How to free business scholars from their ivory tower chains

The ivory tower’s management gurus sometimes seem to have walled off their knowledge from the world. Shutterstock

Journalists and scholars have long debated why “academia is so academic” and what it takes to make it more relevant to practitioners, public debates and social change.

Ironically, research in business and management – a highly practical field – is often far from practically relevant. In particular research from US business schools is often “not designed with managers’ needs in mind, nor is it communicated in the journals they read.” In fact, most real-life decision-makers never read academic papers, nor is their work affected by research about how they do their jobs.

Without a doubt this situation is problematic and wasteful – even more so because business scholars, on average, earn more than other academics, and salaries in the US in particular are higher than in most other countries.

Theory versus practice

Scholars are paid mainly for publishing in highly ranked academic journals on topics whose relevance is determined by the intellectual agenda of peers rather than the real-world demand of managers and policy-makers. For example, management scholars write a lot about the latest theoretical debates on routines, learning, and transaction costs. But they remain relatively silent about causes and consequences of the global financial crisis, the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, and the series of airline bankruptcies in the US.

The disconnect was made plain at a recent academic conference in the US on the topic of “projects and organizations.” Despite the increasing practical need to understand how complex projects can be managed, some scholars in attendance questioned the purpose of studying projects since they felt it didn’t contribute significantly to established theory on organizations. The practical impact didn’t concern them.

This way of thinking is, to my mind, not only ignorant but also costly for society, as it encourages (highly paid) scholars to produce very abstract rather than applicable knowledge.

Examples from abroad

Interestingly, other countries, such as the UK, have demonstrated concretely how scholars can have a broad impact in practice and public debates.

For example, the successful mega-projects Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008 and London Olympic Park in 2012 used a project management model designed by scholars at Imperial College Business School.

The £170 million “City Deal” for Brighton, a development project designed to foster growth through investment in creative and digital industry clusters, resulted from suggestions from scholars at the Universities of Brighton and Sussex, who provided empirical evidence in their Brighton Fuse Report.

The recent report on the “toxic” culture of British retail banking by researchers from Cass Business School, which Forbes and The Guardian both featured in their publications, is now shaping the public debate in the UK on what it takes to prevent another financial crisis.

To be fair, some individual scholars in the US, such as strategy guru Michael Porter at Harvard and up-and-coming management thinker Adam Grant at Wharton, have also made an impact in practice as consultants and writers of inspirational books.

But these are the exception rather than the norm.

Explaining the gap between research and practice

Why has business and management research in the US failed to have a broader impact? I see three main reasons.

First, there was a push by certain US schools and the Ford Foundation in the 1950s and 1960s to turn “management research” into a rigorous “social science,” on par with economics, psychology and engineering. That has meant its “quality” is measured based on academic rigor, no matter how relevant it is in practice.

Second, business scholars and practitioners in the US typically come from different worlds. Getting a business PhD in the US is a high-risk investment that qualifies one solely for the academic labor market. Most business graduates do not even think about it since it is much easier to earn more as a consultant, banker or manager, rather than waste time getting a PhD. Instead, PhD and faculty slots at US business schools are often filled by academically oriented sociologists, psychologists and economists seeking well paid, secure jobs. This can make communication between scholars and practitioners even more challenging.

Third, the rankings of business schools are skewed against rewarding any practical impact. Business schools with successful scholars climb up the rankings, attracting endowments and students, regardless of their real-world impact. Success breeds success – no matter if research at top schools has any practical effect.

How to close the gap

Clearly, the US academic system will not change overnight. Top business schools will continue to attract top academic talent producing highly abstract and specialized knowledge. But there is a growing opportunity, especially for second-tier schools, to once again make business research more relevant for practice.

First, external funding gives business schools an opportunity to produce more relevant research. Facing limited endowments and stagnating student numbers, second-tier business schools in the US will be increasingly dependent on external funding.

This is a reality UK schools have been facing for many years. And most UK funding bodies, such as the Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, consider real-world impact a mandatory part of applications.

Thus, to compete for funding, US schools may increasingly depend on their ability to collaborate with businesses, government bodies and foreign research institutions on joint projects. This not only grows their resource base, but it may help create impact and professionalize the translation of research into practice.

Second, new trends in business education could bring practitioners closer to scholarship. With the growing number of MBA and PhD programs, these conventional degrees are about to outnumber demand. Second-tier business schools are struggling to attract students to these programs, and graduates can barely find jobs that return their investment.

This creates a new opportunity. As the business world is becoming more complex and decisions more data-driven, there will be increasing demand across industries for reflected, analytical decision-makers. Business schools can serve that need with academic bridging programs that qualify graduates to tackle complex problems and interact with multiple stakeholders.

The diversity of business faculty with backgrounds in economics, psychology, sociology and political science will become an invaluable asset in educating more reflected decision-makers.

Third, it will take a cultural shift to make a broader impact. Many second-tier schools have been mimicking top schools in pushing faculty to publish in top-tier academic journals. However, the increasing popularity of open access journals, the rising influence of European scholarship, and the simple fact that not every school can rise to the top (of the ivory tower) will change the way business scholars think about impact.

To attract talent and funding, several second-tier schools have already begun to measure the overall impact their scholars make. Google citations, including the software Publish or Perish, have become a well accepted metric of broader impact, as they measure total citations of articles, books and industry reports in a range of media.

But impact should go beyond publications. Awards by governments, businesses and local communities should count as much as academic awards, and public speeches should be as valuable as academic presentations. Impact also means questioning and changing practice by guiding students and practitioners to solutions that are socially progressive and environmentally sustainable.

Of course, the gap between business research and practice will continue to exist. But more diverse funding, new graduate programs and a broader take on “impact” will help build new bridges. And this may benefit not only practitioners and society at large, but it will allow scholars to produce more meaningful knowledge and methods that can make a difference.

I would like to thank my friends and colleagues Alia Martin (Harvard), Andy Davies (UCL), Paul Nightingale (SPRU) and David Obstfeld (California State U Fullerton) for their feedback.