Soapbox

April 23, 2012 12:05 am

Academics must bridge divide with business

Professors recognise that business school research should have intellectual rigour – but it must ultimately be useful for business, writes Kai Peters
Beale cartoon

Recently I’ve attended the 25th anniversary dinner of the British Academy of Management, the 50th anniversary dinner of the Journal of Management Studies, a meeting with David Willetts, minister
of state for universities and science, and a meeting with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, convened by Ernst & Young, the consultancy.

All of them had the same theme: sometimes as an observation or lament and other times as a genuine frustration: the link – or lack thereof – between business school research and business.

Academia is slightly conflicted. Rationally, academics recognise that business school research should have intellectual rigour – but it must ultimately be useful for business. Some academics make well-meaning efforts to show correlations or causality between research and impact. Others, both publicly and privately, complain that the system of academic publishing is increasingly quantitative and highly specialised, forcing them into a “publish or perish” game where careers are defined by articles published in a small range of journals.

In some institutions, economists and econometricians are redefining traditionally qualitative fields such as organisational behaviour and human-resource management into quantitative domains. While this can offer new perspectives, it can also create a situation where journal articles become patently impenetrable – certainly to practitioners.

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Every now and then, either as compulsion or in encouragement, funding bodies try to promote relevance. For the next research evaluation in the UK, impact has been tossed around as one of the criteria to evaluate research and subsequently to allocate funding. Major initiatives such as the recently concluded Advanced Institute of Management drew together academics from various institutions with more of a reward than a punishment approach and tried to encourage intellectually rigorous but practical research. Very good work was produced, but the link to practice never really materialised.

So if funding councils, politicians and academics cannot find a solution to the divorce between business school research and practice through the above means, is there another way to frame the discussion that can be more productive?

From my vantage point, the system of business schools is simultaneously consolidating and disaggregating. At the prestigious end of the spectrum, a winner-takes-all situation is becoming more apparent and traditional research will no doubt continue. Pleasingly, some of these institutions also have sufficient resources for what is in effect a translation department where research is reframed for non-academics. At the other end of the spectrum, the business school value chain is being disaggregated by newcomers focused on specific aspects – course offerings, online education, executive education or consulting – and where, in some cases, no research at all is taking place.

The market is in flux and the landscape is changing rapidly – with UK speculation about not whether universities will fail but how many will. If some players disappear and heterogeneity emerges, homogenous systems for research encouragement or evaluation do not seem suitable.

Where funding is concerned, surely targeted funding is sensible and a link between the academic and the rigorous practice-oriented criteria should be broken. Both are valuable in their own right.

The link between research and teaching can be split; the German system of funding with Max Planck Institutes aimed at fundamental research, and Fraunhofer Institutes aimed at applied research, is outstanding. They are not fully rounded research and teaching institutes, nor do they pretend to be.

And as for rankings, evaluation and assessment, a nuanced line needs to be taken. Evaluating schools with different missions and funding models, on the basis of the same small selection of prestigious journals, is questionable. One size does not fit all.

Kai Peters is chief executive of Ashridge

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