Scholars raise concerns over business school 'theory fetish'

Universities are urged to focus more on practice to remain relevant to managers. John Gill reports.

January 24, 2008

An obsession with theory is ruining the value of business school research, a former president of the US Academy of Management has warned.

Donald C. Hambrick believes that the field suffers from a "theory fetish" that makes its research inaccessible and alienates the business community. Writing in a special issue of the Academy of Management Journal, he is joined by other senior scholars who all warn that the field is risking becoming an irrelevance.

Professor Hambrick writes: "Theory is essential, and the field of management will not advance without it. It's just that we've gone overboard in our obsession with theory.

"Scholars in other fields ... don't feel the need to sprinkle mentions of theory on every page like so much aromatic incense or holy water in quite the way we do."

Warning that theories "are not ends in themselves", Professor Hambrick says there is a danger that a "blanket insistence" on theory is actually a barrier to the goal of understanding.

He writes: "Our field's theory fetish, for instance, prevents the reporting of rich detail about interesting phenomena for which no theory yet exists.

"And it bans the reporting of facts - no matter how important or competently generated - that lack explanation, but that, once reported, might stimulate the search for an explanation."

Another former AoM president, Jean Bartunek of Boston College, outlines similar concerns in the same journal. She writes: "We find gaps of some kind, convince others of their importance, and then attempt to fill them in our work.

"While this works for academic scholarship ... it is not likely to appeal to practitioners, who are not particularly interested in, or aided by, filling scholarly holes."

In a third article, Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia Business School says it is vital that authors consider how their work relates to real situations.

She writes: "When one examines material that is written for managers to understand, examples and stories are essential. They are key as well to classroom effectiveness.

"Humiliating though it may be, there is a reason that stories about mice who have lost their cheese and penguins fleeing melting icebergs are snapped up by millions while most of what we publish isn't even cited by other academics."

Despite the warnings, Professor McGrath was more upbeat in a letter to the Financial Times last week, in which she says: "It is not a foregone conclusion that business schools are doomed to irrelevancy."

She adds: "Good scholarly understanding of business can add tremendous value to executives."

In another recent letter to the Financial Times, Professor Hambrick, professor of management at Pennsylvania State University, also rejects a wholly downbeat assessment of management scholarship despite the field's teething problems.

He writes: "This field is one of the youngest and fastest growing of the social sciences ... It would be surprising, then, if management scholarship were not experiencing some turmoil.

"(It) is a field going through a period of self-assessment and adjustment from which, I believe, it will emerge stronger."

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