Enhancing the Relevance and Impact of Business Research

Written on January 9, 2017 by Santiago Iñiguez in Education

By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, President of IE University.

In Plato’s Dialogues (5th Century BC) we see that the participants in the philosophical debates with Socrates are the politicians and businesspeople of the day. The Agora(i.e., in ancient Greece, the place for doing business) and the Academe (the place for education) were closely linked, not just because of their physical proximity, but because the same people were active in both spheres.

I was inspired to consider the idea of uniting Agora and Academe after reading Point to Point Navigation, the second instalment of Gore Vidal’s memoirs — as prescient and witty as its preceding volume. In line with his innate irreverence, one of the favorite targets of Vidal’s essays and articles is, again and again, the deeply entrenched prejudices held by some academics, as illustrated in this passage from the opening chapter:

Contrary to what many believe, literary fame has nothing to do with excellence or true glory or even with a writer’s position in the syllabus of a university’s English Department, itself as remote to the Agora as Academe’s shadowy walk. For any artist, fame is the extent to which the Agora finds interesting his latest work. If what he has written is known only to a few of other practitioners, or to enthusiasts … then the artist is not only not famous, he is irrelevant to his time, the only time he has.

It is time to bring the Agora and the Academe closer and business schools can play a leading role in making this happen.

Some business school managers – most, I hope — consider that an important part of their institution’s mission is to bridge the business world and academia. Some others – few, I believe — emphasize that business schools are academic institutions and they should seek their own identity, separate from the business world. 

These attached and detached views are at the extremes. The detached view was brought home to me when I interviewed a candidate for my school’s faculty. I asked this person for the content and purpose of his research, and at some stage he explained that he was looking forward to teaching on executive programs because it would provide an opportunity to check if the findings of his research fitted in the real business world. I tried not to overreact – my friends say I am too diplomatic – but I was very surprised. Could you imagine a scientist whose research was on elephant-family habits saying that he would eventually like to watch some real elephants in order to test the accuracy of his theories?

The academic world has always experienced a tension between theory and practice, in management as well as in other disciplines. This tension has sometimes resulted in the creation of an abyss between both spheres, characterized by the “ivory tower syndrome”, a phenomenon that, paradoxically, some academics take great delight in. A curious antecedent of this syndrome was when the abbots of Middle Age monasteries prescribed the principle “ora et labora” (pray and work) because their monks were spending too much time in church and abandoning their responsibilities in the orchard or the library.

Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, dealt with this question in his short essay “Theory and Practice”, essential reading for academics, where one of his aims is to overcome the gap between speculative thinking and practical decisions. One of the conclusions of his work is that when theories cannot be applied to practice, they are just bad theories. [1]

Wharton’s Paul J.H. Shoemaker explained: “the history of business education reveals an elusive balance between business and society”.[2] And it is true that recent decades have seen the pendulum swing increasingly toward academic excellence based on better qualified teaching staff and high-level research. In 1959, what was seen as an excessive focus on the technical and practical led the Carnegie and Ford foundations to recommend more rigorous and scientific research. These recommendations prompted the business schools of universities such as Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, MIT, and Chicago to highlight academic excellence and research. Since then, there has been an impressive growth in academic gatherings, specialist journals, and conferences and congresses addressing specific aspects of business education. The result is an academic marketplace that feeds and sustains itself. As Shoemaker points out: “the field has beefed up its academic standing by promoting faculty with deep scientific roles[3]. That said, the same author also notes somewhat critically that: “over time, however, these scholars often took business research in directions no longer comprehensible or relevant to business students and managers”. [4]

I remember a conference organized by Roger Martin, renowned business author and former Dean at the Rotman School of Management, in Montreal in 2005. He had invited deans from more than 20 schools from all over the world, along with other leading academics, to discuss the future of management education and the MBA. Among the delegates was a well-known and highly respected scholar from one of the leading business schools in the United States who said that in all likelihood, the papers that he now produced would not be published in journals that he himself had created.

