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Professors question value of business-school research

December 1, 2007

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Almost two centuries after Shelley claimed that poets were "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind," a highly regarded business book of 1996 offered this update:

"Today that honor belongs to management theorists," wrote the journalist authors of The Witch Doctors. "Wherever one looks, management theorists are laying down the law, reshaping institutions, refashioning the language, and, above all, reorganizing people's lives."

Quite a coup for one of the younger scholarly disciplines, junior by more than a century, for example, to economics.

Yet, now a reaction has set in, driven not primarily by impatient managers but by management theorists themselves, including two former presidents of the Academy of Management (AOM), the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching.

"Theory is essential, and the field of management will not advance without it," writes former AOM president Donald C. Hambrick of Pennsylvania State University in a special research forum in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal. "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 of holy water, in quite the way we do."

"As academics," writes another fomer AOM president, Jean Bartunek of Boston College, "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 is not likely to appeal to practitioners, who are not particularly interested in, or aided by, filling scholarly holes."

What the special forum represents, in short, is a major challenge from within, one that questions fundamentals of a world-class scholarly enterprise. As Hambrick puts it, "I've a member of multiple editorial boards, as an officer of the Academy, and am in every other way part of the establishment. But my unease has been growing in recent years."

The two former presidents are among 10 academic scholars contributing to the forum, which marks two half-century landmarks -- the founding of the Academy of Management Journal in 1958 and the publication the following year of scathing reports from the Ford and Carnegie foundations that disparaged collegiate schools of business as little more than trade schools. The foundation reports, coupled with financial support from the two organizations, had a major influence in the subsequent decision of leading business schools to assign a high priority to scientific research.

Has the pendulum, following that initial impetus a half century ago, now swung too far? Summarizing the articles in the special forum, the Academy of Management Journal's editor, Sara Rynes of the University of Iowa, notes "a sense of real urgency to reexamine our current trajectory."

While the forum is likely to increase that urgency as nothing has done before, it is hardly the first evidence of disaffection with business education. Five years ago, for example, in the journal Academy of Management Learning and Education, Stanford University's Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina Fong pointedly asked why business professors were making only a "modest contribution to management practice and spite of the tremendous expenditure of resources by intelligent and motivated people."

And in 2005, an article in the Harvard Business Review, entitled "How Business Schools Lost Their Way," observed that "businesspeople are starting to sense that individuals in the academy are not engaged in the same profession they practice...Business school faculties simply must rediscover the practice of business."

Underlying the wave of criticism is a concern that the whole enterprise of university-based business education may be at risk. Thus, Rita McGrath of Columbia University suggests in the current forum that lack of practical relevance may seal the fate of many business schools, just as it did at hundreds of private liberal-arts colleges that closed from 1969 to 1993. As she puts it, "Although the current state of the academic business school appears to be quite healthy, there are ample warning signs that the ... Ford Foundation concept of discipline-based scholarship driving the legitimacy of the business school model is at risk."

What, then, should be done? The authors represented in the special section offer a variety of suggestions, including the following:

Hambrick (Penn State): "The requirement [now imposed by scholarly management journals] for a 'contribution to theory' would be replaced with this test: Does the paper have a high likelihood of stimulating future research that will substantially alter managerial theory and/or practice?"

Bartunek (Boston College): "Extend the kinds of venues in which academics and practitioners, each on their own terms, might discuss topics of mutual interest."

McGrath (Columbia): "Devote more energy to the issues managers are interested in...There are many research topics on managers' minds that management scholars are not looking at."

Anne Tsui (Arizona State University): "The stagnant state of affairs in mainstream (i.e., North American) management research is not all that surprising, because the opportunity for big questions is greatly diminished in a mature field...International management offers opportunities for novel (big and different) questions...for example, why are China and India able to demonstrate exceptional economic growth relative to Russia."

Pfeffer (Stanford): Follow the example of Michael Jensen's online Social Science Research Network, which "posts pretty much everything and then tracks downloads...letting the marketplace for ideas determine the usefulness and worth of research papers [rather than] having such decisions reside in the hands of a few people."

The special forum on research is in the December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication, marking its 50th anniversary in 2008, is published every other month by the academy, which, with more than 17,000 members in 102 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Perspectives, and Academy of Management Learning and Education

Media Coverage: Business Education Under the Microscope. (Wednesday, December 26, 2007). The Theory Fetish: Too Much of a Good Thing?. (Sunday, January 13, 2008). Former Academy of Management President Says Journals Stifle Research. (Monday, January 14, 2008).
Financial Times. Letters: Growing pains, but a bright future for management scholars. (Thursday, January 10, 2008).
Financial Times. Why business ignores the business schools. (Tuesday, January 08, 2008).
The Times Higher Education Supplement (UK). Scholars raise concerns over business school "theory fetish". (Thursday, January 24, 2008).

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