A Crisis of Confidence and A Triumph of Nonsense

Business is the most popular major at most universities and colleges around the world. In Canada, business-related programs enrol almost 20% of all post-secondary students. But business has always struggled to define itself as an academic discipline. Business schools started in the first part of the 20th century because of the need for managers in an industrial economy. It was assumed that scientific research could identify the qualities of a good manager, and that people could be trained to develop those qualities themselves.

Historians of management education have since pointed out that those assumptions were wrong. For one thing, the ideal manager in the early 20th century used a hierarchical “command and control” managerial style. But that type of management doesn’t work well in every situation or in every organization.  Collaborative and supportive forms of management can also be very effective, but most management training still assumes that managers have formal authority over the workers, and that managers should use that authority to control how the workplace operates.

There are some managerial skills that can be taught, such as understanding financial statements. But one of the most important skills of a good manager is being able to understand a situation and to respond appropriately – and that is mostly learned through experience. Even after nearly a century of research into management and organizations, we really can’t identify the “best” way to manage, or how to effectively teach that. And that’s a big problem for a very prominent and powerful academic discipline.

Two newly published essays have bravely spoken out in very blunt terms about the sad state of management education, along with suggesting some ways to start fixing it.  Both of these essays make excellent points that need to be more widely heard. (Full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board of the journal that published these essays, but I was not involved with reviewing or editing either one.)

Bill Harley and Dennis Tourish both start their discussions by describing “disquiet” and “concern” among management scholars and academics. They identify the causes of this as:

  • management research not translating into practical applications;
  • business school administrators more interested in whether faculty members publish in “top” journals than whether they produce good or interesting research;
  • universities treating business schools as “cash cows” and being more concerned with profits than actual education;
  • business students being more interested in getting a credential than in learning; and,
  • colleagues in other academic disciplines treating business faculty members not as “real” academics but as a “necessary evil”.

Harley goes on to look at the problems with management research in more detail. He sees a dangerous norm in management research of emphasizing theory and increasingly complex quantitative (numbers-based) analysis. As he points out, business and management are not sciences – so requiring scientific-type analysis in “good” business research severely restricts the type of research that is considered acceptable.

He also notes that for business research to be published, the analysis in the research usually has to demonstrate a statistically significant outcome. That means the research has to show, for example, that two variables (such as satisfaction with jobs and satisfaction with pay) are strongly related to each other, either positively or negatively. Requiring statistically significant results eliminates a lot of potentially useful research, if that research demonstrates that variables don’t relate to each other, even when we expect them to.

The result, Harley argues, is that if management researchers want to be judged as being successful, they are forced into doing a very narrow type of research. They are also pushed in that direction by business school reward systems that emphasize publications in “top” journals over quality or innovation. “We work in a field,”  he says, “where we might hope to have an impact on policy and practice, yet to pursue this would be counterproductive in career terms” (p. 290).

Narrow norms of “acceptable” research also affect teaching and learning in business schools, Harley says, because research publications are the main measure used to evaluate faculty members’ job performance. Rewarding faculty members mostly for published research indirectly encourages them to spend less time and effort on teaching – at a time when business schools have high student enrollments, and are expected to keep enrollments high because universities need the revenues from those tuition fees.

So how can this be changed? Harley presents three suggestions:

  • First, stop pretending that management is a “science”, and stop expecting that management research should be structured and conducted the same way as laboratory-based science research.
  • Second, senior faculty members in business schools should be better role models for younger faculty members. They should talk about all of their academic activities, including the failures, and their work/life choices during their career – not just about the numbers of research publications they have achieved.
  • Third, senior faculty members should also refuse to play the “game” of doing research in the format that will be accepted by top journals, and should instead do meaningful and creative research. They should also encourage their universities to “read the damn article” and assess their research on its quality and merit, not simply on where the research was published.

Tourish, like Harley, looks at the poor quality of management research, but identifies even more problems with it. He argues that “theory development” – which is explicitly stated as a publication requirement by several top-ranked management journals – hurts the quality of research. It results in “endless elaboration of minor issues that claim to be building theory, but which are of little interest to most readers and are incomprehensible to the wider public” (p. 5).

He then turns to the issue of what he quite rightly labels as “nonsense writing” in management research: overblown, boring and predictable prose. Tourish demonstrates this phenomenon by taking excerpts from papers published in academic journals – including, commendably, one of his own papers – and showing how the ideas in each could be communicated much more clearly and concisely. In the process, he also points out that overly wordy writing often conceals the reality that the research does not have much substance to it. For example, the discovery that “managers change their plans as the circumstances change” would be pretty obvious to anyone who has ever been part of any kind of organization.

Part of the reason for terrible writing and simplistic research results, Tourish suggests, is the system of peer review at academic journals. Papers submitted to these journals are sent by the editor to several anonymous reviewers, each with their own idea of what the paper should be like – and editors generally will not publish a paper until all the reviewers’ suggestions have been addressed. This leads to a process “so long and ferocious that it can destroy all life, passion and individuality in a submission”.

Tourish joins Harley in calling for an end to the “game” of business school faculty members doing research only to get published, not to develop knowledge or improve workplace practices. Tourish proposes that:

  • Theory development should not be required in every published research study;
  • Two rounds of reviewer comments and authors’ revisions for a journal paper should be “enough” for editors to decide whether to publish the paper; and,
  • Journals should publish relevant, interesting, and well-written research, regardless of the topic.

Tourish ends his paper with this beautiful, strong statement.

The world is too rich and diverse to be captured by jaded formats, and a prose style that accommodates only shades of grey rather than the full spectrum of the rainbow. We can do better.

The issues and concerns discussed in these two essays are not unique to the academic discipline of business. But these are very important for this discipline, because of the large numbers of students taking business programs – students who are being taught to use the outcomes of this highly flawed field of research.

I’m sure that some management researchers will write off Tourish and Harley as cranks or jealous outsiders, but I believe they have done a great service by exposing  the many dysfunctions within management research. I hope their messages will be heard, and will make a difference.

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