Why Isn't Business Research More Relevant to Business Practitioners?

 
 
There’s a pervasive paradox in academia: Research conducted at business schools often offers no obvious value to people who work in the world of business. Professors and practitioners weigh in on how to enhance the relevance of research.
 
 
by Carmen Nobel

Like many business leaders, Donovan Neale-May routinely seeks out information on business innovation and management trends. He reads reports from market analysis firms, white papers from companies in his field, and articles in online trade magazines. But he rarely bothers with academic business journals.

“Academic research can be helpful, but it tends to be overly complex, hard to digest, and not backed by real quantitative insights from customer populations or engagements,” says Neale-May, executive director of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council, a global affinity network of more than 10,000 senior marketing executives based in San Jose, California. “There is often a disconnect between practitioners and academics, who tend to be far removed from operational complexities and market dynamics.”

Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the Chief Marketing
Officer Council. “There is often a disconnect between practitioners
and academics,” he says. Source: CMO Council

Neale-May illustrates a pervasive paradox in academia: Research conducted at business schools often offers no obvious value to people who actually work in the world of business. Contrast this with other scientific disciplines, where academic research is leading to the development of a second skin that could improve drug delivery or alerting farmers and scientists on how to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural farming.

Harvard Business School’s Michael W. Toffel addresses this issue in Enhancing the Practical Relevance of Research, forthcoming in Production and Operations Management. “This is my soapbox message to academics: be more relevant,” says Toffel, the Senator John Heinz Professor of Environmental Management and faculty chair of the HBS Business and Environment Initiative.

“The lack of practical relevance of much of our research might suggest that few of us also have the ambition to improve the decisions of the managers and policymakers whose actions we study”

Toffel’s paper serves as a call to arms for scholars to conduct research that matters to managers and policymakers. “Most [business scholars] would agree that our primary duties include teaching our students and generating new knowledge in our research,” writes Toffel. “But the lack of practical relevance of much of our research might suggest that few of us also have the ambition to improve the decisions of the managers and policymakers whose actions we study.”

The consequence of the lack of relevant research is that the business world—and the rest of the world, for that matter—is losing out on some serious brainpower and analytical reason.

Consider the 2014 New York Times op-ed titled “Professors, We Need You,” in which Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.”

Or the 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary, “Isolated Scholars: Making Bricks, Not Shaping Policy,” in which University of Michigan Professor Andrew J. Hoffman wrote, “One of the reasons (among many) that the public discourse on critical scientific issues of our day has become so confused is that too many academics, according to a 2014 study by John Besley in Science and Public Policy, do not see their role ‘as an enabler of direct public participation in decision-making through formats such as deliberative meetings, and do not believe there are personal benefits for investing in these activities.’ And yet if society is to make wise choices, those who create knowledge must move it beyond the ivory tower.”

The priority paradox

So why aren’t more scholars at business schools striving to make their work practically relevant? One reason is that for many, working on relevant problems has little impact on faculty members’ academic success. When it comes to making tenure, budding professors are evaluated in part on the number of papers they publish in peer-reviewed journals. Primarily written for and read by other academics, many of those journals tend to reward novelty over applicability.

In academia, “basic” research sets out to increase general knowledge of how the world works, while “applied” research sets out specifically to address a practical problem, with the intent of solving it.

That poses a potential dilemma for scholars who want to influence business practice and achieve the requisite journal publications for a successful academic career. But that balance, while challenging, is achievable.

Take HBS colleague Benjamin G. Edelman, an expert in online markets whose research focuses on consumer protection related to online businesses. “My research is made better by choosing questions that are relevant to practitioners,” says Edelman, an associate professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets (NOM) unit. “My intended audience includes managers at companies as well as policymakers and regulators—seeking to inform and, to be sure, persuade these folks.”

In the course of his research, Edelman has exposed numerous privacy violations by Google, led successful fights against adware and spyware companies, and coauthored multiple studies that revealed racial discrimination among Airbnb hosts and guests. He also has published numerous articles in top academic journals.

That said, he has received his share of rejection letters from journal editors who deemed his work “excessively applied.”

“It’s surely true that many academics hesitate to prepare research that is relevant to, and accessible to, practitioners,” he says. “Junior academics have to consider journal priorities in light of the unavoidable pressure to publish in top journals. Write articles that journals don’t like, then you won’t get published in top journals and be an academic for long!”

