Theory has bankrupted relevance
Multiple problems afflict research in business and management studies, but looming large among them is an unhealthy obsession with developing theory. This happens in business and management to a far greater extent than in more established disciplines. But since genuine theoretical breakthroughs are the exception rather than the rule, researchers often resort to a mixture of big words, bluster and bluff.
On the few occasions that a delightful piece of writing catches the eye, it feels as rare as the sight of a pink unicorn unicycling across a campus quadrangle. The view seems to have taken hold that serious work must be painful to read, and almost impossible to understand.
There seem to be five golden rules for academic writing in management studies these days. First, do not write about genuinely important issues, since this might reveal that you really have nothing worthwhile to say.
Second, never use a short word where a long one will do; this prevents anyone understanding what you mean, further insuring you against criticism.
Third, never use one word when you can stretch to four; this wears your readers out, and bores them to boot.
Fourth, fresh metaphors, humour and irony wake people up, and are therefore your enemy. They should be shot on sight.
Fifth, bamboozle people with jargon, and plenty of well-known names. This further paralyses their critical senses: if Bourdieu or Heidegger said it, then it must be right. Right?
But you get bonus points if you can find a French philosopher that no one has ever heard of: the deader the better. Fashion a claim that the implications of their writings for management studies have been “unjustly neglected”. Look, for example, at the influence of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who was infamous for his impenetrable writing style. His work has certainly influenced many in management studies. I have found 44 papers in the journal Organization Studies that favourably cite his ideas. Picking one at random, almost the first sentence that catches my eye is this:
“According to [Lacan], one of the key functions of fantasy (belonging to the imaginary) is to veil the lack constituted by the failure of symbolization (in the symbolic) in order to sustain the illusion of wholeness and to avoid the anxiety resulting from the emergence of the real. Fantasy is a narrative structure whose content can greatly vary, but which rests on the imaginary promise of recapturing what has been lost.”
It often feels like this kind of work has been written by a computer rather than a person. Come to think of it, this might not be so far from the truth when you consider how much of quantitative papers consists of tables auto-generated by SPSS software, and how many “critical” papers seem to just cut and paste obligatory sets of references.
We need to call time on this kind of nonsense. In a 2014 article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, appropriately entitled “Why academics stink at writing”, Steven Pinker argues that “our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labours is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughing stock.”
I agree. Those who write like this have one primary goal: building their careers, via publishing papers. They are not interested – at least, not primarily – in shaping public discourse, and helping to change the world. But they should be.
We in business and management studies need to put theory development back in its rightful place. Good theory is certainly important, but the insistence that every paper must do it – rather than, say, develop insights for practice or discuss a genuinely important issue – is rendering us irrelevant to any serious discussion of the multiple problems affecting our world.
Organisations matter. And they are fascinating, full of love and hatred, optimism and despair, and all the emotions between. They contain tribes and micro-tribes, outbreaks of insanity, struggles for existence, mass extinctions and the flourishing of new forms of collective life. Our work gives us the privilege of recording and critiquing this fantastic spectacle, yet we insist on draining all life and colour out of it.
This is not an approach that will win a wide audience for our ideas – and nor does it deserve to. It is time for a new approach.
Dennis Tourish is professor of leadership and organisation studies at the University of Sussex Business School. He is the author of Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, published in July by Cambridge University Press.
The critical model is obsolete
Over the past 30 years, business schools have received a disproportionate amount of negative press. Yet much of the criticism aimed at our scholarship – that it is impenetrable, pretentious, irrelevant and self-serving – can easily be directed towards other academic departments, too.
I suggest that much of the hostility has been fuelled by the rapid expansion of business schools and their critics’ failure to perceive the nuances of what each of them does. Let me be clear. I do not claim that business schools are without fault. But I do claim that the criticism is increasingly outdated and does not take into account how leading schools have evolved in response to it.
