Monday, December 29, 2014

Behavioural Science in a Management School

The results of the assessment exercise that occurs in the UK every 5 years or so to assess the quality of research being conducted in universities came out before Christmas. You are either very familiar with or, if not, type "Research Excellence Framework" into google or twitter and it will give you a feel for it. Our Management School did well  with a wide proposal with over 40 academics across areas such as retail studies, environmental economics, labour economics, accounting, culture and marketing, social marketing and behavioural science. Our ranking went to 25/26 from 101 places submitting compared to 48 from 90 in the previous round. There are numerous critiques of REF but the basic data confirms there is at very least a substantial body of research being carried out here that stands up to an extra external review (on top of journal peer review) and the result is basically good news for our students and academics.

One thing we are particularly keen on stressing in the research centre is that we are part of a Management School and it is worth discussing this a lot more in 2015.  Part of my role in the School since 2011 has been to act as "Director of Research" which can feel like an odd role to be honest but means I spend a lot of time reading funding proposals, being on hiring committees, reviewing ethics and various other things and this has given me an interesting perspective across all aspects of a Management School.

The first thing is to stress is that disciplinary location is not everything. Individual academics form networks nationally and internationally through many different mechanisms and the extent of internal collaboration varies massively by academic and institution. However, the disciplinary background that a centre like this emerges from will impact on things like ability to provide different types of programme and the many very practical things when forming a research group such as being able to have well-attended seminars, attracting staff and students, being aligned to hiring objectives and on, a basic level, the type of corridor talk that potentially leads to new ideas and collaborations.

One obvious place to develop a behavioural science centre would be in a Psychology or Economics department, with the main advantage being the tie to a core discipline. In our case, one of our four divisions is an Economics division and is linked to the wider Scottish network with obvious advantages on that side. A key naturally emerging aspect of the link to Economics is the distinction between some people who view their PhD as being Economics and some who explicitly want to be viewed as conducting a Behavioural Science PhD with the lines often being reasonably clear and often blurred. On the psychology side, several of our group are psychologists and collaborate extensively with people in psychology departments. There is definitely a lot of interesting discussion about the difference between a behavioural science centre in a Management School and a Psychology department which has specialist applied areas. There are also many collaborative possibilities and we have certainly been collaborating a lot in this regard.

I think there are a number of interesting advantages to being located in a management school. There are obviously many well-worked out examples of this in top US business/management schools (see links to many of them here) where behavioural economics is rapidly becoming part of the status quo. In the UK, places like Warwick, Nottingham, and East Anglia have built concentrations in this area and there are now a number of MSc and PhD programmes (including our own) being offered through Management/Business Schools.  In our case, we have four key academic divisions in our School: Marketing/Retail, Accounting, Economics and Management. All four disciplines are fertile ground for interesting applications of behavioural economics and we are starting to see several MSc and even PhD students developing interests that bring behavioural insights into these areas. We also have a number of research centres including: on the future of Scotland and the UK in the context of the referendum and post-referendum; an Institute for Retail Studies; a Centre for Consumers and Culture; a Centre on Surveillance and Privacy; and are building new centres in aging, applied micro, employment and sustainable business. Cross-over research and supervision between research centres (and even just basic corridor talk) is one of the things that is potentially exciting about developing a behavioural research centre in a management school. It is hard to go a week without seeing something that could develop into a worthwhile and interesting project in this regard. Some of our existing students are working on behavioural aspects of financial products, behavioural economics and Human Resources and several other projects. I have had a lot of discussions this year with students and potential students interested in things like the behavioural economics of privacy or town planning and I think there is a lot of potential to develop more cross-over projects.

One of the key advantages of being in a Management School is we are basically teaching hundreds of future managers every year. One exciting thing for me has always been the idea that behavioural science injects a lot of humanity into the training of Management students. It encourages a critical understanding of how human beings behave and, in particular, encourages a very keen eye on the details of how organisations work in terms of communication, interfaces and many other aspects that can subtly influence behaviour and outcomes. Taught well I think it also encourages a real appreciation of ethical issues in influencing behaviour and also a good sense of where regulation is going at least in places like the UK and US in the next few years. There are plenty of other ways in which management courses cultivate these aspects but behavioural science feels like a real addition to these. One of the courses I will be teaching from January is called "Behavioural Science for Managers" and will be offered for the first time across all the School. I regularly get emails from students going back to when I started teaching versions of these courses in 2007 to psychology and economics students about how they have applied some of the ideas. It will be interesting to see how they are taken on by 100s of management and business students. We are also actively discussing how other modules we have developed specifically just for Behavioural Science students are relevant across many areas of management and these are some of the most stimulating discussions I have had since coming here.

It would be good to talk more in 2015 about the evolution of a behavioural research centre in the context of a Management School and what potential opportunities that opens up for research and teaching and I hope the above gets the ball rolling.

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