Research that targets a specific business problem runs the risk of appearing too narrow in focus to editors of general-purpose disciplinary journals, which, in the field of academia, are considered to be especially important.

“I have had papers rejected because they are ‘of interest to a specialized audience and not to a general audience,’” says Shane Greenstein, the MBA Class of 1957 Professor of Business Administration and co-chair of the HBS Digital Initiative. “The problem faced by much applied work is the forum. It often gets relegated to specialty journals, and those are considered less prestigious in some disciplines.”

That is an issue faced by researchers from many disciplines—including economics, psychology, sociology—when they do applied work, Greenstein says.

The importance of spending time with business practitioners

However, novelty and relevance need not be mutually exclusive. In “Enhancing the Practical Relevance of Research,” Toffel argues that steering research toward real-world business problems can yield both.

“Engaging with practitioners to develop relevant research not only helps improve the research, but also increases the likelihood that practitioners will subsequently read and appreciate a translation of that work,” Toffel writes. “This can yield practitioner inquiries that can, in turn, provide access to new field sites and new datasets, including proprietary data that has never been shared with scholars before and can lead to novel lines of inquiry.”

Harvard Business School’s Michael Toffel. “This is my soapbox message to academics: be more relevant,” he says.

Toffel, whose own research examines how companies and regulators can improve environmental management and occupational safety, offers several suggestions for how scholars can steer their research toward real-world business problems. It starts with climbing down from the ivory tower and actually spending time with business practitioners: inviting them to meet on campus, attending industry conferences, visiting their companies, interviewing them, developing a practitioner advisory team, and maybe spending some time working as a practitioner. (For his own part, Toffel worked as director of environment, health, and safety at Jebsen & Jessen, a Singapore-based manufacturing and engineering firm, before pursuing a full-time career in academia.)

That all takes time, of course, but Toffel argues that it’s time well spent. “Given the substantial time we already invest in any research project, a few days of due diligence does not seem too high a price to pay, even in one’s pre-tenure years when the opportunity cost of time seems especially high,” he writes.

Colleague David A. Moss concurs. “The first priority should always be to identify truly important problems to work on,” says Moss, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at HBS and founder of the Tobin Project, an independent, interdisciplinary initiative that uses academic research to tackle massive real-world problems like economic inequality, national security, and government regulation. “We’ve found that working with practitioners can be enormously productive in helping to identify critical real-world problems as the basis for new research.”

“I can’t help people if they don’t know about my work”

Interacting with business practitioners is especially helpful in garnering new ideas for behavioral scientists like Francesca Gino, whose research deals with the reality that humans are often irrational—and the fact that the logic of real-world decisions therefore sometimes flies in the face of established economic theory.

“Most of my research projects are motivated by puzzles or strange patterns of behavior I see in the real world,” says Gino, the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at HBS. “I’ve looked at questions like, Why is it that people often end up behaving in ways that are contrary to what they set out to do, despite their good intentions? Why is it that so many people are disengaged at work? What can leaders do to keep them engaged across time? Why is it that even people who care about morality end up behaving unethically? Why is it that people often feel inauthentic at work? What does that imply for their job satisfaction and productivity?”

Gino was motivated to investigate those questions by what she observed in organizations or society more broadly. “It is key for the research to make its way back to organizations and society: I want the answers to these questions to be known to [business] leaders and policymakers, since they have the power to make changes for the better based on scientific findings.”

In 2012, Gino and several other colleagues published an experimental study showing that organizations can encourage honest reporting on financial documents—for example, expense reports or tax forms—simply by moving the signature line to the top of the form so that signers declare they will tell the truth rather than declaring they have told the truth. In 2014, the White House assembled a cross-agency group called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, tasked with improving the efficacy of federal programs by leveraging the findings of behavioral science. The aforementioned study was one of the first that the team employed in a pilot test with the General Services Administration (GSA).

Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino. “Most of my research projects are motivated by puzzles or strange patterns of behavior I see in the real world,” she says.

Vendors who make sales through the Federal Supply Schedules are required to pay an administrative fee (the Industrial Funding Fee), which is based on a fraction of their self-reported sales. To encourage more accurate self-reporting, the GSA moved the required signature box from the bottom to the top of the online payment form for a random sample of vendors. The result: The government collected an additional $1.59 million in fees within a three-month period. The median self-reported sales amount was $445 higher for those vendors signing at the top of the form.

But research doesn’t have to be explicitly applied research in order to prove practically relevant. In fact, basic research can help to predict—or even to prevent—real-world events years before they happen.

