The hidden benefits of understanding research

Exposing students to methodology provides them with new analytical approaches

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All great MBA programmes have at least one thing in common: a strong representation of outstanding researchers. Many of these professors are also wonderful teachers, but if you gauge their professional effort, you would find that a high percentage of their time is devoted to studying some unanswered business question. MBA students are not usually given much insight into their professors’ research methodology because it is mostly beyond the bounds of traditional classroom coverage. I find that unfortunate and I’ll tell you why.

Broadly speaking, business professors are experts in how to explore the limits of knowledge in important fields. Their students should be introduced to that expertise because they have a lot to gain from learning how knowledge is created and how the value of business techniques can be developed and tested. This sort of learning differs from the valuable analytical skills most MBA courses develop. Most traditional courses in accounting, operations management, economics, finance, statistics, marketing etc, cover best practices and foster the learning of the rigorous logic and computational capabilities needed to solve problems in those fields. Those are crucial skills, but they are just one part of a leader’s complete toolkit.

In contrast, the effort of most business researchers aims to evaluate practices, using the scientific method — theory, observation and hypothesis testing — to determine what works and what does not and why. When students get insight into that process, they learn a new dimension of analysis, in the broadest sense of that word, because it puts them with the researcher at the edge of the unknown and it shows them how the researcher navigates there.

The second reason students should study research methods is that someday they will be executives making decisions based on the claims of experts, such as consultants and other persuasive people, with proposed solutions to their problems. A good executive must know how to appraise the value of information critically, no matter what the source. To be able to question the basis of claims and to know how to analyse the evidence, would be a good thing indeed.

Researchers have this skill in abundance — much of their work is about challenging and scrutinising other researchers’ claims and of course having their own research critically appraised in turn.

Examining cutting-edge business research and understanding the routes to that knowledge, brings a third benefit: practical information that is too new to be in case studies or text books. It is a common belief that business research is esoteric or of little real-world value, but that is a myth. The vast majority of business research is, at its heart, a probing of real-world dilemmas, but it may be viewed as inaccessible to non-researchers. Exposure to research methods gives decision makers new analytical approaches that can be applied to practical issues.

Faculty members are explorers of new territory, always looking over the horizon to what is next. Future business leaders should accompany them on part of that journey of discovery.

The author is dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

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