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?
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!
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.