The challenge facing business schools was succinctly summarised by Herbert Simon’s 1967 paper, “The business school: a problem of organizational design”. The Nobel prizewinning economist saw that the task facing business schools is to integrate knowledge from the world of practice with the knowledge from academic disciplines, and to do so in a manner that embraces interdisciplinarity and first-rate scholarship and that addresses both managerial and societal challenges.
Since then, there has been considerable angst in the business school community about this bifurcated mission; are business schools for or about management? I suggest that many of the leading schools have now worked through that to develop a virtuous relationship between research and practice. And, in doing so, they have embraced the four key elements of Simon’s challenge.
First, the involvement of practice is no longer a recipe for overly narrow applied research. Rather, it presents the right conditions for academics to seek new perspectives and to ask relevant questions. By working in mutually respectful partnership with practice, business school academics are addressing problems of end use in a manner that transforms them into the kinds of exciting, non-routine issues that are appropriate topics for basic research.
Second, interdisciplinarity is at the core of all modern business schools. Their ideal is to be places where discipline-based tribes and territories are broken down, with academics’ attention refocused on the practice of business and management. Business academics work shoulder to shoulder with scholars from a range of different disciplines, developing a broader perspective than do scholars in schools that draw from single disciplines.
Third, by focusing on the evolving practice of business and management, the leading business schools produce first-rate scholarship that speaks to the disciplines. Rather than being a pale imitation of other social science departments, business schools increasingly lead debates in economics, psychology and sociology around the study of organisations and markets. This has made them increasingly attractive to scholars that are keen to work in open and progressive environments that promote diversity of opinion and perspective.
Fourth, business schools are increasingly addressing both managerial and societal issues, and are ideally positioned to do so. Many of humanity’s grand challenges can only be addressed through leadership, management and organisation. Rather than demonising the corporate world and looking down on practice, many business schools’ scholars are increasingly looking to work with leaders and managers to create social as well as economic value. The business schools that are interested in all forms of organisations and do not adopt a political stance towards managers are best able to foster open and collaborative relationships with practitioners to help bring about change.
So rather than being in crisis, the leading business schools are becoming role models for other academic departments. The key to their success is rooted in their willingness to listen to criticism, their openness to working across boundaries with a diversity of stakeholders, and a progressive attitude towards change.
I encourage people to look beyond the word “business” and to take a fresh look at how the leading schools have risen to the challenge of their critics.
Andy Lockett is dean of Warwick Business School.
Familiarity may bankroll contempt
Not so long ago, airport bookshops would be filled with million-selling management titles by CEOs, blue-chip consultants and even the occasional academic guru – using clever graphics to exhort executives to manage change or fail.
Today, those same shops’ business sections may consist of just a single shelf. And we are starting to hear claims that would have been unthinkable in the 1990s: that global consulting firms are not suited to the 21st century, for instance, or that, closer to home, we should “shut down the business school” because it is caught between academic and commercial aspirations, lacking relevance and social purpose.
For now, business schools are still booming – which is just as well for universities, given the extent to which they rely on their fee income. And management ideas remain no less important than they ever were. Developing expertise on how best to organise things will always be valuable, and the self-management sections of bookshops remain very healthy. But management ideas, and the promises and institutions that come with them, have become more familiar and, therefore, less seductive. And that could ultimately have consequences for business school enrolment.
According to recent studies, technology platforms such as LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia have become instantly accessible channels for management ideas and their adherents, as well as their critics. There is now no gatekeeper for what is “new” and “best” practice: through crowdsourcing and user groups, managers or other employees can become the authors of new ideas – even if they do not receive the royalties that the traditional gurus used to.
As always with the internet, quality is the issue. How do we know if the ideas are good ones, or if criticisms are valid? However, the level of quality control that existed before social media should not be exaggerated. The few assessments of ideas were largely made by those who had an interest in selling them (consultants), or came too late and with too many qualifications to be of any use (management academics).
