Writing an online column lets me impact management practice, develop new research ideas, and sharpen my writing for academic publications. I’m not “selling out.”
Dr. Tima Bansal is Founding Director of the Network for Business Sustainability and Professor at the Ivey Business School.
I recently started writing a column for Forbes.com, targeted to managers. Our fabulous NBS editor, Maya Fischhoff, asked me why, especially since she knows that most business schools do not recognize such work. In fact, writing articles for the popular press is often disdained by business school academics. They see such writing as selling out, as pandering to the masses, as taking the easy way. After all, it’s faster, easier and more fun to write something for the popular press, than the gruelling, back-breaking, often demoralizing, work of research publications. I often don’t even mention the column to my academic colleagues.
Instead of responding to Maya privately about why I write for Forbes.com and what I have learned, I decided to share my thoughts publicly. Much of what I say here may not be new to most readers, but these are important conversations and voicing my thoughts may help to provoke more conversation.
Why I contribute to Forbes
I am deep into my third decade of researching sustainability. I founded the Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) 18 years ago because I believed in mind and soul that we needed research and practice to inform each other for economic development to be sustainable. I saw the opportunity that Forbes provided to write periodic online columns as a way of further bridging the gap between research and practice. My hope was not simply to write as a manager would write, but to add a different perspective, much like my academic peers who write columns, including Bob Eccles, Chris Marquis, and Thomas Roulet.
Many academics want to work more closely with managers, but recognize that doing so is not rewarded by their business schools. Academics are rewarded by the number of publications in top-tier academic journals. Publishing in these journals is hard — sometimes taking as long as 10 years for a single article to go from an idea to a published article. Most academics just don’t have time to write for the popular press.
What’s more, academic writing takes so much mindspace — collecting data, sitting long hours in front of a computer analyzing the data, reading others’ often dense writing, and belabouring the precision of each sentence we write. Many of us cannot switch easily between this academic work with its own language and writing for a more mainstream audience.
I am now a tenured full professor, so am less concerned by institutional incentives than I was earlier in my career. I have always cared about impact, but now even more, with the screeching importance of sustainability issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. If academics want to impact practice, they cannot wait for the long publication cycles to share knowledge.
When I write for Forbes.com, I can tackle questions of the day and answer them quickly. And, I hope that I can offer a different perspective than what is being repeated in the popular press.
For example, when I was considering the impending electric car revolution, I started with a puzzle that was on my mind: where do all the cars with combustion engines go to die. But after I looked into it, I realized that the real sustainability challenge is that electric car manufacturers were retaining the ‘right to repair.’ 83% of cars with internal combustion engines are reused or recycled, but electric car manufacturers keep the right to fix the car, as do many computer and cell phone manufacturers. That means consumers either pay a high cost to repair or find it cheaper to buy a new car. And, talking about impact: my key informant was asked to join a national policy committee evaluating the right to repair, soon after my article was published.
Or, when I was analyzing the carbon commitments of the top 50 firms listed on the S&P 500, I was surprised to find only two organizations that hadn’t made carbon commitments: Tesla and Berkshire Hathaway. This sent me down a rabbit hole to learn more about Tesla’s environmental policies, which was the basis of this article that Tesla may not be as green as I thought it was. More people have read this article than have read many of my research papers.
What I have learned from writing for Forbes.com
To answer Maya’s question directly about what have I learned, here are some insights.
Writing for a business audience requires leading with the main point, rather than burying it. I have had to rewire my writing brain. Not only does the language need to be lighter and less jargony, I need to lead with the main point. Too often, I include too many points in an article, which dulls the main point. What’s more, I tend to provide the evidence before revealing the main point. Managerial audiences will only care about the evidence if they know first what its point is.
Writing for a business audience requires finding contemporary, but not too newsy, issues. I need to find good topics to write about — they need to be catchy, yet not just the current passing obsession. When I wrote about Big Pharma waiving patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines or the big wins of climate activists against Exxon and Shell, the readership of these stories faded fast, because the events surrounding them came and went. I need to find issues that are interesting to the public and will endure beyond an event.
Writing for a business audience requires thinking about how “edgy” a topic is – whether readers are “ready” for it. (And sometimes, only some readers will be ready.) The hardest part of writing for Forbes.com is finding an issue that pushes thinking, yet isn’t too unfamiliar or novel. I wrote a story about what business can learn from an Indigenous worldview. I believe this story is one of the most important I’ve written, yet it has received relatively little attention. If I stay in the mainstream, I merely enter an echo chamber. If I step too far out, fewer people cast their gaze on the story. I knew when I wrote this story that it would likely receive less attention than one about Tesla or Amazon, but I believed that these stories need to be written and will slowly start to shape public discourse.
Writing for the popular press has made me a better academic writer
In writing for Forbes.com, I need to use clear, active writing. Sentences are shorter and I am relying less on ‘therefores’ and ‘howevers.’ I find that some of this discipline is starting to enter my academic writing. I still use jargon in academic writing, which needs to be precise and logical. But, I do not need to make the writing quite so turgid and tortured. Forbes.com has taught me to let go of some of the heaviness of academic discourse.
Writing for the popular press has seeded new research ideas
Writing for Forbes.com has been energizing. It’s been wonderful to write about contemporary issues of the day. It’s sharpened my ability to see what’s interesting in the world around me. It’s like learning to draw, and seeing lines and light like they’ve not been seen before. And, some of what I see now has stimulated potential research ideas.
For example, I was trying to understand how carbon offsets worked after I spoke to a farmer about them. In the process, I learned that not all carbon offsets are the same. Some offsets are simply transactions and can be easily manipulated. Others regenerate nature and require long-term relationships. The mechanisms and outcomes associated with these two types of offsets are worthy of deeper research. I imagine I could even research more deeply the theoretical differences between these two types of offsets and the differing outcomes.
Writing for Forbes.com has taught me to be mindful of the issues that matter – not just to academics, but also to a wider public.
Business schools should reward the integration of research and impact
I am part of a chorus of people who believe that business schools need to reward impact. Ideally, business schools would still reward top tier research, which forces disciplined thinking, but they would also find ways to encourage faculty members to engage in public discourse. In doing so, business schools would attract faculty members who are deeply engaged in issues that matter to business and society.
There is clearly a trend in this direction, especially as academic accreditation bodies, such as AACSB, are valuing impact on society. As well, some business schools, such as the Ross Business School at the University of Michigan and King’s College London, are starting to value not just research publications but research impact.
The gap between research and practice remains far too wide, but there are increasingly more bridges being built. Thank goodness! Our planet and its peoples need everyone, from multiple perspectives, to work together to tackle our grand challenges.
Continuing the Conversation
About the Author
Tima Bansal is a Professor of Strategy at the Ivey Business School. She is also affiliated with the University of Cambridge, MIT, and Monash University. Tima is the Founder of the Network for Business Sustainability. She also heads the Ivey Innovation Learning Lab, which helps businesses create value for themselves and society simultaneously over the long term. Tima chairs the Canadian Council of Academies Expert Panel on the Circular Economy and sits on the Boards of the United Nation’s Principles for Responsible Education and the Academy of Management.