Case in point: In 1996, Max H. Bazerman and several colleagues published “Egocentric Interpretations of Fairness in Asymmetric, Environmental Social Dilemmas: Explaining Harvesting Behavior and the Role of Communication” in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. The study looked at how individual self-serving biases can blur the judgment of decision-makers, who underestimate their inability to be objective. The core ideas of that basic research led to a 1997 MIT Sloan Management Review article, The Impossibility of Auditor Independence, which argued that “it is psychologically impossible for auditors to maintain their objectivity” and that “cases of audit failure are inevitable, even with the most honest auditors.”

That article “provided the most central criticism of the auditing institution—before Enron failed [in 2001],” says Bazerman, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at HBS, whose research focuses on business ethics.

Let business practitioners know the research exists—in language they can understand

That leads to an important point: Once a scholar has conducted research that’s germane to practitioners, it’s important to let practitioners know that the research exists.

“Ultimately, I conduct research to try to help people,” says HBS Assistant Professor Alison Wood Brooks, who studies how emotions influence workplace behavior. “I can’t help people if they don’t know about my work.”

Explaining research in person is one way to reach them.

“I make time to talk to practitioners, presenting at industry conferences, at trade association events, and in webinars; testifying to regulators; and even explaining my work one-on-one to the policy staff trying to apply the ideas,” says Ben Edelman. “It’s a big commitment, but it’s worth it.”

Many business professors do occasional consulting work for large companies, which can prove mutually beneficial in terms of identifying and fixing problems. Gino often delivers keynotes about her research at corporate events, routinely attends practitioner-only conferences, and talks about her research when teaching business leaders in the Executive Education program at HBS. In “Enhancing the Practical Relevance of Research,” Toffel notes that when he and his colleagues presented their research on occupational safety to managers at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “both they and we learned a lot.”

And let’s not forget small companies; some 90 percent of businesses in the United States have fewer than 20 employees, according to the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. “I think universities cater to recent alums and big corporations,” says Paul Davis, cofounder and CEO of Intelligent Integration Systems, a small, Boston-based analytic software company, who sought feedback from business researchers when the company was starting up in 2005. “We found it was hard for a small [company] to get much attention at big schools.”

Writing is another way to reach practitioners, which requires using language they will understand. Alas, some academic journals discourage plain communication. So while a layperson would undoubtedly understand words like “helpful,” “rule of thumb,” and “tendency to hang out with similar people,” the editor of an academic research journal might prefer the academic terms “prosocial,” “heuristic,” and “homophily”—a word that runs rampant in social science literature, but which gets the red-squiggle-underline treatment in Microsoft Word.

(Case in point, see above: “Egocentric Interpretations of Fairness in Asymmetric, Environmental Social Dilemmas: Explaining Harvesting Behavior and the Role of Communication” vs. “The Impossibility of Auditor Independence.”)

“[Journal] editors and reviewers have sometimes asked me to reduce the use of informal language and substitute ‘scientific’ language,” says Greenstein. “Sometimes it is annoying because the informal writing covers topics that could be useful to others, but that is just the way it goes.”

Time-crunched practitioners who try to read research papers can find themselves thwarted by the obscurity of scholarly language. Consider Christopher Bell, co-founder and CEO of Zoomergy LLC, a software consultancy in Los Angeles. Bell is unusual among business leaders in that he actually seeks out research papers, but only to a point. “Making the leap from the research results to the actions I should take is not often clear,” he says. “And of course, time is limited so if the research is described in peculiar terms only used in a highly subspecialized academic niche, I’m not likely to even get to the conclusion let alone act on it.”

Thus, to reach business practitioners in writing, the best bet may be to write articles for industry trade magazines, mainstream business journals, or op-eds for newspapers, all of which are hurting for good content these days. Researchers who don’t have time to pitch articles to the popular press can post to a personal blog, or, on a less time-consuming scale, provide brief synopses of their research on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. 

The slideshow below shows three examples in which the findings of an academic paper (top of the slide) were translated into plainer language for a business audience (bottom of the slide). 

Three examples of how academic language was translated into language that appeals to business practitioners.


For the past 20 years Greenstein has written a 1,500-word column for IEEE Micro, a bimonthly magazine published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world’s largest association of technical professionals. “The email responses can be very interesting and educational,” he says.

Gino has written articles for Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, Scientific American, and Huffington Post, among others—“with some pieces being rejected; that’s par for the course,” she says.

