21 Jul 2020 20:16 IST

B-school research must document challenges and their impact on society

With the pandemic underlining global interdependence, working to solve common problems is in focus

Research is the core activity of any business school. The primary task of an academic is to create knowledge. Teaching, training and consultancy are spin-offs from research, and provide the means to make the knowledge thus created relevant and useful to others. In recent years, there has been a renewed thrust on research in business schools to meet compliance norms and accreditation criteria.

The research output of an institute, measured primarily through publication of books and research papers in highly ranked peer reviewed journals, is an important parameter in ranking the institute nationally and globally. Moreover, it is only through research that a faculty member gets to carve a niche within the knowledge domain and gain respect and recognition in the professional world. So it is not only quality and quantity of research output but also consistency that becomes important. Knowledge creation is a cumulative process, in which a researcher consistently builds upon past work, both of one’s own as well as of their peers.

Expanding the research output of a business school needs to be of high priority as it brings enormous rewards to the faculty and the business school. This creates more opportunities as it draws new consultancy assignments, training and collaboration experiences. It adds to the visibility of the business school and builds its brand image overall.

Never before has the need for research and innovation in business schools been considered as important as during this Covid-19 pandemic, which has shown up starkly the interdependence of a globalised world. The period after the 1990s saw greater flows of goods, materials and resources across nations. Though we understood globalisation to be primarily an economic phenomenon, it was as much a political, social and cultural one. This was highlighted by the way the coronavirus contagion spread.

Multiple hazards, stresses

The first wave of Covid-19 victims comprised the urban elite: the middle-class Indians who returned from abroad and passed on the infection to kith and kin.

Over time, the number of vulnerable Indians has steadily grown. The vulnerability to the pandemic is measured both by elements of exposure and coping capacity. The most vulnerable are those who are high on exposure but low on coping capacity. This includes frontline workers — health workers, police personnel, security guards — or, as they are referred to in the parlance of public policy, the street-level bureaucracy. Because of the nature of their work, their exposure to the virus is high. Generally hailing from socially and economically lower strata of society, their coping capacity — ability to deal with the pandemic when affected by it — is also low.

The pandemic strikes us in the backdrop of other pressing concerns facing humanity, notably climate change, from which it has diverted public attention. What society has to deal with now is the cumulative effects of multiple hazards and stresses: in the last few weeks, we heard news of earthquakes, hurricanes, urban flooding and locust attacks, as they all competed with the pandemic for space in the media.

This creates multiple challenges in building adaptive capacity and lowering disaster risk. In case of a potential disaster striking a city, evacuation efforts now have to take cognisance of social distancing norms as well, adding to the complexity of the challenge.

Role of B-schools

B-schools need to support and steer research efforts to document these processes and create a better understanding of their impacts on business and society. This may call for partnering with civil society organisations and other actors who require knowledge support in understanding and measuring the impact of these changes and building affected communities’ capacities to deal with them.

Covid hotspots are located in urban centres, such as Gurgaon, Hyderabad and Bangalore, that are important hubs of all business activity in the country, and the expansion of which happened in response to neo-liberal, economic reform policies. Many people who support economic activity in these cities live in clusters characterised by high population density and poor access to civic amenities.

At the same time, any efforts that B-schoolsmake to reduce people’s vulnerability to the pandemic require innovation in e-learning and pedagogy. Teaching is a joint intellectual journey between the teacher and the disciple, and requires a constant exchange of thoughts and experiences. B-schools have been quick to switch to online modes of teaching, and the experience has been positive overall.

Some things are, of course, missed out: the personal touch of classroom learning — the ability of the teacher to gauge the ambience of the class through facial expressions of the students, or even to bring a seemingly wandering mind back to the class! This calls for pedagogical innovation to allow cross-learning and engagement in an online mode. The challenge is to be socially and intellectually bonded, while remaining physically distanced.

(The writer is Professor, Public Policy and Governance, MDI Gurgaon.)