Management academics should help executives solve their daily problems

Corporate leaders are uninterested in academic research but do respond when told there is a better way to conduct their business, says Oliver Sibony

September 22, 2020
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It’s a conversation that every business school professor has had, and that many have learned to avoid: the one in which you ask business executives what they think of management research.

The answers you will get depend, of course, on how knowledgeable (and how polite) the executives are. Some will describe research as a waste of time and perhaps include teaching in that assessment, on George Bernard Shaw’s principle that “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Others will recognise research as a valid intellectual pursuit, interesting to those who engage in it and certainly valuable to schools as a marker of intellectual prestige. But very few executives can describe how management research is relevant to them in their daily practice.

This is an interesting paradox. Business executives are not simpletons. They are intellectually curious. They read books. They watch TED talks. They have views about economics and current affairs. And they understand the value of research when it is about chemistry, medicine or space exploration. But they seem to share a belief that insights about how to run their organisations can come only from outside the world of business.

Look at the lists of guest speakers at management seminars; anthropologists, sports coaches and astrophysicists are all welcome. Business school professors? Not really. At a congress of cardiologists, attendees are keen to hear about new research findings in cardiology; and at a meeting of architects, the latest building techniques are presented. But when managers meet, they don’t want to hear about management research.

Much has been written about how the incentive systems of academia contribute to this state of affairs, and about the reforms that might help bridge the gap between research and practice. But one simple and practical idea gets less attention than it deserves: show practitioners (and future practitioners) how to find research-based solutions to their daily problems. As a former management consultant, I can remember many client questions to which there was a sound, research-based answer. Or, to be more accurate, to which I now know that there is such an answer. At the time, it was too difficult to find it…and, if I’m honest, I did not try very often.

Whether they are consultants or line managers, practitioners solve problems every day using experience, common sense and “the way we do things around here”. This often works, of course, but it exposes them to the danger of forming beliefs about “what works” based on only a few observations (a pitfall often described as “superstitious learning”). The result is that many practices persist long after research has proved them ineffective.

One example is traditional brainstorming, which remains widespread despite ample evidence that other techniques are more effective for ideas generation. Another, more consequential example is the continued use by the overwhelming majority of organisations of unstructured interviewing techniques for personnel selection, a problem summed up in the title of a research article as “the persistence of an illusion”.

The list of antiquated practices that managers earnestly adhere to goes on and on, as discussions with practitioners will easily show. In many cases, the only reason is the obvious one: no one has told them that the old ways don’t work, and that there is a better way.

There is another type of research contribution that practitioners immediately find valuable: practices and tools that are not yet widely disseminated but can bring them an advantage. One simple example is the use of an “outside view” as an antidote to overconfidence in forecasts and estimates. I have yet to meet an executive who does not adopt this practice once introduced to it. Another example is ways of running meetings that encourage the expression of diverse viewpoints and limit the risk of groupthink.

As these examples show, suggestions to practitioners do not have to be based on the latest research. Academics can sometimes fall victim to the “curse of knowledge” and imagine that their audience is as knowledgeable as they are. But whether they are MBA students or participants in executive education programmes, practitioners are rarely, if ever, exposed to the findings of management research, old or new.

Showing them how research can benefit them doesn’t just help them solve practical problems, it also gives them a new respect for research – and, for some, a desire to learn more.

Olivier Sibony is affiliate professor of strategy at HEC Paris. Previously, he spent 25 years with McKinsey & Company, where he was a senior partner. His latest book is You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake! How Biases Distort Decision Making – and What You Can Do to Fight Them (Swift Press).

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