The recent call among management scholars for more “evidence-based management” continues to be very much a work in progress; as with politics, much still has to be left to trust in your sources. However, changes are happening. Large consulting firms, for example, are using (“partnering with”) or mimicking traditional sources of legitimate authority over ideas, such as universities. “Thought leadership”, based on CEO surveys, is replacing academic research, and consulting firms, on the back of large profit margins, have launched their own academic entities (McKinsey Global Institute) and even “university presses” (Deloitte).
But consulting firms are not having it all their own way. While still in demand, their growth has brought with it greater familiarity, competition and at least some client sophistication. One recent study of business story sources cited in The New York Times saw consultants come behind business leaders, financiers and government officials – but ahead of employees and business school academics.
Scholars are rarely at the top of organisers’, policymakers’ or journalists’ contact lists. This was a source of concern at a conference, held in Cambridge in March, on the state of management studies globally. Another issue was the old one of whether the wider purpose of the business school is to serve the public or business. I hope the former option is gaining momentum, not least following business schools’ failure, until recently, to engage with global challenges, such as the financial crisis and climate change.
But the future of the world’s 13,000 business schools in their current form remains in doubt. Their clamour for accreditation has made them all pretty much the same (whatever their websites and deans say); such standardisation could lead to their course offerings becoming cheaper, but that would pose a massive financial threat to universities and, therefore, other disciplines. Meanwhile, new options are emerging, such as a free, itinerant “pop-up” business school.
What seems certain, as my colleague Martin Parker argues, is that standard business schools have a very narrow conception of how we might organise the world, shared with the other 20th-century corporate institutions and gatekeepers. This coincides with a fetish for change, which is paradoxical in that what they promote is typically not new or radical and neglects that which endures.
There are some exceptions: a number of recent studies have started to look at how established approaches or even more recent ideas such as “lean management” are readopted, reborn or simply just persist. But these are unlikely to find their way into MBA units, “thought leadership” websites or even the business shelf in the airport bookshop. At least, not without a new label.
Andrew Sturdy is professor of management in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law at the University of Bristol and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Management Ideas.
Management is a prized asset
The majority of us spend large parts of our lives at work. Whether your employer is within the public, private or charitable sector, what happens there affects your whole life. It impacts on your economic and mental well-being, the opportunities you have to reach your full potential and the lens through which, as a citizen, you view the world – and the role of organisations in it.
In the past 10 years, for instance, leaders at the BBC, the Treasury, Lehman Brothers and Greenpeace have played a pivotal role in shaping the economic, social, educational and environmental destiny of the UK and elsewhere. Therefore, how we educate such people matters.
The long-standing practice of equipping students solely with “business skills” and preaching the narrow virtues of the bottom line are – or should be – a thing of the past. Such specific skills, as well as business-like ways, are invaluable, but only when incorporated into a wider package of management and social responsibility to serve the greater good.
Moreover, management schools have a responsibility to create the next generation of leaders and managers for every kind of organisation in this world, not just businesses. Marketing and management are as relevant to an NGO as they are to L’Oréal. That is why the school I lead at the University of Bath still calls itself a management school – despite our having been encouraged several times to rebrand as a “business school”.
While it may seem strange to some readers that a young person might choose such a career-specific subject as accounting or management, it is no more so than opting for medicine or law. All such degrees aim to equip students with practical as well as theoretical knowledge for their chosen career route. But leaders should realise that power brings privilege beyond a sizeable salary: a responsibility to exercise choice over taxation, education, consumption, health and social care provision.
I cannot claim that I speak for all business school academics, but I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that I want students to look to the greater good through management. This requires an expert and critical interdisciplinary research base in order to explore the wide range of issues affecting society. These include everything from productivity and regional industrial policy to the geopolitical power of multinationals; the impact of artificial intelligence on work; the ethics of driverless cars; and the relationship between marketing campaigns and food consumption patterns and obesity in children.
To tackle such issues, students need a grounding not only in sound financial management but also a capability to critique different forms of capitalism and governance, plus an ability to detect whether a management consultant is peddling snake oil or sound research and expertise.
From practice derived in the boardroom to sustainable innovation and responsible marketing, lessons learned in a management school can help invigorate many areas of life. And inculcating those lessons is, I argue, a weighty and worthy educational endeavour.
