Soapbox: Focus on ideas not research ‘hits’

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Business research is often seen as being detached from practice, with researchers having a poor understanding of the worlds they claim to study. The result is a mass of publications that are read by few and have little influence.

Research in marketing tends to have a fixation on econometric methods and psychological theorising, research in strategy functions largely as a form of analytics, and so on.

Moreover, a lot of business research focuses on the top of organisations rather than delving into how effective action really occurs. So we have reams of publications on governance, structures and strategies. While loved by consulting firms, whether it results in improved organisational performance is an open question.

It is important to reflect on the reasons for this. Many business researchers may have an inferiority complex, so there are pressures to appear to be academic. An exaggerated focus on methodology and intellectual appearance can emerge, against which content can become less significant. Research is also influenced by academic career management and the concern many schools have with research productivity as measured by article count, rather than by knowledge development.

Consider the UK. Before business schools were established there was a productive tradition of business research. At Aston, Edinburgh and Imperial College teams put together the basis for our current understanding of organisational design. Pulling together ideas from social sciences, the Tavistock Institute developed insights into socio-technical systems. And there were other early leads. But such an exciting start was often taken no further, at least in the setting of the standalone business schools.

Consider what is supposed to be one of the best: London Business School. Ranked highly in research assessments and the recipient of millions of pounds of state research financing, it still has an equivocal status as a knowledge producer. For several years I have asked acquaintances what ideas they associate with LBS. No one has yet named one.

Some insight into this might be provided by a discussion I had at the school. On one visit all four people I met told me of their most recent research publications, but did not mention the content. LBS, like other leading, standalone schools, may have a “hit” culture rather than an ideas one.

A different culture pervades many Nordic schools – Copenhagen in particular but also Gothenburg, Stockholm and Uppsala. Although not so highly rated in international research rankings, they all exhibit a vibrancy of ideas and a mode of modest but substantive interaction with the business commun- ity that are absent from many more august institutions. Given that the region has produced Nokia, Ikea, Scandia, Ericsson, etc, it is important to understand how schools and companies operate together as part of a knowledge-based society. But while others should replicate these strengths, a danger is that the Nordic schools imitate the rest, as they seek rankings more commensurate with their merits.

What can be done? Change will not be easy.

At Saïd Business School, Oxford, I tried to surround the academic core of the school with applied research centres that could translate the core into practice and bring ideas from practice into the core. But the academics did not like the intrusion and I doubt whether it will last.

It might help if business, government and the media raised their expectations. It would also help if assessment and ranking agencies were more critical, looking at substance rather than form. The Financial Times is included in this. Its rankings of ideas generation provide a poor guide to where the ideas are generated and even encourage the detrimental “hit” culture. Many institutions chase hits in research journals just to increase their MBA rankings in this very newspaper.

Anthony Hopwood is professor of operations management and former dean of Saïd Business School. To comment on this column go to www.ft.com/managementblog

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