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If there was a game in which representatives of the teams taking part decided the rules, were active players and then decided the final score, would you be suspicious of the result? With some literary licence, this describes the process that culminated in the announcement of the results of the UK Research Assessment Exercise for 2008. The outcome of the RAE governs how the government will allocate £1.5bn ($2.2bn, €1.7bn) of research funding to British universities until 2013.
Readers of the Financial Times will be pleased to know that, of all the categories in the RAE, the largest submission was in business and management. The UK has a very active research population – more than 3,000 – researching the activities of the FT’s readership. It may also please readers to know that 42 per cent of the research output was classified as either “world leading” or “internationally excellent”.
So who decided these results? Members of the panel that scrutinised the submissions and arrived at the results were, with the exception of a government body, all academics from UK business schools: that is, players being players and referees. No executives or managers were involved in the assessment.
What relevance has this research to practitioners? “Practitioner” is the terminology used by researchers for those who manage organisations. Surely these good results bode well for the future of British management?
Possibly not, as, after 30 years of working in management education, I have yet to meet an executive who admits to being influenced by any academic research output. In fact, very few have read any academic journals. There is a simple reason for this. The priority for researchers is to have their research output published in the appropriate academic journals. Why? Because without a good publishing record, promotion in UK business schools is impossible. Thus the target for their research is not executives or managers but other researchers who will referee their work and recommend it for publication. Consequently, much research is divorced from the reality of management and, hence, from making an impact on its practice.
A classic example of this appeared in the pages of the FT in July last year. The deputy director of the Advanced Institute of Management, which was established by the government in 2002 to stimulate management research and which has so far spent £20m, said the principal return for this investment was that British researchers had published 15 articles in the top three global academic journals. Having an impact on management practice or doing research that was relevant to managers was still some way off.
So what should the purpose of research be? It should help to improve the practice of management and to do this effectively requires researchers to understand the reality of the organisations managers operate in. A simple criterion for research effectiveness should be: is someone willing to pay for this? This notion verges on heresy in most business schools. In business schools, relevant research should underpin their courses and programmes – their principal sources of revenue.
The FT could take a lead in this situation. In its annual MBA league tables, which have significant influence, assessment of a business school’s research capability is dominated by contributions to academic journals. It would be an interesting and welcome development if the newspaper were to change its criteria to reflect the contribution made by research to improving management practice.
No business would make an investment that produces outputs that are irrelevant to them. Therefore, business should demand that research funding to business schools, which is funded in some part by their tax revenues, must produce research that is relevant to managers. To provide funding for anything else is indulgent and wasteful, particularly in the current economic climate.
Murray Steele is senior lecturer in strategic management at Cranfield School of Management in the UK and an active chairman and non-executive director