Soapbox

November 14, 2013 12:48 pm

What is the role of scholarship in business schools?

Many aspects of management practice are based on what was originally meaningless research

Business scholars constantly face criticism from the media and practitioners as to the “application value” of their research. Even many academics can be heard bemoaning the fact that our research is not only “ignored” by managers but is also lacking in any “relevance” to management practice. Such viewpoints neither reflect the value that management scholarship plays in the daily operations of business schools nor do they account for the value that business academics play by being outsiders removed from the daily lives of managers.

What is the role of scholarship in business schools?

First, scholarship is what scholars do and while individual components of a professor’s research activity may not bear immediate commercial fruit, the activity itself forms a basis for all that that scholar is. It informs their teaching, their consulting and their interaction with the public, corporate and otherwise. Personally, if my job were simply to teach practice, I would not be an academic as there are better ways to make a living.

Second, scholarship is a venture capital portfolio. Not all scholarship has immediate value. Not all scholarship succeeds. Even when it does succeed, whether it is a large or small part of the knowledge base of managers cannot be determined for quite some time. It may take other discoveries before it can be made useful. The hallmark of good research is the ability of the researcher to push boundaries; but when you do this you must accept that failure will sometimes occur.

Third, scholarship is a specialist’s game. I sometimes compare what I do to specific tasks associated with erecting a building. Some individuals have the skills to construct every component of a building, but this is exceedingly rare. Just like a construction project requires bricklayers, plumbers and electricians, management learning requires individuals with specialist knowledge that individually may not appear sexy or even be seen by the final user. Business schools need people who not only do the big picture thing and write the popular press book, but also scholars who worry about the minor details that go into the bigger picture.

But perhaps most importantly business scholarship must be independent of business practice so that we can look at the inconvenient truths. We can be critical of current practice when it is unpopular to do so. We can point out fallacies when major consulting firms are making fortunes by playing to those fallacies. We can, for lack of a better term, call a spade a spade when it is politically and financially inconvenient to do so.

The importance of this latter point is seen by the fact that many aspects of management practice – indeed entire industries – are based on what was originally esoteric and meaningless research done by nerdy academics in ivory towers. For example, before Franco Modigliani and Merton Miller discovered the irrelevance of capital structure and Burton Malkiel determined that stock returns were random, and Eugene Fama and others applied econometric models to financial markets, most financial analysts were little more than astrologers looking at charts and hoping to discover “trends”. Now all of finance is based on what was to the layperson useless mathematics and statistics. Today, big data models used to segment markets have their roots in operations researchers and statisticians examining marketing data and publishing articles in esoteric journals no manager would be caught dead reading. All of the work relating to behavioural economics and economic psychology grew fromlittle known work starting in the 1960s and only rewarded later when individuals like Herbert Simon and Daniel Kahneman won Nobel Prizes.

In the end, calling for more “relevance” in management research potentially removes the great discoveries that may define future practices and approaches that we will not see implemented for a decade or more. None of us are so omnipotent that we could possibly predict what these are going to be as they emerge from thousands of scholars beavering away on topics of no apparent immediate relevance.

While I agree that we as scholars need to understand how and what we communicate to our students and the public needs to be meaningful to them, we need to separate the insights and knowledge that we as management academics have inside our heads from what we do as management scientists on a daily basis. The two inform each other but they are complements, not substitutes. Without the nerds doing nerdy stuff, the gurus would have nothing to entertain you on television or in the airport bookstore.

Timothy M Devinney is University Leadership Chair and professor at Leeds University Business School. He is also co-editor of The Academy of Management Perspectives.

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