Dialogue: Can Business Scholars Make a Difference in the World?

By Stephan Manning.

How relevant is academic research for practice? How much real-world impact can or should scholars generate? What is the value of abstract theory especially in a highly practical field such as business and management? For years, scholars and journalists have debated these questions. Examples include articles by Nick Kristof in the New York Times on the need for more #engagedacademics, and by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker on the ‘academic nature’ of academic writing. We also debated the under-utilized potential of academia in driving social change in a previous post on the OSC blog. In fact, there is a whole sub-discipline within management research entirely dedicated to better understanding the interaction between academia and practice. But what has been the outcome of this? Is research today more relevant than in the past? Can business scholars make a difference in the world?

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In my recent article “How to free business scholars from their ivory tower chains”, which was published by The Conversation, I am skeptical about this. I argue that especially the U.S. academic system is ‘flawed by design’. Whereas in other countries, such as the UK and Germany, business research tends to be much more integrated with teaching and practice, in the U.S. certain historical developments have made communication between academia and practice more difficult. These include the push towards making management research more ‘scientific’; the disconnect between undergraduate and PhD teaching; and the narrow definition of scholarly ‘success’ in terms of being able to publish in top-ranked academic journals that no real-world decision-maker reads. Dennis Tourish argues in his recent post in Times Higher Education that especially academic journal rankings further widen the gap between ‘rigor’ and ‘relevance’. For example, according to Tourish, none of the elite academic journals in management have dealt with the 2008 banking meltdown in a substantial way. Instead they continue – in their pursuit of ‘theoretically valuable’ contributions – largely self-referential debates with little relevance outside academia. I thus proposed in my article that bridging the gap between research and practice may require a broader take on measuring ‘academic impact’, but also more diverse funding to stimulate relevance, and new graduate bridging programs to better link research to real-world problems. Also, I argue that especially second-tier schools can take a lead in this transition.

I received a lot of insightful and partly critical comments on my article. I would like to address some of those in order to spark further debate.

For example, Tim Devinney argues that “it’s simply not true [that] scholars who do all that meaningless journal publishing are little more than narrow minded nerds who do not interact with corporates across a range of dimensions”. In fact, many scholars do have broader agendas and are able to communicate to practitioners. “Obviously, the best scholars are those that can do everything (teach, research and play in practice). However, life is not perfect and institutions need to make trade-offs.” He might be right, but is that the simple truth? Should we just rely on the few exceptional scholars who ‘do everything’? What about the majority of especially junior scholars who follow the rules of the academic system, which arguably pushes the journal publishing game while discouraging from, for example, writing potentially influential books or engaging with the ‘rest of the world’ in meaningful ways?

It seems to be a rather institutional problem. However, David Levy points out that maintaining some distance between academia and practice might be necessary. Because, while being in touch with the real world is important, there is a danger of turning business research into a vehicle solely ‘serving the interests’ of business practitioners. He argues: “Indeed, management and business are often identified with hierarchy and inequality, so business schools can be viewed as serving the narrow interests of managerial elites and stockholders.” He further points out that, “As academics, it is our job to think – and theorize – about the role of business and other organizations in society, how they function and also create dysfunction, how they reproduce inequalities in power, status, and income, how they generate our identities as workers, managers, consumers, as gendered and raced subjects, etc.”

So, reflection is important! But how does that translate into a real-world impact? One way to achieve both – make research more relevant and accessible and help decision-makers reflect on their own practice – may be through more integrated teaching and degree programs. John Crest for example asks, “Isn’t this why we have MBA programs?” Well, in reality most of MBA teaching is based on simplified textbook knowledge and case story telling. Rarely do professors bring in their latest research. Nor do they encourage students to think more critically about the business world. Julie Lattouf makes the interesting observation that much of MBA teaching may be driven by the necessity to get graduates into the job market. And this may require that “all the study of business is so broad that business students have many opportunities after graduation”. Not much time and need for deep reflection, or learning sophisticated theories and methods. Especially in the U.S. the pressure to pay off debt after graduation is incredibly high. This might also partly explain why so few business graduates consider doing a PhD. European schools certainly have an advantage here since lower fees enable business students to keep doors open between academic and industry careers.

But there might be another path towards bridging research and practice. Jean Bartunek points out in her comment that “With luck, over (a very long) time, evidence-based management approaches might have some impact on this, if only by introducing the notion that there is scholarly evidence pertinent to management that supports some approaches more than others.” Clearly, if managers and decision-makers are forced to pay more attention to ‘evidence’ before making choices, they will listen more to latest research, and, in turn, more research funding will be available to assist that.

Yet, there might be another caveat. Will consulting firms smell this new opportunity? What if supportive ‘evidence’ for the effectiveness of any decision, e.g. a merger or a restructuring plan, will be provided by consultants who drastically ‘simplify’ evidence to satisfy their clients’ interests? Tobias Denskus makes a similar point: what if ‘impact’ is simply outsourced to practitioner specialists who turn research results into a ‘commodity product’? “Put bluntly, if blogging ‘matters’, Oxford can just hire a team of editors and put a great blogging product together that will have a quantitative and qualitative impact.” In fact, many business schools in the UK already employ media experts to facilitate the translation of research findings into news articles, blogs and industry reports. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Jean Bartunek suggests in her comment that it’s important to communicate research with potential relevance to the outside world. And why not use specialists, including consultants and journalists, who can do that – even if part of the ‘academic nuances’ get lost in translation.

