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Rita McGrath Quoted in the Financial Times on the Relevance of Business Schools

Rita McGrath was recently cited in the Financial Times for her work on how management academics might have more impact on management practice. She is quoted as saying “Most of what we publish isn’t even cited by other academics.”

The full article reads:

Why business ignores the business schools

By Michael Skapinker

Published: January 8 2008 02:00 | Last updated: January 8 2008 02:00

The three Democratic front-runners in the US presidential primary campaigns are lawyers. Even the spouses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are lawyers. Mike Huckabee and John McCain are not lawyers, but Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are.

This is meant to be a race to become America’s chief executive, not its general counsel. Are there any business school graduates among the candidates? Mitt Romney – and he did a law degree along with his Harvard MBA.

Business schools have a thing about lawyers. First, they seem to run the US. Of America’s 43 presidents, 25 have been lawyers. Only one has been an MBA (the current incumbent, so perhaps best not to mention it).

Second, law schools seem to have an impact on their own profession that business schools cannot match. When law schools publish journals, lawyers read them. When law schools put on conferences, lawyers turn up.

Chief executives, on the other hand, pay little attention to what business schools do or say. As long ago as 1993, Donald Hambrick, then president of the US-based Academy of Management, described the business academics’ summer conference as “an incestuous closed loop”, at which professors “come to talk with each other”. Not much has changed.

In the current edition of The Academy of Management Journal, Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia business school says: “Most of what we publish isn’t even cited by other academics.”

It is not only law schools that have a bigger impact on their professions. Medical and engineering schools do, too.

In article after article in the Academy’s Journal, the business school professors lament their inability to research and write about their work in a way that real-life business people understand.

They have chosen an auspicious occasion on which to beat themselves up: this year is The Academy of Management Journal’s 50th anniversary. A scroll through the most recent issues demonstrates why managers may be giving the Journal a miss. “A multi-level investigation of antecedents and consequences of team member boundary spanning behaviour” is the title of one article.

Why do business academics write like this? The academics themselves offer several reasons. First, to win tenure in a US university, you need to publish in prestigious peer-reviewed journals. Accessibility is not the key to academic advancement.

Similar pressures apply elsewhere. In France and Australia, academics receive bonuses for placing articles in the top academic publications. The UK’s Research Assessment Exercise, which evaluates university research and ties funding to the outcome, encourages similarly arcane work.

But even without these incentives, many business school faculty prefer to adorn their work with scholarly tables, statistics and jargon because it makes them feel like real academics. Within the university world, business schools suffer from a long-standing inferiority complex.

The professors offer several remedies. Academic business journals. should accept fact-based articles, without demanding that they propound a new theory. Professor Hambrick says that academics in other fields “don’t feel the need to sprinkle mentions of theory on every page, like so much aromatic incense or holy water”.

Others talk of the need for academics to spend more time talking to managers about the kind of research they would find useful.

As well-meaning as these suggestions are, I suspect the business school academics are missing something. Law, medical and engineering schools are subject to the same academic pressures as business schools – to publish in prestigious peer-reviewed journals and to buttress their work with the expected academic vocabulary.

The reason that real-life lawyers, doctors and engineers have no problem with their research is not because they are smarter than business people, but because the research assists them in what they do.

Lawyers and doctors proceed from a corpus of knowledge and build on it. They look at what their colleagues do and try to do it better.

They are also dealing with more predictable material. People’s hearts, lungs or nervous systems behave in similar ways. The way people behave in the office is far more mysterious. What works in one company may not work in another.

Managers tend to be practical rather than theoretical, proceeding by trial and error: this works, that doesn’t. Rather than building on competitors’ achievements, the best often seek to do something different.

Business schools can describe what innovative companies have done: Harvard’s case study method does just that. But this is, by definition, backward-looking. Business school professors will struggle to tell us what innovators will do next. If they knew, they would surely do it themselves.

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