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Management scholars decry gap between research and practice

June 1, 2004

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Biz school dean: Too much of what we teach is based on folk wisdom

Although business schools view research as essential to their mission, a growing number of scholars are sounding the alarm at what they see as a growing disconnect between management research on one side and management practice on the other.

In an effort to reverse this trend, the Academy of Management, the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching, will dedicate its 2004 annual meeting, August 6-11 in New Orleans, to the theme "Creating Actionable Knowledge."


"Academy members have done a credible job of creating knowledge that is scientifically sound and rigorous," write the meeting's program chairman Thomas Cummings and its program coordinator Yolanda Jones, both of the University of Southern California. "We have been far less successful, however, in making sure that our knowledge is applied… Consequently, few practitioners read our research or appreciate its practical value."

Three Academy articles in particular have thrown the issue into high relief:

-- In a widely cited piece, "The End of Business Schools? Less Success than Meets the Eye" (Academy of Management Learning and Education , Sept. 2002), Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina Fong of Stanford University argued that there has been only "a modest effect of business school scholarship on practice, in spite of the tremendous expenditure of resources by intelligent and motivated people." Asking why, they identified three likely causes: 1) too much emphasis on theory and not enough on real-world problems; 2) too little first-hand knowledge of organizations and the people in them; 3) too narrow a research focus.

-- In another article in the same issue, Lex Donaldson, a professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management, contended that some of the most prominent theories taught in business schools are not only irrelevant to practical management but actually at odds with it.

-- Less scathing but equally pointed, the lead article in the current issue of the Academy of Management Review (April 2004)laments the meager overlap in business education between "the world of scholarship" and "the world of folk wisdom." Jone Pearce, past president of the Academy of Management, reflects on her experience as the interim dean of the business school at the University of California, Irvine and her discovery that very little of the "useful knowledge about my most important challenges came from our scholarly world." And this led her to realize that most of what she had been teaching for years fell into the category of "folk wisdom" that would never pass the rigorous tests of scholarship.

"Many of us teach experienced managers, and so we have learned how to give them value for their money," writes Pearce, whose article is based on her presidential address to the Academy of Management last August. "The students are happy to have useful, entertainingly presented folk wisdom. Very few know that it isn't really from the scholarly world."

The problem, Pearce continues, "is that folk wisdom isn't always accurate. After all, the scholarly world developed in order to address the inaccuracies of the folk wisdom world. Many, many people can be convinced they are right about something for many, many years, and yet be utterly wrong: the world is flat, absence makes the heart grow fonder, out of sight out of mind."

She concludes: "A year from now, when I return to the classroom, I would love to do so selling a little less snake oil."

This issue is more than just a matter of conscience. Business schools find themselves increasingly in competition with consulting and training companies, e-learning programs, and company in-house programs. If scholarly resources are a negligible factor in business education, what distinguishes the academics from the others?

As Pfeffer and Fong put it, without significant changes by business schools, "competitive institutions may pose a substantial and growing threat to their continued prosperity, if not to their very existence."

Media Coverage:
The Economist. Special report on business schools: But can you teach it?. (Saturday, May 22, 2004).


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