Viewpoint

Research vs. Practice: Bridging the Great B-School Divide


Recently a CEO friend of mine asked to see a research paper I had written for a leading management journal. I warned him that, as it was an academic paper, it was not the easiest of reads. Some time later he offered me feedback. He complained that the paper only really "got going" at page 15 and objected to my use of words he did not understand, such as "epistemology."

His response reminded me of a manager who, having read another scholarly article I had written, suggested I get some help with my writing (this was funny because the academics who had reviewed my article had praised my "beautiful writing"). I had written in the formal theoretical and methodological language that management academics use when communicating with each other in scholarly journals. Why did the manager expect to understand or enjoy the article I had written? I would not expect to understand an article in a scholarly medical journal, even if I had the medical condition the doctors were writing about.

There is a fundamental divide between management researchers and management practitioners, and that divide has grown greater as performance pressures on academics and business schools have increased.

As with any research-oriented academic at a leading business school, my performance is measured primarily by the number of papers I publish in scholarly management journals—most readers of Bloomberg Businessweek will not recognize the names of these journals, or be able to understand much of what is written in them. At an institutional level, business schools' rankings are influenced by the number of papers published in top academic journals, and these rankings in turn affect schools' ability to attract revenue.

Rigor or Relevance?

Many management academics and research funding bodies are becoming increasingly concerned about our field's emphasis on rigor at the expense of relevance. Why have we gotten into this situation?

We have become focused on arcane theory and methodology partly because we are working in a relatively young discipline. Management scholars have mimicked the pure scientific approach to research common in more established disciplines in an attempt to establish their field as intellectually legitimate. Although management is notionally an applied discipline, many management scholars have distanced themselves from the world of practice in order to reinforce their identities as "serious" academics. In doing so, they have also distanced themselves from colleagues who seek to reach across the research-practice divide. I have heard academics who are brilliant teachers—revered as business "gurus" by executives and MBAs alike—criticized by their colleagues for publishing the kind of books that are actually read by managers.

I worked for many years as an investment banker and strategy consultant. When I moved on to become a PhD student, I was advised by faculty to refer only to what I had read in journals and to remain silent about my direct experience of the practitioner world—apparently this knowledge was merely anecdotal. As a recent immigrant to a new land, I was expected to learn a new language and not think too much about my old home. Like many immigrants I experienced an intense identity conflict as I sought to reconcile who I had been with who I wanted to become.

Our identity is shaped by the social groups with whom we interact most closely and affiliate ourselves. Academics who seek to cross the divide between research and practice therefore run the risk of identity conflict. Like anthropologists we must resist "going native" and not get too close to the people we are studying. But I have learned much over the years from the reflective practitioners who have taken an interest in my research, just as they have learned a lot from the external academic perspective and insights I bring to the management problems they face.

Dual Pursuit

It is possible to expand one's idea of academic identity to incorporate a serious commitment to engagement with practice while remaining committed to doing outstanding research. I have found I need not relinquish my commitment to rigor as I have pursued relevance, but can acknowledge and accommodate the duality that it entails (though I won't pretend it has been easy). Good quality management research should ultimately have something of interest to say to both academics and practitioners—but it takes time and hard work to become bilingual.

Ultimately I have concluded that the barriers that exist between the worlds of management academics and practitioners are not insurmountable. While some barriers may be external and objective (such as our business schools' performance criteria), others are internal and intensely subjective. It is we, as individual academics and practitioners, who construct the identity divide; it is therefore within our power to surmount it. If we make the effort we may find our reflective interactions yield considerable benefits for practitioners and academics alike.

Laura_empson
Professor Laura Empson is director of the Center for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School at City University London.

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