Criticism of less-than-relevant research produced by business schools is a constant theme in articles written by many top academics. In the oft-cited article “How Business Schools Lost Their Way”, Warren Bennis and James O’Toole outline the rise of what they call methodolatry, the system within which teachers at business schools fear being seen as focused on spreading ideas, and thus tend to focus their research on satisfying the interests of their colleagues, looking only into issues related to methodology, and avoiding matters of real use in the professional world: “The system creates pressure on scholars to publish articles on narrow subjects chiefly of interest to other academics, not practitioners[5], in the sense that “businesspeople are starting to sense that individuals in the Academy are not engaged in the same profession they practice”. [6]

Similarly, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina T. Fong [7] questioned the direction that academic research has taken in recent years, and its impact on the professional world. They pointed to three barometers to assess the impact of research carried out by business schools on the real world. The first is an analysis of the origin of BusinessWeek’s Top Ten business books over two decades. They say there were four books written by business school academics in the top ten in 1984, with just one in 1991 and 2001.

The second is based on the list prepared by Darrell Rigby [8] of management Tools — the concepts and analytical frameworks use to illustrate management practices and to enable decision-making. Rigby selected the 25-most popular management tools, based on a book list published by the Dow Jones Group, along with interviews with academics and company directors. His conclusion was that only eight of these analysis tools originated in business schools, while 17 came from consultants or corporations. Pfeffer and Fong’s final source to demonstrate the gulf between academic research and the real world is based on a study by Barley, Meyer, and Gash [9] on the language and tone used by academics and managers respectively when discussing organizational practice. They conclude that while academics are increasingly influenced by the literary constructs of managers, the inverse is not true of managers. These three barometers lead Pfeffer and Fong to the conclusion that research in business and the real problems that business managers face in their daily lives are headed down increasingly divergent roads.

Business schools are not the only educational institutions under fire for the alleged lack of relevance of their research to the needs of professionals working in the real world. I have personal experience of the debates currently underway in the worlds of Jurisprudence [10] and Architectural Theory, both areas where research must have a connection with the real world if it is to be of any relevance. I suspect that lack of relevance is a potential problem for all areas of research, particularly in clinical disciplines.

More than 200 years ago, Kant pointed out that there is no such thing as pure or applied research, simply good and bad research: his words are as pertinent today.


[1] I. Kant, Teoría y Práctica, (Madrid: Tecnos, 1986). Further explanations of Kant’s views on the nexus between Theory and Practice can be found in J. G. Murphy: ‘Kant on Theory and Practice’, http://homepages.law.asu.edu/~jeffriem/kantarticlea.htm

[2] P.J.H. Shoemaker, ‘The Future Challenges of Business: Rethinking Management Education and Research’, California Management Review, Vol. 50., No. 3 (Spring 2008), 119-39, p. 120.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ibidem

[5] W. C. Bennis and J. O’Toole, ‘How Business Schools Lost Their Way’, Harvard Business Review (May 2005), p. 3.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] J. Pfeffer and C.T. Fong, ‘The End of Business Schools? Less Success Than Meets the Eye’, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Vol I, No. 1 (2002), 8-85.

[8] D. Rigby, ‘Management Theory and Techniques: a Survey’, California Management Review, 43 (2001), 139-160

[9] S.R. Barley, G.W. Meyer and D.C. Gash, ‘Cultures of Culture: Academics, Practitioners, and the Pragmatics of Normative Control’. Administrative Science Quarterly 33 (1988), 24-60.

[10] R. Dworkin, ‘Pragmatism, Right Answers, and True Banality’,in Pragmatism in Law & Society, ed. by M. Brint and W. Weaver, (Boulder: Westiview Press, 1991), p. 359, affirmed: “For more than a decade American legal theory has been too occupied in metatheoretical debates about its own character and possibility.”

This post was adapted from my book “The Learning Curve: How Business Schools Are reinventing Education” (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).


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