Sure Aim for business insights

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It was in 2002 that questions circulating at the heart of Whitehall about the competence of British management spilled over into the world of academia. What were UK business schools doing to address the issues of productivity and regional development? And, more significantly, how relevant was management research in answering the questions that executives faced in their everyday working lives?

At the time, UK management research was ill-funded and of poor quality. At the Economic and Social Research Council, the UK funding council for the social sciences, management research was at the bottom of the league table in successful grant applications.

That has now changed, says Robin Wensley, director of the UK’s Advanced Institute of Management Research (Aim) and a professor at Warwick Business School. These days management research funded by Aim invariably receives one of the two top ratings, good or outstanding.

Aim was set up in November 2002 to kick-start management research in the UK by bringing together clusters of academics to work on subjects such as productivity and competition under the leadership of an Aim “fellow”. At the outset there were two goals: to persuade business researchers to work with the best economists and social scientists in the UK, and so improve their research skills; and to persuade them to engage more effectively with business.

In its first five years Aim swallowed £20m in funds and is bankrolled until 2011 with a further £10m. So, has the money been well spent?

Those involved in the project argue that both the quality and quantity of UK management research have improved. “We believe we achieved all we wanted to achieve in terms of capacity building and we have had significant impact on the policy front,” Prof Wensley says.

Overall, 200 researchers working in 55 universities have been involved in the project and Andy Neely, deputy director of Aim and a Cranfield professor, points out that 15 articles have been published in Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review and California Management Review, arguably the three best-known management journals in the world, as a direct result of Aim funding.

Lynda Grattan, professor of management practice at London Business School, who was already a world-respected academic before becoming an Aim fellow, believes the project has achieved its first aim by enabling academics in the UK to do “joined-up” research, working with sociologists and economists. “We know more about complex learning than anyone else in the world,” she says.

The second goal – to have an impact on the world of management practice – has proven particularly prescient in the continuing worldwide debate about the relevance of management research. But this impact has been more difficult to measure.

This was not unexpected, says Gordon Marshall, former big chief of the ESRC and now vice-chancellor of Reading University. “I think it was recognised at the beginning that that was going to be the hardest part.”

Prof Wensley acknowledges that “the one area we (Aim) have to do more is the impact on practice... That’s the one important thing we have to put more emphasis on in phase two.”

Prof Grattan believes that this is a goal that must be achieved. There are two places where management knowledge is created, she says: in academia and in consulting practices. Only one source, she argues, is academically rigorous. “One of the challenges is: how how do you bring research to companies that has some academic rigour?”

One answer is workshops, discovery events, books and articles and short executive courses, although these will only ever cater for a small minority of managers. A second area is in influencing government policy.

Simon Collinson, professor of international business at Warwick, led Aim-funded research into how UK businesses should operate in China. “We asked how have other companies done this. It [China] is such a massive market, as well as a chance [to relocate] manufacturing.” He has presented his work to government policymakers as well as ­managers.

But, as Prof Collinson concedes: “The word ‘impact’ was used a lot [in relation to Aim] but it is still not clear how to measure it.”

Perhaps that should be Aim’s next research project.

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