September 20, 2012
For many years business schools have been facing criticism for conducting research that has no relevance to market / societal needs.
Professor Ulrich Hommel, the Research Director at EFMD, highlights one of the key problems that researchers are facing nowadays: finding a balance between the need for academic rigour and recognition from peers, and the need to engage with a wider group of stakeholders in society.
To link the two positions, Professor Hommel proposes researchers to consider academic research as the starting point of an innovation chain which links, engages and fulfills the requirements of both sides. Accordingly, better communication may take place between the research community and other external stakeholders, such as corporate partners and policy makers from the public sector.
EFMD would like to take this article not only as a reflection from the management research & education community on the current evolution of EU innovation and research planning, but also as a reference for re-positioning the broad Social Science and Humanities research programme in the current EU innovation and research agenda.
What does the future hold for academic research?
Most deans of leading business schools would agree that being a top-performing faculty member is synonymous with being a top researcher. The production of widely cited A-level articles has become the core ingredient for a successful academic career, leading to peer recognition, tenure and ever-larger pecuniary rewards in the form of higher base salaries and bonuses.
At the same time, though, many practitioners would argue that the way academics are conducting research is the very essence of what is wrong with business schools today. They claim that research methodologies and outcomes are too often detached from the realities of managing enterprises and that researchers lack the motivation as well as all too often the ability to credibly surpass Andrew Pettigrew’s double hurdle of generating academically meaningful as well as practically relevant knowledge.
What is particularly worrying about this long-standing debate is the apparent unresponsiveness of the business school community, which continues to operate in the “we know best” mode. Business schools are facing environmental dynamics that will eventually make change inevitable. PhD programmes are not producing enough graduates to fulfil the hiring needs of a rapidly growing sector. Market entry by non-research for-profit providers will produce additional challenges to a system where business schools are using a large part of their resources to support a seemingly zero-return activity. There are effectively two pieces to the puzzle.
Researchers argue that they are, above all, writers seeking recognition from their peers. In contrast, communication experts claim that business schools need to improve on their customer orientation. They should produce research that meets the real needs of their stakeholders in terms of content and packaging.
Building a bridge between these two positions is not impossible. Business schools are currently operating based on model where researchers are drifting like particles in institutional space, where they have complete freedom to interact with other particles within or across institutional boundaries and where they eventually release output that is measured by a centuries-old metric.
But why not define academic research as a starting point of an innovation chain? It would allow researchers to focus on what they know best, the production of peer-reviewed articles. It would also, however, introduce the research outcomes into a refinement process that leads to spin-off outputs such as case studies, podcasts, business simulations, policy position papers, open source e-learning content and interactive communication with corporate partners.
Embedding researchers into vertical innovation chains might also foster mutual learning with practitioners, which will affect the direction of research \and thereby address the main criticism of the corporate world.
In sum, business schools should reflect on how to organise their research activities better in order to justify the significant resource commitments. Laissez faire, with some moderation using a system of external, peer-based controls, has so far not enabled them to pass the double hurdle test. Existing research capabilities could possibly be made better us of by reversing the atomisation of research production and by creating support structures for top researchers.
Proceeding on this line must and should not infringe on the academic freedom of the individual researcher as since this would probably lead to harmful feedback effects in terms of research quality and productivity. However, business schools should attempt to break open their research silos and let the wider community that surrounds them participate in the benefits of their knowledge-generation activities.
4 September 2012, Ulrich Hommel, Director of Research & Surveys at EFMD
EFMD is a leading international network of business schools, companies and consultancies (770 members across 82 countries) at the forefront or raising the standards of management education and development globally. EFMD runs the EQUIS & EPAS, accreditation systems and is one of the key reference points for management education worldwide. www.efmd.org