© FT
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

The Advanced Institute of Management Research (Aim) was launched in 2002 to raise the standard of management research in the UK. It was wound up last year, leaving the government and research councils nearly £30m poorer. How well did Aim do? It is hard to tell. Those most involved in the venture are reluctant to talk and its evaluation by the Economic and Social Research Council remains confidential.

For what it is worth, those closest to the ESRC’s evaluation say it is consistent with the reflections of myself, John Steen and Rahmat Shazi in “Aiming for excellence: reflections on the Advanced Institute of Management Research and its elite”, soon to be published in the British Journal of Management.

AIM tackled the problems of management research with an array of high-profile activities and its own publication series. It was radical, eschewing the normal academic practice of finding and funding outstanding research, and backing outstanding individuals instead. The best were to show the rest how to do research. Aim’s best, however, were drawn from the elite that presides over management research.

Management research is in continual crisis. In 1993, an ESRC inquiry into its problems found that of 778 research awards, just 19 went to management researchers — extraordinary considering the subject was so much larger than the others. One in eight UK university students was studying some form of management. But the success rate of management research proposals submitted to Aim the ESRC was just 9 per cent, the lowest of all the social sciences, where the average was 25 per cent.

The elite of management research tended to feel there was nothing much wrong with it, at least not with the best management research. The subject’s problems were apparently a function of its success. Management research was so useful to the UK that management academics had little time to be academic — an argument that medics, lawyers and other professionals have resisted making. In management research, the argument was sufficiently entrenched to be stretched further: funding should be linked to value rather than academic merit.

If there were anything wrong with management research, the fault lay outside, not within. So the inability of even the elite of management researchers to attract grants was attributable not to any deficiency on their part, but to the failure of referees from other disciplines to appreciate the value of management research. It made no difference that an ESRC survey had demonstrated that such referees — even economists — were actually well disposed towards management research. It was management academics who could not agree on the quality of their colleagues’ research.

From such stony ground, it seems Aim unearthed the best to be its senior fellows. For the best, terms could be generous: one expected a package that included a PA and his or her own editor. Aim was to spend more than half its budget on two or three dozen of these senior fellows. There were hundreds of the rest, junior and often unpaid.

The best busied themselves giving seminars and running workshops, often advising the rest how to publish in the top journals. Aim ran concurrently with the RAE, the research assessment exercise, which tended to associate research quality with the impact factor of the journal in which a paper was published. Identifying these journals has been simplified by the Association of Business Schools, whose panel of leading management researchers lists the journals in which the rest should be publishing.

Junior members of Aim vastly increased their chances of publication in top journals, and their career prospects, by co-authoring with senior fellows. The result was a swarm of the rest buzzing round each of the best. As a result, Aim research was conducted in silos and there were few links with other Aim research. But in its own publications, Aim was especially incestuous. The UK’s Global Innovation Challenge, for example, was an Aim paper with six authors and 47 references, of which 39 are to works by the six Aim authors.

Backing the man was supposed to liberate Aim research from the stultifying form-filling and nit-picking that characterises UK university research. But management research lacked the maturity to reap the benefits of free thinking. The UK’s many new business schools were less intellectual hubs than profit centres led by deans who conveniently confused hierarchical power with scholarly esteem. As much as management research needed an Aim, it was equipped only to squander the opportunity Aim offered.

The demise of Aim saw the ESRC as much perturbed by the quality of management research as it had been at Aim’s inception. It ran a competition in 2012 to sponsor research into why UK businesses do not export more. Of the 14 proposals funded, only one came from management researchers.

Stuart Macdonald is visiting professor, School of Management, University of Leicester

Letter in response to this article:

Misleading messages on management research / Prof Robin Wensley and Prof Andy Neely

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article