Lost in Translation: How Relevant is the Relevance Debate in Academia?

By Stephan Manning.

Management scholars have the habit of regularly questioning the relevance of their own research for society. For example, Jerry Davis and Steve Barley recently debated in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly whether management research should aim for novelty or truth in order to be more meaningful. Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer discuss in their recent article whether academic rigor and compliance with norms of high-status journals, or creative autonomy and variety can make management research more interesting and relevant. On the surface these questions are justified: management research is meant to be useful or have social impact, yet very little management research has any significance for practice. This is partly because practitioners do not read academic journals, and because our research agendas and methods have little to do with how managers or policy-makers make decisions. But do shifts from novelty to truth, or from rigor to variety, make any difference? In fact, is this whole debate about relevance relevant at all?


Whenever I read journal articles that question the legitimacy of the publishing game, or the relevance of academic papers I feel reminded of some basic insights from new systems theory as developed by Niklas Luhmann and others. In a nutshell, new systems theory views society as a set of self-referential systems of communication that operate based on their own codes and distinctions. Academia is such a system, and academic journals are media through which ‘academic communication’ takes place – not so different from scholarly disputations in the middle ages (see picture). Why is that important? Because it suggests that the ongoing debate about relevance of management research may be meaningful to some academics but has little effect on anybody else. And this is why:

The debate about relevance of management research happens almost entirely in academic journals. Since non-academics are practically excluded from this communication, their ability to confirm or deny the usefulness of any approach towards making research ‘more relevant’ is next to Zero. Paradoxically, from my own experience with talking to non-academics, most practitioners neither know nor care about the ‘relevance debate’ in academia at all. In fact, rather than promoting change, the debate about relevance has become its own academic discourse which many scholars seem to enjoy participating in. And, in a way, I am no different, except that I believe that choosing a blog as an outlet may reach a broader audience. But the point is: debates about relevance have become self-referential. They continue to entertain ‘engaged academics’, but they are of little importance to others.

Now what can management scholars do to really make a difference? My simple answer is: communicate with people outside management research. Steve Barley argues that cross-disciplinary collaboration is one way to go. Another is ‘knowledge transfer’ through externally funded projects with corporations, city administrations, industry associations, NGOs and other organizations, as practiced for example by business schools in the UK. Maintaining a regular presence in the media and semi-academic outlets, such as The Conversation, also helps inspire debates across society. Finally, let’s not forget the direct impact scholars can have through teaching students. All these are ways of translating research into more accessible knowledge and applicable concepts and tools.

But let’s also be more realistic about how ‘relevant’ management research can be. As one of my colleagues once said: Our research may not benefit society much, but it does not do much harm either. Elaborating on this rather ironic note: It is important to enjoy research as an undertaking – after all, academics are practitioners of their own discipline. And I agree with Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer that there is little point in complying with norms of excellence and academic rigor – for the sake of trying to be ‘scientific’ – when this makes research boring. More creative autonomy may be the key. I also agree with Jerry Davis though that too much emphasis on novelty may hinder the pursuit of significant knowledge production. But do any of these approaches make research more relevant for society? Maybe not directly. Yet, they might get jaded academics excited again about their own work. And when academics feel their papers are important they are more likely to share their insights with others – colleagues, students, friends, the public. And this might make a difference.



Davis, G.F. 2015. “Editorial Essay: What is Organizational Research for?” Administrative Science Quarterly, 60 (2), 179-188.

Barley, S.R. 2016. “60th Anniversary Essay: Ruminations on How We Became a Mystery House and How We Might Get Out” Administrative Science Quarterly, 61 (1), 1-8.

Alvesson, M., Spicer, A. 2016. “(Un)Conditional surrender? Why do professionals willingly comply with managerialism” Journal of Organizational Change Management, 29 (1), 29-45.

Picture: Wikipedia, Disputation between Jewish and Christian scholars (1483)

10 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: How Relevant is the Relevance Debate in Academia?

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  5. Sorry to be late to the party – I have been busy teaching professional students how to apply social movement theory to make corporate practices more humane and sustainable from the inside out. It turns out that MBAs can learn a lot from Black Lives Matter, and from obscure tomes on resource mobilization theory. (I think of it as applied Chuck Tilly.)

    I want to amend Stephan’s post a bit. The original editorial essay did not lament the fact that our work is not read by practicing managers. There are plenty of self-help and how-to-get-ahead books out there to fill that void. If managers want to know about “disruption” or posing more powerfully, I can point them to the right institution.

