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At first glance, Lois Jacobs, chief executive of design consultancy Fitch, may seem an unlikely fan of business school research, but when she joined the steering committee of the UK’s Advanced Institute of Management (Aim) Research she became “quite evangelical about it”.
Aim, which is in the process of winding up, was established in 2002 by the UK government to beef up the quantity and quality of management research and so improve the effectiveness of UK management. Few doubt that in its dual roles of increasing the quality of research and capacity in business schools, Aim has been successful. The question is whether the £30m of taxpayers’ money invested in the project over its 10-year lifespan has produced a change in the quality of management in UK companies.
Ms Jacobs believes there are still hurdles to face. “Aim spent a lot of time making sure the research was accessible,” she says. “The challenge was getting business to know about it.”
Robin Wensley, Aim’s director, is the first to acknowledge that there have been problems in disseminating information. “Impact on practice is a very hit-and-miss thing. It has turned out to be more of a challenge than we thought it would be,” he says.
One of the issues, says Petra Wilton, director of policy and research at the UK’s Chartered Management Institute, is that management professors are set the wrong targets: in business schools esoteric articles in peer-reviewed journals are valued, while practitioner-led research is not.
“They have mixed targets to meet,” Ms Wilton says, adding that Aim was a “step in the right direction but I don’t think it ever achieved the critical mass around making the research accessible to managers”.
Managers are prepared to take research onboard if it is presented in an appropriate format, she says: “We do see the interest from managers. They do rate some management research once they have access to it.” But she points to a further conundrum. “There is an ongoing debate about how you measure impact.”
Measuring the traditional academic research quality and productivity is comparatively easy. Aim researchers published more than 600 articles in the Financial Times’ top journal list, for example; of the research produced, 40 per cent has been ranked as excellent and 60 per cent as good by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, according to Andy Neely, deputy director of Aim.
Measuring impact on business is clearly more complex. One metric might be the willingness of companies to pay for the research. Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, first developed her “Hot Spots” theories on complex collaboration when funded by Aim. Her research, conducted in collaboration with the corporate world, was subsequently sponsored by the Singapore government and now by businesses. “If it’s good enough,” she says, “companies will pay for it.”
Prof Gratton adds that there are challenges on both sides of the divide: managers are too busy and professors too focused on academia. “I think the challenge is that the bridge between practice and academia is not well-researched,” she says.
This view is shared by Dame Sandra Dawson, former dean of the University of Cambridge’s Judge business school and chair of the Aim steering group. She says the infrastructure is not in place to allow the transfer of knowledge between business schools, professors and business. “I think we shouldn’t be surprised about this. I think there is a view that this should come naturally,” she says. “If you want to get this going, you have to invest in the infrastructure.” She points to the technology transfer industry as a model.
Some professors, such as Prof Gratton, have clearly bridged the divide. So, too, has Michelle Lowe, professor of strategy and innovation at the University of Southampton. She has no doubt that academic research has to be the starting point. “If you’re trying to teach people in university the only type of teaching you should do is research-led and research-informed,” she says. “Otherwise you can just read a book.”
However, she points to her Aim-funded longitudinal study of the launch of Tesco’s Fresh & Easy stores in the US as an example of a project that can be disseminated to business. Her research has produced academic articles, a case study, a chapter in a book and even a video.
The video particularly impressed Ms Jacobs, who uses it with her clients. “It’s a case study about how to pioneer a new concept in a new market.”