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)