Business research needs to be more relevant for managers

Dual methodologies are necessary so that research can have the rigour and relevance required

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Business school academics moan that their research has little impact on managers. The standard response is to do more “translation” of academic journal articles to articles in managerial outlets that can be understood by managers.

But were it that simple, the impact gap would not exist. Instead, researchers need to design studies with dual methodologies, in order to produce both academic and managerial findings. A purely academic methodology seldom produces results that can be reworked to be of relevance to managers.

This problem with business research comes from a unique challenge faced by business schools compared with other academic fields. Business schools have two audiences: academics and business practitioners. Furthermore, because the academics are outside business organisations, they cannot directly participate in or easily observe what is happening inside.

Even when business academics can gather data and conduct research on business topics, they face the additional challenge that the great majority of their findings – predictions about what will happen on average – is generally not what managers can use.

Managers are far more interested in pattern recognition. Does this configuration of external circumstances mesh with my particular configuration of strategies and actions to produce a successful outcome for my company? That is why managers much prefer to read articles in managerial journals that are based on in-depth case studies where there are more variables than observations, rather than large sample statistical studies with many more observations than variables.

This preference of the managerial audience for case-based evidence raises the challenging requirement for top business schools to conduct research with two types of methodology, because it is not just a case of “translating” academic research for a managerial audience.

I can cite from personal observation the case of Michael Porter’s conversion of industrial organisation theory into his framework for competitive strategy. I was Prof Porter’s second doctoral student as he worked on his book, Competitive Strategy (Porter 1980). Twenty or more years of industrial organisation economics research by many scholars did not make the “translation” to competitive strategy. Instead, after completing his doctoral research in the economics paradigm, Prof Porter took another six years of case research to “convert” industrial organisation to competitive strategy.

So I am making a rather novel and potentially controversial case for using dual methodologies, although I first heard this argument from the late Sumantra Ghoshal. Using dual methodologies – to gather and test large sample quantitative data and to conduct in-depth case studies – need not be done in the same publication or even the same research study, but could be done in the same research programme.

Understanding the differing roles of the two types of methodology also helps explain why few individual management researchers will admit that their research lacks relevance. Nearly all researchers think their research is relevant because the subject is relevant to business or management. It would be astonishing if that were not the case.

But true relevance comes only if the results are usable by managers. From my earlier arguments, applicability is mostly generated by a relevant methodology. That said, I am not saying that all, or even most, business researchers must conduct immediately relevant research. The same researchers can make the conversion to relevance at a later time; other academic researchers can make the conversion; or practitioners, especially management consultants, can make the conversion.

In the meantime, with rework and added case examples some academic research can be made readable for managers. In that way research can have both the rigour and the relevance that is required.

George Yip is dean of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University and senior fellow, Advanced Institute of Management Research.

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