Business schools have been criticised for decades for lacking relevance in their teaching and research. And for good reason in some cases. However new research shows that the disconnect is hardly their fault alone, and Simon Linacre argues that now is the time for business schools to lead the way for all social science research in recognising co-creation and cyclical approaches.

In their now seminal piece in Harvard Business Review in 2005, Bennis and O’Toole seemed to touch a real nerve in their assertion that business schools had lost their way, and lacked the ‘courage’ of other professional schools in medicine and law to define the standards that would benefit their professional students. When the article was published, I had been with Emerald Publishing for just over a year, but its effect seemed seismic. As a publisher with over 100 business and management journals at the time, we took it very seriously, and reflected on what it might mean for business schools, many of whom were our customers. How should we develop our journals to meet the new demands that might come our way?

In truth, the article did not seem to change anything at first. However, in the last dozen years the business school industry has seen gradual, but nevertheless major, changes. Enhancements to accreditation processes, government demands such as impact case studies in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework and initiatives like EFMD GN and FNEGE’s Business School Impact System (BSIS) have all made business schools more relevant, but without changing the some of the major drivers in play that disincentivise academics from building greater impact from their research and teaching.

Frustration at this lack of movement and aware of the role played by publishers in this stasis, Emerald commissioned some original research in 2017 from Research Consulting, which was published in November in a white paper titled The business of impact: does anyone use management research?. Emerald did this to firstly prove that the relevance gap was there, and secondly to get some clues about what could be done about it. That there is a gap is quite clear – for example, a whopping 97% of academics feel their research has some sort of relevance outside academia, but only a third feel incentivised enough to actually engage with practitioners. What came through loud and clear is that while there is ample opportunity on both sides to engage, the structures in place actively prevent this happening.

So, can anything be done? There are many ideas starting to take shape in the white paper, and there is a good deal of excitement and resolve at Emerald to start working on these in the coming months and years. To take just one idea, changing the dynamics of how research is conducted, rewarded and indeed published with co-creation as the new model is a paradigm shift that would close the gap quickly. This won’t be easy, but making research more relevant may mean switching from a linear model of knowledge transfer to a more cyclical one of ‘knowledge mobilisation’. In other words, relevant business and management research should develop from an acute awareness and recognition of the real world context, which is more likely to be built through co-creation.

Put simply, the more researchers see the problems affecting professionals, the more their research questions will be relevant for practice. Do this, and the seismic shift started by Bennis and O’Toole may yet shake us all from our beds.