Veronica Hope Hailey is university vice-president and dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath.
A meaningful life should top the agenda
I have had a unique journey in business and education. It began with two engineering degrees, followed by 15 years in night school earning two degrees in business while working in operations management in the steel industry. For 23 years, I advanced from foreman to multi-plant divisional quality control manager, followed by eight years in a Japanese joint venture using new workforce practices.
This was followed by a midlife career change. I did a full-time PhD in business while working as a consultant and a research and teaching assistant. Then followed another two decades teaching business at the undergraduate and graduate level, which led to tenure and a full professorship.
What all this has taught me is that the focus of a business education must primarily be on a meaningful life. Yes, a student needs to be taught the employment skills to function at a high level in corporate operations, but this is not nearly enough. A student will face a lifetime of personal challenges. In today’s globalised environment, it is likely that during their career they will be involved in at least one bankruptcy or merger, several downsizings and endless reorganisations, job losses, demotions and potential career changes. And few will ever progress past middle management.
I know of few, if any, colleges that educate business students in these eventualities. Middle management, for instance, must be viewed as a fulfilling career in itself, rather than a stopover to senior management. In initial business studies, case studies should be considered from the perspective of lower and middle managers, not executives, and the focus should be on flexibility – in management and career. A student should be broadly educated, both for life satisfaction and to diversify career options, via various minors and double majors.
While it is very fashionable, “experiential learning” should not be prioritised. It can give students work skills, but it will not give them a taste of mergers, reorganisations, bankruptcies, demotions, preparation for second careers and, finally, a productive retirement. Only in-seat learning, delivered by experienced professors, can offer a broad skill set for dealing with changing global settings and career changes while maintaining a meaningful life.
As a fundamental, students need to understand capitalism. They come from high school unable to even define it, but they must understand its application and its problems. They need to be passionate managers and capitalists, but must also be taught ethics – via the social sciences as well as humanities. Ethics are more than virtuous ideals. Ethical behaviour leads to better morale and productivity, while poor ethics have been the downfall of both companies and managers.
Beyond the basic general educational core curriculum, some focused general education courses could be designed to support a business career, such as business literature, organisational philosophy and psychology. These would teach everything from Marx, Adam Smith and Machiavelli to Fredrick Taylor (The Principles of Scientific Management), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) and Norbert Wiener (Cybernetics). Generally, business students encounter these only in short summaries in business textbooks; what is really needed is detailed analysis and discussion of such classic works.
At one of my steel mill jobs, the plant manager arrived with a Harvard history degree. He became one of the better managers in my career. His appointment reflected the 1980s belief that management was an art and a good manager would successfully manage anything from a steel mill to a chocolate factory. Companies recruited liberal arts majors and taught them in-house about their specific industry. However, liberal arts majors lacked the basic aptitude for managing technical industries, so while core business courses do need to be supplemented with the liberal arts, they also need elements of physical and social sciences.
The effectiveness and success of a manager is partly dependent on their ability to handle personal challenges while managing others in the organisation. It is difficult to build preparation for such life events into the curriculum; religion and philosophy courses offer some guidance, but perhaps a specially tailored course by an experienced manager would work better.
One of my greatest challenges was managing the fearful employees of a corporation undergoing bankruptcy procedures, while dealing with my own uncertainties about my future. Another was laying off hundreds of employees that I had previously sought to inspire to give their all for the company. Firing people with family or in their late fifties, as they broke down in front of me, was deeply moving. Dealing with the low morale caused by downsizing was also difficult – especially because it feels like a personal demotion.
The only training I had for such scenarios was from officers’ school in the military. You have to put your career as a manager on the same professional and mental level that medieval knights put their own callings. You must be ruled not by the company or the situation but by loyalty to the profession. Professional status and bonding among fellow middle managers is important. It isn’t easy to teach, but business schools must make much greater efforts to try.
Quentin R. Skrabec is a professor in the College of Business at the University of Findlay, Ohio.
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