Jean Bartunek goes even further in her recent talk at the Organizations and Social Change Seminar at UMass Boston: According to her, there is no simple solution to the ongoing tension between academia and practice, rigor and relevance. But these tensions may be a positive force as they push us academics to be innovators, boundary-spanners, and translators. But then: Where do we go from here? How can we learn to use these tensions as a positive force? What is the potential of evidence-based management and other trends in stimulating innovative solutions? How can scholars help decision-makers become more reflective? What are the advantages and disadvantages of ‘outsourcing’ impact to consultants and media experts? And finally: What are examples of effective bridging of academia and practice, and of managing the tensions involved in it? Comments and examples are welcome!

Further reference:

Bartunek, J.M. & Rynes, S.L. 2014. Guest Editorial: Academics and Practitioners Are Alike and Unlike: The Paradoxes of Academic–Practitioner Relationships. Journal of Management, 40 (5), 1181-1201.

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3 thoughts on “Dialogue: Can Business Scholars Make a Difference in the World?

  1. This is a argumentative question, I can’t say right or wrong on the U.S academic systemic is ‘flawed by design’ comparing to the UK and Germany. But yes in order to make a world impact, one way is to make research more relevant and accessible so that people can learn from it. Knowledge means everything, how to pass to next generation, education? why people want to go for MBA or Phd? As professor mentioned MBA is unlike with undergraduate, class discussion mostly from workplace but not textbook and it’s all from our working experience. The main reasons why people do an MBA or Phd because they want to learn more about the business world, or even want to get a better job. Personally thinking that people no need to go to phd after graduates because first the fee is high also there’s no needs to get one more degree just for researching, not everyone can afford the money or only if you want to be a professor. European or Britain also have lower fees comparing to the U.S, it’s nearly half price of the U.S and thats why people tend to go to Europe or UK more than U.S.

  2. Hi Stephan, Fascinating (I have just read the whole article)! A distantly related question: what is the relationship between ‘scholarship’ and ‘practice’ worth when speaking of e.g. research into higher education and job training, or in what I worked on when I came to Berlin, namely so-called ‘Cultural Studies’?  At the moment, the main use I make of the latter has just been short pieces for the education magazine I have been working for. If the latter achieves anything for ‘practice’, it would be perhaps that it might motivate young readers of the magazine to ‘ask critical questions’ about the world they live in. But I would admit: that doesn’t exactly have the status of ‘Business’!

  3. This is a very interesting piece and an important topic for business schools and their faculty to consider. Of course, much has been written about the ever present gap between research and practice across a wide variety of fields. In fact, there is the growing interdisciplinary academic sub-field of Implementation Science (IS) that is specifically concerned with the implementation of research into practice. IS developed, and still remains rooted in, health policy, management, and services research. This new science utilizes principles from the traditional social sciences, as well as new evidence garnered from IS specific studies to develop conceptual models and programs concerning the implementation of evidenced-based practices. It is also concerned with how to construct research-practitioner partnerships and more fundamental issues such as understanding the meaning of “evidence” in evidence based-practice. IS is a cross disciplinary and international field with contributions mainly from researchers in Europe and North America. Prior to IS, efforts to bridge the health research-practice chasm consisted primarily of developing evidence based clinical practice guidelines. Guidelines arose as no one believed that practitioners would have the time to sort through and synthesize all the journal articles in a systematic way. Initially, the thought was “build the guidelines and they will come.” Well of course it is never that easy and, as researchers and policymakers pushed evidence in the form of guidelines, many practitioners resisted. IS grew out of this standoff. The health journals are filled with studies concerning the difficulties of implementing evidenced- based practice and methods for attempting to overcome these difficulties. There is so much work in fact, that the field created a new journal devoted exclusively to this topic (http://www.implementationscience.com).

    It is important to note, especially in light of David Levy’s insightful comments regarding evidence-based management, that IS was never intended nor does it function as the voice of healthcare management. Rather it identifies as voice of the patient and public health, albeit a paternalistic one. There are, however, calls for “patient-centered” care; this focuses on patients becoming active participants in the decisions that concern their health. Thus an evidence-based management science need not be one that services managers’ and owners positions’ but rather one that helps to create organizations that better serve society as a whole. I recognize that this is perhaps a bit idealistic and it is without doubt a difficult balancing act. But I think it is possible to study management and use the evidence from that study in emancipatory ways.

    Despite some ongoing struggles, many consider the health sector to be a shining example of how to successfully bridge the scientist-practitioner divide. For example, Denise Rousseau spoke extensively about this in her Academy of Management presidential address (http://zitvbvj.aom.org/uploadedFiles/About_AOM/Presidents_Welcome/2005.pdf). Although health still has a long road to travel in its integration efforts, the field has already learned and acted upon many valuable lessons over the past several decades. Thus, there is an opportunity for management researchers and practitioners to learn from health’s successes, as well as its stumbles, provided there are proper incentives to do so. But putting such incentives in place is not trivial. And certainly we would not want to do so in a way that undermines the foundation of basic research. The latter is already under substantial attacks from many sectors.

    As others have pointed out in this discussion funding agencies often require sections in research proposals describing relevance to practice. But in reality, however, it is difficult to apply the findings of any particular study or even body of research. Scholars can certainly tweet, blog, write articles in the popular press, and otherwise attempt to disseminate their findings to the practitioners. And I have the greatest admiration for those that do. But there are a number of hard truths that are important to face here. First, there are few academics who actually possess the skills and inclination to communicate effectively to the general public or who know the best way for foster wide-spread adoption of new ideas. Second, even when they do, these activities are not generally rewarded within academia, as Professor Manning has pointed out. Third, as health researchers have learned, practitioners do not have the time or ability to synthesize effectively the huge amount of information that comes from academia. Finally, and again as Professor Manning observed, business schools have not been as successful as health professional schools at teaching practice that is based on the latest evidence. Much of the MBA management curriculum is founded on very tired psychological and sociological theories. Somewhat this may be due to the fact that it is less clear what management is as a profession than what medicine or nursing are. But that is an entirely different, albeit interesting question.

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