Friday, 13 August 2010

Making Academics More Relevant: Useful Research

Perhaps the most important session I've attended at the AOM conference featured six of its  'biggest hitters', including past presidents and genuine world class researchers who have made a significant impact on practice and published in top tier journals.  Their messages deserved a larger audience and I'm sure they will get it in the near future through their new book, 'Useful Research: Advancing Theory and Practice', edited by Susan Mohrman and Ed Lawler. 

The title of the book invoiced its key message and also the impassioned pleas by the presenters for academics to focus on doing more useful research which has an impact on practice (as well as theory) and for the top tier journals to reflect use value to practice in their review processes and acceptance rates.  On this last point, some revealing statistics were laid out.  For example, in the Academy of Management Journal, probably the top of the top tier, only 16% of articles were based on qualitative case study research - the kind of research closest to practice and most likely to influence practitioners.  Apparently, however, this rates as a significant  improvement on the 6% that made it a few years ago!

All six presenters grounded their talks in the notion of academic knowledge chain or system, a development of the Mode 1 and Mode 2 distinction of a few years ago.  Upstream activities included Pure Research in the traditional disciplines of business and management, e.g. economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy etc., which provide the theory for the Traditional Organizational and Management Research that appear in the so-called top tier journals.  Downstream activities include the development of intermediate bridging knowledge, which is really a form of 'knowledge for sale' to practice - very much the province of consultants, professional bodies such as the CIPD, and the writers of textbooks - and Practice-oriented Knowledge Products including talks and keynotes to practitioners, teaching through executive education, blogging, writing in practitioner journals, newspapers, TV and radio, etc.  The main message of the presenters was that business schools should require at least some of their (senior) academics to operate in these critical downstream activities as well as the upstream ones.  By engaging in 'engaged research' with practitioners - not just on them - academics benefit from grounding their upstream work in relevant problems and can make a significant impact on policy and practice.  By doing so they lay claim to be genuine intellectuals in the traditional sense of that term.

All presenters were also highly critical of the current systems in elite university business schools whic rewards only publication in a limited range of highly self-referential top tier journals.  As Andy Van de Ven, the doyen of engaged research has demonstrated,  these journals have almost zero impact on practice and often little impact on science (some 60% of articles published in top tier management journals are never cited by other academics!).

Yet despite their arguments and positions of influence - not to mention the constant soul searching by the Academy over the last twenty years to make itself more relevant - we seem to be no further forward.  The research assessment exercise in this country (the REF) with its near exclusive focus on publishing in top tier journals and the requirements for tenure in the USA have led to a 'trained incapacity' among the academic community which has made the divide even greater over the last twenty years.  This divide has resulted in practitioners regarding most of  us as 'skilled incompetents' at best and only good for teaching MBA courses and undergraduates (the main finding of some research I conducted with a colleague a few years ago on the views of the Scottish business community of the Scottish business schools). 

Will books such as this one and the constant exhortation of senior academics in business schools that featured in this session change the system?  I doubt it: what gets measured gets managed, and the new research evaluation framework for the British universities shows no real desire to measure impact, despite its ambitions to be more impactful.  Maybe the new (much reduced) funding regime will though?

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