Students play managers in ‘meaningless’ business school research

Leading professor blames pressure to publish and lack of access to chief executives

September 18, 2019
sea couple in the sea wearing business suits bowler hats holding hands dog swimming
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Business a paper on leadership behaviour drew on a sample of ‘undergraduate students with work experience’

A leading professor has accused business schools of “regularly producing research that has no relevance to business” after it emerged that academics were basing studies on students simulating management situations.

Andrew Kakabadse, professor of governance and leadership at the University of Reading, blamed the trend on the pressure for academics to publish and the difficulty of gaining access to industry executives.

In one recent example recounted by Professor Kakabadse, a paper by a researcher at a European business school was presented as offering insights into decision-making among “leaders” but was actually based on an experiment involving 300 students.

“No leaders were involved in the study, but rather 18- to 22-year-olds with very limited experience who had to imagine themselves as leaders making decisions in circumstances they were given,” he said.

“Leaders need to estimate and assess market nuances; these individuals possess wisdom and resilience based on years of experience.” Using students to role play business managers does not replicate real life, Professor Kakabadse said, making the study “totally meaningless”.

A snap survey of papers on leadership published in 2019 immediately throws up more examples. One paper on leadership competencies was based on a survey of 165 management students, while another on leadership behaviour and subordinate trust drew on a sample of “undergraduate students with work experience”.

A paper purporting to look how employees respond to being told by their manager that they were being dismissed acknowledged that among its limitations was “a primary reliance on students as participants and the measurement of behavioural intentions rather than behaviour”.

“At the moment, there are very few business schools – in the UK and around the world – that actually have access to business managers,” Professor Kakabadse said.

“It is also very difficult to get published [in journals] through data from going to CEOs, because it doesn’t fit within the tight methodological rules journal publishing requires.”

Professor Kakabadse, who is also emeritus professor of international management development at Cranfield University, argued that there were some exceptions to the trend – including, he said, Reading’s Henley Business School and the London Business School. But he claimed that the use of students in studies was an increasing problem in business schools worldwide.

Professor Kakabadse said a particular problem in the UK was the research excellence framework, which meant that “faculty careers are now driven by how many publications you can get in a five-year period in 4* and 5* journals”.

He argued that business schools were ill-suited to this type of assessment because their purpose should be about improving practice and interacting with business leaders.

“Business schools need to be taken out of the university [REF] system as it exists,” Professor Kakabadse said. “They do need a system for quality control, but at the level of post-experience, continual development.”

He called for investment “in practice-orientated business schools that judge faculty by how they relate to CEOs, only need to produce journal articles occasionally, perhaps have a book, but mostly are working on reports created by interacting with the industry that are actually useful to businesses”.


Print headline: Students play boss in ‘meaningless’ studies

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Reader's comments (2)

Not sure where the real value in this comes from as there is no information as to exactly what that "snap survey of papers" entails. Most journals, including the ones I have edited and the dozen or so where I sit on the editorial board routinely reject papers based on student samples. Indeed, the major ones are generally quite clear about the lack of validity of that approach unless the operative issue being studied was related to human behavior where experience and age do not matter much. They warn authors and have it in their stated policy that such samples are generally not going to lead to a good outcome. It is true that student samples were common in the past, particularly when it related to organizational behavior and organizational psychology as these areas built on a psychology tradition where student samples were common into the 1980s. However, today that is hardly the case. To start making blanket statements about what amounts to thousands of pieces of work based on an undocumented "snap survey" is hardly justified, nor is it justified to argue that one's own institution is the exception to this evil (again without any evidence). It is de rigueur amongst a certain style of business and management academic to blame the REF (or in its other incarnation "the neoliberal university") for the ills of the field in terms of research, scholarship and aspects of teaching. However, what is more to the point is that it has been the success of business schools (and the revenue they generate that props up most universities in many countries, such as the UK) and the consequent need to "feed the beast" with ever larger numbers of academic staff that invariably reduces the average quality of what is being produced intellectually. Doing away with the REF for business schools does little to resolve that problem except perhaps to degrade the intellectual value of what many business academics do (see my article on the value of "meaningless" research at Similarly, kicking the business school out of the university (which some academics argue for, is a non-starter as most universities simply could not survive without the revenue that relates to what can amount to 50% of their total student enrollment and upwards of 75% of their international enrollments. Also, these sorts of never ending discussions (which go back to the old "physics envy" debates of the 1980s, replayed here: perpetuates a "practice" versus "theory" model of intellectual production that is simply inappropriate -- there is absolutely no reason to believe that one cannot do both science and practice and, in fact, the best academics do both. Practice decoupled from science and based solely on practice and opinion is not only inefficient, it is dangerous as only with evidence and proper science can one debunk myths, no matter their reasonableness, apparent face validity and convincing nature and stature of the myth-maker. Of course, if you cannot do both, it is probably best to argue that the one dimension on which you cannot produce is not inherently valuable and hence should be discarded onto the scrapheap.
@T.... Many thanks for your comment and your references for putting this T.H.E. article into an appropriate context.


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