Soapbox

June 25, 2012 12:00 am

Little progress made in management research

If business schools have failed to come up with new answers it is because there are none

After decades researching and teaching management, business schools have added surprisingly little to our knowledge about improving corporate performance.

They may have advanced in areas such as finance, accounting, operations and decision-making, but in two fundamental topics – strategy and people – they can claim few successes.

Almost 50 years ago, Peter Drucker told us that companies needed to be clear about three questions: who is our customer? What value will we offer? How will we deliver? It is hard to find a new strategy or marketing book that is not based firmly on this foundation.

“Core competence” made headlines in the early 1990s and became the leading strategy theme for the next decade or so. Yet many authors had earlier talked about the need for companies to focus and excel in something that matters.

More recently, a big fuss has been made about “blue ocean strategy”. But again, this is hardly a new idea. It has long been conventional wisdom that companies should seek unexplored markets rather than keep attacking old and crowded ones.

Beale cartoon

The same rehashing happens in the area now labelled “human capital management” or “talent management”. Since the second world war, there has been a wealth of published material on the importance of people and how to get the most out of them. But progress? Almost none.

Well-worn ideas about setting clear goals, giving people clear roles, tracking their contribution, treating them decently and providing proper feedback remain “best practice”. Giving people a sense of meaning was and always will be the ultimate motivator.

The purpose of business schools is to equip executives with knowledge about the job of managing. But for the organisations in which their graduates work, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is sheer indulgence. Theories that do not enable managers to improve sales, productivity, quality or profits are useless. Recycling and repackaging old nostrums is pointless.

The study of management has always had important consequences for every aspect of our lives. Yet “thought leadership” in this field is rare and sadly so in business schools. They mostly practice “thought followership” and report on what companies are already doing.

Management research is showing diminishing returns. But there will be little progress while academics continue to dissect yesterday’s research and write for each other.

The arcane language of a scholarly community and a valuing of theory over practice may be tolerable in some disciplines but not in one as critical as management. Providing incentives for the field’s best thinkers to churn out material that changes neither what managers do nor how they do it is pointless.

If business schools have failed to come up with new answers it is because there are none. The basic principles of management have changed little and are unlikely to be different in the future. They apply across industries and across borders. National culture may affect the way they are applied, but it makes them no less valid or important.

There are no silver bullets in management. Every theory is hostage to “it depends”. What works in the hands of one management team will not necessarily work for others. What sets organisations apart is less the concepts they use than the context in which they operate and how they conduct themselves.

Executives should come out of business school with a sound grasp of a few tools, not infatuated by “new” tools. They should have a heightened awareness and knowledge of their environment and a sensitivity to the spirit of their times. They should know themselves better. And, critically, they should be practised in delivering results in times of relentless pressure and change.

Future research is unlikely to yield radical leaps in management ideas. The real challenge for business schools is to help their clients compete when everyone has the same tools.

Tony Manning is a strategy consultant, author and lecturer in strategy.

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