Edelman provides straightforward summaries of his research on his personal website. “I can’t imagine being excited about writing articles read only by other academics,” he says. “I think I could do it. But it wouldn’t get me out of bed in the morning.”

Making research easy to understand is not always easy

French mathematician Blaise Pascal famously wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Loosely translated: “I have written a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.” For sure, journal requirements aside, it can be a lot harder for an academic to explain research in layman’s terms than with academic jargon.

“For example, one professional statistician talking to another can cut a lot of corners by using specialized language,” says Greenstein. “It is very efficient. But sometimes it can be hard to explain to a non-statistician. It just is. Good statistics is actually quite challenging to do and explain. Econometrics is hard. That is an explanation, not an excuse.”

Fortunately, for academics, there are resources that can help them translate their research into accessible prose. For HBS professors, of course, there’s Working Knowledge, the publication you’re reading right now. But many general-interest publications employ editors who can help guide the process for scholars to write straightforward pieces about complex research.

Another good option for researchers: making business journalists aware of the research, and encouraging them to write about it themselves, in news articles and feature stories. Talking to journalists is an effective way to publicize research, but there are translation risks. For instance, journalists sometimes jump the gun and confuse correlation with causation.

"The Science News Cycle” from the comic
“Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

The best way for scholars to mitigate that risk is to avoid jargon when talking to journalists, and to keep the conversation focused on the research. “I try to only say things to journalists and practitioners that are backed by sound scientific evidence,” says Brooks. “And if I mention my own thoughts or opinions, I make sure to give a big fat disclaimer such as ‘I don’t have data on this, but…” or ‘This is just my opinion or speculation.’”

A note to researchers who talk to journalists: Before the interview, ask whether they plan to quote you, and if so, can you review the quotes for clarity and accuracy before publication. Many journalists are happy to oblige, time permitting. But don’t ask them if you can review the whole story beforehand; the answer will be no.

And a note to business journalists deciding whether to write about research: don’t ignore new research just because it lacks an obvious tie to current events. New research can provide an opportunity to be prescient about real-world events rather than retrospective. The research itself can be the news hook, although it may not be as obvious as, say, a breakthrough in cancer research.

Remember the aforementioned research by Bazerman et al., which explained the unconscious biases that cause auditors to do a bad job of auditing? Bazerman first pitched a piece on the subject to a practitioner-focused publication in the late 1990s, but the editors weren’t interested. However, they became very interested in the research the following millennium, after auditor Arthur Andersen was convicted of illegally destroying documents related to the US Securities and Exchange investigation of its client, the Enron Corporation.

“They needed the collapse of Enron,” Bazerman says. “There’s an issue of managerial outlets not being interested in good ideas until they have become obvious.”

Harvard Business School’s Michael I. Norton and Duke University’s Dan Ariely have received a great deal of mainstream media attention on their research on wealth inequality, including this YouTube video, which has received more than 19 million views. But, Norton says, it took nearly 10 years for the media to pay attention to the line of research.

“We started that research in 2002,” says Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at HBS. “Then some things happened in the world, and people started being interested in inequality.”

How academic institutions can change

It’s worth noting that Harvard Business School is unusual in that it stresses the importance of a strong interest in the concerns of practicing managers and in conducting theoretical, experimental, and field-based research that can influence “both academics and practitioners” among the faculty.

Institutional encouragement of practically relevant research is one way to shift the focus of academic studies, but Toffel argues for other fixes in his paper. He suggests academic journals do more to communicate with practitioners, inviting published authors to write companion pieces for practitioner readers, for example. In fact, the Strategic Management Journal now requires that accepted papers include managerial abstracts, and that journal and Academy of Management Perspectives have begun encouraging authors to create brief videos to explain their research to a broad audience.

Toffel also recommends that professional societies do more to promote and share relevant research with their members. Several societies already present awards to honor practically relevant research in their respective industries, he notes.

Finally, he argues that scholars need to learn the value of practical relevance from the start of their academic careers.

“We also need to encourage and train our doctoral students to nurture the desire to conduct relevant research and to acquire the knowledge to do so, including by encouraging them to engage with practitioners,” he writes.

In the end, the trend toward more applicable research will have to start with the researchers.

“My advice is to be true to yourself and your ideas,” says Edelman. “For those who have genuine and significant insights to provide to practitioners, the hope is that good ideas will ultimately get the audience and recognition they deserve.”

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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