    The more critical point in the essay is that the idea of managerial relevance is itself increasingly irrelevant. Direct supervision in large parts of the economy (retail, food service, transportation) is being replaced by algorithms that schedule shifts, measure performance, and provide evaluations. “Most major companies have implemented enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to keep track of their operations on a second-by-second basis. ID tags can tell where workers are and with whom, as well as how long they took for lunch. Retailers often have workforce-management systems that provide real-time data on the productivity of their workers, from the speed at which cashiers scan items to whether salespeople are successful at upselling customers—data that then feed into automated employee-scheduling algorithms that reward the productive with regular hours and punish the weak with irregular and insufficient hours. One online behemoth guides its warehouse workers step by step to fill customers’ orders using a GPS device that beeps with increasing stridency as the time allotted for each item counts down. Financial institutions routinely monitor employees’ e-mails and screen them for suspicious phrases and emotions, which can flag offenders for follow-up with human resources.”

    So: “What will an administrative science look like in a world administered by algorithms?” It’s a safe bet that the 25-year-old brogrammers who are creating these programs are not guided by management research; indeed, I doubt that many of them have actually worked in the industries whose architecture they are now creating. But there is surely a public and a set of policymakers that wants to know more about this world, perhaps to guide it in a less Matrix-like direction.

  6. Relevant for whom? Make it “practical,” whatever that is.

    To quote: “…most practitioners neither know nor care about the ‘relevance debate’ in academia at all.”

    I would suggest that you should really listen to these non-academic individuals — they do not care.

    The underlying presumption of the narrative of this article is that non-academics should want to take insights from academic work.

    I see no basis — being both an academic and a practitioner — for your a priori position.

    You seem to think that “management” and “organizations” actually wish to “improve” and/or apply insights from any academic research. They don’t. Attention to any knowledge from academic research really actually functions as “window-dressing” to achieve other means within the organization/management.

  7. Adding to previous comments, let me come back to Stephan’s suggestion: “communicate with people outside management research”. The crucial point here is that communication works both ways: you share your own thoughts and also take up new ideas, thereby both transferring and generating knowledge.

    In my research field, work-related learning in Europe, the “people outside research” are mostly trainers or practitioners. Their expert knowledge is highly appreciated, and they often get involved in research teams and partnerships. EU funded research projects, in particular, are expected to include those experts from the practical fields.

  8. This is an excellent blog, for it clearly portrays one of the biggest challenges we face as academics: How can our work actually influence the social world? How can we pass on (translate) the insights from our research, to business leaders and others, so as to improve our organizations and the social world? You present a powerful argument for doing so, through translation. And on the surface I agree, for the reasons you suggest.

    However, you should not be so surprised that academia is set up to the opposite of what you’re suggesting. Instead, academia as a profession has become organized to accomplish two key tasks – teaching and research – and the profession rewards us for our contributions to these. Tangibly speaking, as a professor I’m evaluated by my University, mainly on the quality (impact) and number of my publications, as well as my teaching scores, and so on. However, these evaluation systems do not easily capture or reward the kind of work you are suggesting, sad though that may be. Without intending it, our attention as professionals is tuned toward what’s valued by our colleagues.

    At the same time I’m inspired by your claim that we – especially the OSC – should focus on direct applications of critical management to solve real social issues. OSC is well resources to accomplish this kind of action-research, with shared backgrounds in qualitative research, network studies and longitudinal data collection, all of which are ideally suited for such work.

    To your point, I agree that academia is a self-referential set of (inward-looking) conversations, but I would counter by saying, the same is true about every profession. But we agree on the goal, to being more relevant in a range of ways, so that our efforts can improve understanding and ultimately, society.
    {:=>) Benyamin

  9. Very interesting. These are questions people mostly don’t ask, partly because so doing raises doubts about the very sense of what they do! In my case, when I wrote for a language teaching magazine, the heading at the top invited readers to comment or put questions. In practice, few did, even though there were one or two productive discussions. But did the limited response devalue what I wrote? I don’t see that it should have done.

    Equally, publishing your own research results outside academia will contribute to overall discussion about the world of business, production and management. And that must increase the understanding of it all, at least a bit, even if those involved are mostly too busy to find time to respond to what you write!

    Although academic writing may sometimes seem to become its own purpose, that in itself does not devalue it. After all, since the periodicals get sold, that means that they must have some readers – and not just academics. People who all in their own ways will be responding to that they encounter in the world of management etc. Even if it is just because they ask questions about say the new car they have bought, wondering how well the company in question is managed!

  10. Reading this and the related posts, there are a few things I’m thinking about –
    1. I remember Jean pointing out that the relevance vs. rigor debate had been going on since 1948 and continuing at a low level throughout until it took off in 2001. What fundamental shift in academia took place during the 1990s and early 2000s to make this change take off? I have a feeling that the real cause of the intensity of the present debate (as opposed to the longstanding conversation) is lurking underwater like a submarine and that it needs to be brought up to the surface.
    2. What is the gap between a new theory being developed and its potential applicability? And if theory is being “divorced” from practice, is it because theoreticians are too up in the clouds, or is it because practitioners don’t have the skills to make use of new theory? Would retraining practitioners to take stock of new theories count?
    3. Is there any correlation between the propagation of a new theory and the phenomenon of management fads? Or is there no linkage at all?

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