The practical applicability of academic management research

Following my post on teaching and research, I got a couple of comments and questions about the value of research for teaching. At a recent internal meeting, some colleagues who wanted to minimise the dilemma of whether to focus on teaching or research argued that good teaching is, in part, based on bringing recent research into the classroom. This is also a widely held perception among students and executive education participants, as far as I can judge. So how valid is this argument?

Let’s take the latest edition of one of the most prestigious academic journals in management research, the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ for short). Please trust me that this is one of the top three or four journals as rated by academics themselves, as well as in MBA rankings by newspapers. The first five article titles are as follows:

  1. Contemplation and Conversation: Subtle Influences on Moral Decision Making
  2. Catalyzing Strategies and Efficient Tie Formation: How Entrepreneurial Firms Obtain Investment Ties
  3. Psychological Antecedents of Promotive and Prohibitive Voice: A Two-Wave Examination
  4. Competitor Analysis and Foothold Moves
  5. Leader-Follower Congruence in Proactive Personality and Work Outcomes: The Mediating Role of Leader-Member Exchange

Now let’s be clear, this is an academic journal so we shouldn’t be surprised if the titles are a bit opaque or even incomprehensible. This is not the Harvard Business Review. But perhaps the articles could nonetheless yield some idea of value to a practical manager? Let’s look at the abstract for the first article, which sounds like it’s about something that we could all be interested in, moral decisions:

“This research investigated the role of contemplation, conversation (conceptualized as social contemplation), and explanation in right-wrong decisions. Several theories suggest that contemplation or morally oriented conversation will promote ethical decisions and that immediate choice or self-interested conversation will not; other theories suggest that individuals’ explanations will reinforce their decisions. An experimental task tempting people to lie supported all of these predictions. In addition, truth tellers viewed the situation as morally oriented, and non–truth tellers viewed it as oriented around self-interest, both before and after their decisions. These findings provided the basis for a new process model of moral decision making.”

OK, a bit discouraging. I got lost almost immediately with the clause starting “conceptualized..” Maybe we were unlucky, so let’s try the next one, which sounds really quite applicable for people in venture capital or companies looking to raise funds:

“Although network ties are crucial for firm performance, the strategies by which executives actually form ties are relatively unexplored. In this study, we introduce a new construct, tie formation efficiency , and clarify its importance for superior network outcomes. Building on fieldwork in nine Internet security ventures seeking investment ties, we unexpectedly identify two “equifinal” paths for how executives form ties efficiently. One relies on existing strong direct ties and is only available to privileged firms. The other relies on a second new concept, catalyzing strategies , a means by which executives advantageously shape opportunities and inducements to form ties that is available to many firms. Overall, we add insights to the network and signaling literatures and to the nascent literature on how strategic action, especially by low-power actors such as entrepreneurs, shapes critical network outcomes.”

Hmm, a pattern is emerging here. Lots of jargon, including some brand new words like “equifinal”. And some classic social science terms like “privileged”. I see the word “signaling” but I suspect they’re not using it in the sense of the microeconomics literature (where it has great explanatory value and is closely related to a similar concept in biology – yes there is a link between peacock tails and the decision to raise a dividend).

One more try. Let’s skip the third article, which doesn’t sound as if it’s going to be much fun, and try the fourth, which seems to concern a clear, practical idea, getting a foothold in a market as a competitive strategy. Here’s the abstract:

“A foothold is a small position that a firm intentionally establishes within a market in which it does not yet compete. We extend theory on competitive dynamics to examine relationships between competitor analysis and foothold moves. Whereas it seems logical that an antecedent that is negatively related to the likelihood of foothold attack would be positively related to the likelihood of foothold withdrawal, we theorize and find evidence to the contrary. In a sample of firms with footholds, market commonality, resource similarity, and their interaction are each related in the same direction to both foothold attack and withdrawal.”

I give up. I really don’t think that Samsung’s decision on which market it next enters is going to be helped much by this article, nor was it intended to.

If you think I’m being unfair you can look at all of this yourself on the AMJ website. I’m not going to comment on the academic value of these articles. I’m sympathetic to the problem of research in the social sciences, into which most management research falls. But there is a persistent theme of theorising and exclusive jargon in much social science, especially sociology, the home discipline of a lot of management academic writing.

My point is only to cast doubt, a lot of doubt, on the idea of a nice synergy between academic research and teaching in a business school. I don’t exempt finance from this by the way, most of the contents of the Journal of Finance would be of similarly little interest to the average finance practitioner, though I believe there is a much closer fit than in the management literature.

So it would be nice if the “best” researchers could thereby become the “best” teachers. But I think the conflict is really there and needs to be faced squarely.

3 Responses

  1. Perdonalized

    What a nice article. I have been thinking about the same exact thing for some time now because one professor at my university was showing off and saying how she had the greatest number of articles published in world acknowledged journals. But when I have seen her teaching methodology and amount of effort put into lectures I seriously started to doubt if this was something that should establish her as a good teacher. Her lectures were mediocre at best. And she didn’t even once mentioned any topic from her published articles (her area is International economics and business). Then I started to ask myself what was the point of her articles since neither students, her colleague professors, nor government policy makers new anything about her research nor did she try to promote her research to those groups.

  2. Sheila Roy

    Simon, I like the way you have brought out the super divide between practitioners in management and the academics through a simple exercise.Many of the journals do have interesting insights amidst all the jargon. The challenge is how do you simplify the language. The journals and publishers ( who seem to be having PR issues of late) and conference organizers can really lead the way on this issue. They can provide guidelines on how papers need to be written so that a larger audience can appreciate it and benefit from it.Of late there is a buzz that all papers need to have a section of managerial implications. But that’s not enough!

  3. David Cheng

    Hi Simon,

    You raise some very good points. As a passionate educator and a regular reader of AMJ, I definitely share your view on the disconnect between academic research and good teaching.

    Another disconnect that often happens is that many academics teach different courses to the ones that they actually research. So for example the first paper you mention on Moral Decision Making sounds like it would be written by academics who teach either communications or ethics. The problem is that not all business programs include communication courses or ethics courses (unfortunately). Not only that, if you have, say 3 academics who research ethics in a department and only one course then two academics will probably end up teaching subjects which are not their speciality. Presumably they may be less passionate about these courses and this will in turn lead to a reduction in the quality of their teaching

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