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Bridging the theory practice gap

Does business school research impact on the real world of business? And, if not, why not? Ask Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

We were once at an Ivy League university’s business school discussing with a group of professors how we could help their research reach a bigger audience.  “You don’t understand,” said an economics professor.  “My audience is four or five academic colleagues worldwide. I don’t care about an op-ed piece in the New York Times, what matters is the opinion of my colleagues.”

At another school, an academic told us that he didn’t rate Harvard’s Michael Porter as a serious academic. Why not? We asked. After all, Porter’s ideas have been taught to millions of students over the last thirty years. “He doesn’t publish in serious academic journals,” the professor replied.

Over the years, we have slowly – perhaps belatedly — begun to understand where these professors are coming from.  They carry out research, which is then published in academic journals read by a handful of similar academics in similar institutions worldwide.  The more they publish in the top journals, the more likely it is that they will receive tenure (aka a job for life).  Success is measured in terms of how many times their article is cited by other academics.

This is the reality in the world’s business schools. The system encourages academic research for its own sake.  Whether the research has any relevance to managers or practical usefulness is not important – to the academics at least.  Over the last decade, this emphasis has become more pronounced.  Schools recruit the best academic researchers.  One professor we talked to called this “physics envy”.

This is something we have always been uncomfortable with and was one of the reasons we began the Thinkers50.  We believe that management ideas can be a powerful force for good in the world.  Research needs to be related to reality in practical ways rather than tamely tethered to theorizing.

Two recent articles published encouragingly by the Academy of Management shed some more light on this imbalance between theory and practice. In “Scholarly impact revisited”, Herman Aguinis, Isabel Suarez-Gonzalez, Gustavo Lannelongue and Harry Joo assess b school academics via a combination of citations and the results of a Google search and the numbers of web pages including the names of the academics.  “The way we currently assess the impact of our scholarly work seems to be based on an incestuous, closed loop,” they observe.

One output of their research is a table, which ranks influential management thinkers according to a combination of their citations and web page mentions.  Topping the list is Albert Bandura, an emeritus professor from Stanford.  There are some familiar names in the leading list – Kathleen Eisenhardt from Stanford; Michael Porter; CK Prahalad; Sumantra Ghoshal; Gary Hamel, Jeff Pfeffer and others.

Even so, the authors conclude: “Top performers in terms of impact inside the Academy [of Management] do not necessarily have a similarly high level of impact outside.”  Not a surprise, but it suggests the Academy has its work cut out to fulfill one of the objectives of its latest strategic plan: “The Academy of Management encourages our members to make a positive difference in the world by supporting scholarship that matters.”

Also joining the impact fray is Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management. In his article, “The price of actionability”, Martin calculates that around $600 million is spent every year by business schools on producing academic articles that  are “not-actionable”, that is those which cannot be put to work by practitioners.

“Some business people will regularly read academic journals in their specific field. I have met two in my life, so I know they exist,” Martin quips.

Martin used the Thinkers50 ranking as evidence.  His conclusion? “Very rarely is a scholar able to maintain a meaningful level of speaking to his academic colleagues and at the same time achieve a valued position as a provider of ideas to the outside business world.”

Unfortunately, this suggests that management scholars have to choose between making an impact among their academic colleagues; and making an impact in the real world of business. Isn’t it a shame that in 2012 they still have to make that choice?

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