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Imagining a Better Future: How Management Research Can Address Societal Grand Challenges

Date:12 February 2024
Associate Professor Marvin Hanisch
Associate Professor Marvin Hanisch

In the face of significant societal and environmental challenges, the imperative to reevaluate and adjust prevailing social norms and practices is becoming increasingly apparent. A recent article featured in the Journal of Management Studies by Marvin Hanisch , Associate Professor at FEB, underscores the importance of integrating prescriptive studies into management research to drive positive change. Departing from a current emphasis on understanding the existing status quo, this approach involves envisioning how the world “should be” and developing strategies to achieve those goals.

Focus on the Status Quo

We are currently facing myriad societal challenges, such as those related to climate change, increasing migration, aging populations, and rising geopolitical tensions. Addressing these challenges often requires a radical departure from current social practices. Such transformative shifts inherently pose the normative question of “what the goal should be” and the instrumental question of “how it can be achieved.” For instance, how should corporations respond to climate change threats and what actions are needed? How should corporate boards prioritize and implement diversity goals? While tackling these issues is crucial for managerial practice, current management research often overlooks such questions, focusing instead on understanding the status quo rather than envisioning how the world could or should be and how this ideal can be achieved. This is a critical oversight because management plays a crucial role in initiating and facilitating required change processes in organizations.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Management Studies, Marvin Hanisch argues that a stronger consideration of prescriptive studies—namely, the thoughtful justification of appropriate goals and strategies to achieve them—can significantly contribute to addressing grand challenges. In following a prescriptive approach, scholars take a prospective view on social behavior to actively elicit or produce desired outcomes. Prescriptive theorizing pursues the ambitious goal of guiding social behavior. In the context of climate change, for example, prescriptive theorizing can offer the necessary normative impetus and instrumental guidance for prioritizing, directing, and promoting an organization’s climate initiatives while considering competing goals. Similarly, in digital transformation, prescriptive theorizing can offer insights into issues such as artificial intelligence (AI) governance frameworks and implementation strategies, going beyond mere descriptions of corporate current practices.

Hanisch cautions that any form of prescription is naturally subject to competing interests and that positive intentions might still result in negative consequences. To avoid naive prescriptions, the paper proposes a practical framework towards making norms more defensible and instruments applicable to the complex social interdependencies that exist in many organizational contexts.

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Prescriptive theorizing

Establishing and justifying goals

The establishment of a goal and its rigorous substantiation and justification frequently involves navigating the intricacies of harmonizing conflicting interests, assessing the consequences for stakeholders, and defining the scope of applicability. Particularly concerning grand challenges, where complex demands often compete and partially clash, managers and organizations find themselves in situations where prioritization, management, and the acceptance of tensions are essential.

In general, the justification of goals involves three critical issues, namely, social acceptability, implications, and contextualization. First, goals must be socially acceptable, which means that they should resonate with a broader audience. Second, goals need to be evaluated against their potential implications for various stakeholders. Finally, goals necessitate contextualization, as they may relate to specific situations and contexts.

The first way to assess a goal is with consensual reasoning. A useful strategy for sharpening a consensual logic is to think through opposites and evaluate, in each case, who would agree (or disagree) with the goal. Oppositional thinking can help uncover the relevant stakeholders, advantages, and disadvantages of a given goal.

In addition to employing a consensus-based approach for evaluating prescriptive goals, scholars can also embrace the application of consequentialist reasoning. This approach involves assessing the potential consequences of pursuing a specific goal, constructing plausible scenarios, and evaluating whether the outcomes would be deemed acceptable by those affected.

A third approach to assessing prescriptive goals is comparative reasoning. Although the general idea of comparative reasoning is to identify similar contexts, theorists can benefit from comparing contexts that greatly differ, known as contrastive analysis.

For illustration, assume a theorist aims to challenge the implicit organizational emphasis on ‘efficiency’ in favor of ‘resilience’ in light of disruptive trends such as climate change. Initially, the theorist establishes common ground by building on prior work that underscores the value of resilience amid internal and external pressures. In doing so, the theorist leverages consensual reasoning to support resilience as an organizational goal. Employing consequentialist reasoning, the theorist argues that a lack of resilience can lead to severe consequences, imperiling long-term organizational survival.

Justifying the means

The second step in prescriptive theorizing involves defining and justifying the means to an end. The evaluation of the proposed instruments is the most critical aspect, especially in a field such as the social sciences, where their suitability is not just a matter of mechanical functioning but also of appropriateness. In the context of prescriptive theorizing, the question of ‘what needs to be done’ calls for a thoughtful exploration of alternatives, aiming to suggest well-considered means to an end. To structure this assessment process, Hanisch discusses and expands on the criteria which instruments must meet to be defensible: effectiveness, viability, efficiency, and proportionality. With effectiveness and viability being the necessary conditions and efficiency and proportionality representing the supportive conditions.

The integration of prescriptive theorizing into mainstream scholarship offers a novel perspective on addressing grand challenges. Hanisch: “Rather than simply looking back at problems and understanding them retrospectively, there is an opportunity to proactively shape social processes toward desirable goals and define appropriate actions. Management scholars can play a pivotal role in advancing the discourse on critical issues: Whether it is the role of corporations in social movements, platform regulation, or the climate debate, their expertise can make a profound difference. For instance, it seems crucial that management scholars engage in debates around the establishment of AI governance practices rather than simply observing how large corporations implement such solutions retrospectively. Similarly, management scholars can develop frameworks for sustainability practices in corporations.”