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What Is the Role of International Business Researchers?

March 14th, 2018

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A conversation with Alain Verbeke about how the international business research community should adapt to today’s global context. 

*The opinions expressed are the personal opinions of the interviewee and not of the Fox School of Business.

In late 2017, the Fox School of Business hosted the Academy of International Business U.S. Northeast Conference. For the second consecutive year, scholars from around the world—this year, there were representatives from 32 countries—met at Alter Hall to examine and discuss the most pressing issues facing the international business community.

The keynote speaker was Alain Verbeke, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of International Business Studies (JIBS), who talked about corporate globalization and what it means for international business researchers. We connected with Verbeke after the conference to discuss these issues further.

What’s the biggest challenge JIBS, and international business researchers as a whole, now face?

I see JIBS as the last intellectual barrier against the hordes trying to destroy the vestiges of globalization. One problem is that most of the defenders of globalization have a self-interest in globalization. For example, the CEOs of large multinational enterprises want maximum freedom for their firms. Academics who do speak out in favor, are mostly economists, political scientists, and geographers who do not talk to managers of firms. That is what JIBS does—talk to firms. You can’t say anything reasonable about globalization if you don’t know what’s happening at the firm level. And our role is becoming more important in this new global context where the anti-globalization forces are clearly gaining momentum and power.

I don’t like to use the phrase “fake news,” but when we’re talking about the cost and benefits of globalization, there’s an enormous amount of fake news that literally crowds out what is factually correct in terms of the great benefits that typically accrue to countries involved in international exchange. This is a big problem JIBS addresses.

How do you cut through the noise with more reasonable arguments?

Unfortunately, people see problems in their community and they blame others for them. I call this “the new geography of discontent.” Basically, people blame some individual or group or set of people—preferably those who don’t look like them—for all the problems happening in their community. Easily, one third of people in any community—whether rightly or wrongly, or based on fake news or real news—is aligning with populist movements. There’s a renewed, built-in reflex that says, “Nation first.” One positive element that may come from this is more awareness in policy circles about the adjustment costs that will need to be addressed after freer trade deals, freer investment deals, and freer movement of human capital.

What can policy makers do to adjust for the actual detrimental aspects of globalization?

What has been neglected in the past are the forgotten men and women of trade deals. Globalization has led to outcomes that benefit consumers, but also trigger concentrated job losses and vicious cycles of de-clustering. One positive outcome of populist movements may be that the mainstream parties with common sense will think more carefully about how to deal with those dynamic adjustment costs, and how to anticipate them and how to avoid creating unfortunate reservoirs of forgotten people. Workers need to be retrained, re-tooled, and reintegrated into the economy. That doesn’t mean a former steelworker will tomorrow be operating robots, but other things can be done for those individuals and groups. Policy makers must think about what resources are needed to help with each transition.

What’s the role of academic business researchers in all this?

The anti-globalists often turn to that maligned presence of global firms and the supposedly malevolent processes of corporate globalization. The way I see it is that these critics are attacking imaginary enemies—they’re the equivalent of Don Quixote, who said to Sancho Panza, “Look at these monstrous giants, we’re going to defeat them.” But they were looking at windmills. We must teach the Don Quixotes and the Donald Trumps of the world—it is quite interesting how similar their names are, isn’t it? —that it’s not wise, when you have limited time and resources, to attack windmills. This is the responsibility of the international business research community.

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