01 Dec 2017
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The Changing Nature of Research


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Professor Raffaella Sadun

The commitment to advancing thought leadership has been integral to HBS’s identity since the School’s founding more than a century ago. Over the past decade, HBS faculty members have been employing an ever-widening array of research methodologies, and are now conducting field work using data mining, people analytics, crowdsourced solutions, and longitudinal studies, among other approaches, to address business and society’s greatest challenges.

“We continually aspire to be both rigorous and relevant. That’s the promise of HBS,” says Jan Rivkin, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration and senior associate dean for research. “The world’s problems are becoming increasingly complex and no longer lend themselves to a single method of research.”

Innovative for its time, HBS’s first field study—conducted in 1911 by the School’s Bureau of Business Research—comprised a comparative examination of the costs of operating a retail shoe business. The resulting report helped companies devise strategies to manage inventories, increase profits, and cut waste. Today, more than 30 faculty members are engaged in extensive field experiments, often facilitated by HBS’s network of global research centers and offices.

Professor Karim Lakhani conducts field experiments using crowdsourcing—online networks of external problem solvers—to help engineer solutions to difficult innovation dilemmas. “Technology is helping us amass more data, faster and cheaper, so that we can make better decisions in real time, micro-targeted to a consumer or a patient,” he explains. For her multiyear study, Raffaella Sadun, the Thomas S. Murphy Associate Professor of Business Administration, interviewed managers at some 10,000 organizations in 20 countries to examine why management practices differ across nations, industries, and companies. And Robert S. Kaplan, senior fellow and the Marvin Bower Professor of Leadership Development, Emeritus, employs what he calls “action research” in his on-site work with more than 100 health care centers to lower the cost of health care delivery.

The ability of faculty members to study business issues that are relevant and that resonate with their intellectual passions, unencumbered by the need to apply for grants, is a rarity in academia. “Without the internal support our faculty receive for research, we wouldn’t have the insight to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. It enables us to tap into new methodologies and develop ideas that have power in practice,” says Rivkin. “HBS has an ambitious intellectual agenda, and I believe, in many ways, the most exciting years of research at the School lie ahead.”

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