There is a great divide in business schools, and one that not many outsiders are aware off. It is the divide between research and teaching. There is very little relation between them. What is being taught in management books and classrooms is usually not based on rigorous research. Vice versa, the research that gets published in the prestigious academic journals seldom finds its way into the MBA classroom.
The consequences of this divide are grave. First of all for research: because none of this research is really intended to be used in the classroom, or to be communicated to managers in some other form, it is not suited to serve that purpose. The ultimate goal is publication in a prestigious academic journal, but that does not make it useful, or even offer a guarantee that the research findings provide much insight into the workings of business reality.
It is not a new problem. In 1994, the then president of the leading association of business academics called the Academy of Management, Professor Don Hambrick, noted “We read each others’ papers in our journals and write our own papers so that we may, in turn, have an audience . . . an incestuous, closed loop”. Management research is not required to be relevant. Consequently much of it is not.
But business education clearly also suffers. What is being taught in management courses is usually not based on solid scientific evidence. Instead, it concerns the generalization of individual business cases or the lessons from popular management books. Such books often are based on the simple yet appealing formula that they look at a number of successful companies, see what they have in common, and then conclude that other companies should strive to do the same thing. However, how do you know that the advice provided is fair and reasonable, or whether it comes from tomorrow’s Enrons, Lehmans, and Worldcoms? How do you know that today’s advice and cases will not be soon heralded as the epitome of mismanagement?
How could rigorous – and relevant – management research help? Let me give an example. In the 1990s, ISO9000 (a quality management system) spread through many industries. However, academic research by Professors Mary Benner and Mike Tushman showed that its adoption could actually lead to a decrease in innovation after a few years (because ISO9000 does not allow for deviations from a set standard, which innovation requires), making the adopter worse off. This research was overlooked by practitioners, many business schools continued to applaud the benefits of ISO9000 in their courses, while firms continued – and still continue – to implement the practice, ignorant of its potential pitfalls. Yet this piece of research offers a clear example of the possible benefits of scientific research methods: rigorous research which reveals unintended consequences to expose the true nature of a business practice. However, such research with important practical implications unfortunately is the exception rather than the rule. That even relevant research is largely ignored in business education – as happened to the findings by Benner and Tushman – unfortunately is the rule, and not the exception.
Of course one should not make the mistake that business cases and business books based on personal observation and opinion are without value. They potentially offer a great source of practical experience. Similarly, it would be naïve to assume that scientific research can provide custom-made answers. Like medical research provides general insights that a skilled doctor needs to combine into a unique treatment plan for an individual patient, rigorous management research could and should provide the basis for skilled managers to make better decisions. However, they cannot do that without the in-depth knowledge of their specific organization and circumstances.
Yet, at present, business schools largely fail in providing rigorous, evidence-based teaching. Instead, the near perfect separation between research and teaching causes their courses to largely rely on dangerously simplified generalizations of popular insights, at a time that the corporate pitfalls that rocked our economies over the recent past epitomize a clear need for more sound management in favor of popular fads.