern slavery, boardroom diversity, food waste, or employee wellbeing' are simply the latest uncritical group-think replacements for 'opportunism, greed, a focus on shareholder maximisation, and economic short-termism' in a less confident age?

    The University of Bath's, Head of Psychology, Professor Greg Maio's work: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/attitude-check/201702/what-do-we-do-when-our-reasons-seem-weak may be apposite in that regards.

    You want a debate that's lucid and accessible to the public domain? How about this for starters: http://www.cityam.com/article/why-so-called-corporate-social-responsibility-not-answer-our-problems

    • Thanks Bill. I completely agree that short termism, shareholder value maximisation, greed etc are an integral part of this discussion. How climate change, inequality etc can be a "replacement" for such considerations I don't really see. You certainly can't address the latter without the former though.
      As for CSR, I have a lot of sympathy with your perspective. But without an appropriate evidence base it can be seen as just another opinion. One of the things we are trying to do with the blog is provide a stronger link between credible research and effective storytelling so that we can better inform key debates like this one about CSR.

  • Good to see that Bath School of Management has recognised that it can make a real contribution to the sustainability debate. I have been waiting since my MBA graduation in 2003 to see the school recognise that it has both the knowledge and the duty to shake the system.

    • Thanks for the comment Gordon. Yes, the school is late to the game, but there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm behind this now, so we are excited to get moving

      • Andrew, that is good to hear. The presentation by Paul Polman and panellists hosted by the school as part of Bath at 50, chaired by yourselves was geniously inspiring. University of Bath SoM has both the status and the depth to become a front runner in this debate.
        It urgently needs some fresh, platitude free, business focussed thinking. Sustainability is ultimately about our species making a better job of surviving. The designation of Anthropocene should be a wake up call to us literally of planetary proportions. As an ecologist/business 'thinker' I could go on.
        I look forward to reading more.