Everything that's wrong with management research - in 5 minutes

Much of the published literature is over-hyped, over-theorised or just plain wrong, says Professor Dennis Tourish.

by Dennis Tourish
Last Updated: 10 Oct 2019

Managers are increasingly urged to use ‘evidence’ when making decisions. This sounds like good advice. Yet advice to study ‘the evidence’ is itself flawed. For a start, where do you find it? 

An obvious place might be in academic journals devoted to management. The problem here is that these are written by academics for academics, rather than managers or the wider public. The careers of management academics, of whom I am one, depend on publishing in top tier journals. The more sensational the claims we make, the greater our notoriety and the faster we climb the greasy pole. There is an ever present temptation to cut methodological corners, hide weaknesses in our data and exaggerate our findings.

I offer an example from psychology - many of its findings have implications for management and our journals often overlap in the topics that they address. In 2010, Amy Cuddy was an upcoming scholar at Harvard Business School. With two colleagues, she published a paper which proposed that "a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful". As they noted, this "has real-world, actionable implications". 

I can, for example, imagine significant implications for leadership research and leadership development programmes. The media duly went into overdrive. Cuddy did a TED Talk that has become one of the most watched ever. In 2014 the New York Times published an article about her that reads like the profile of a Hollywood movie star. She published a book that has attracted rave reviews on Amazon. 

There is only one slight problem. The original study had a grand total of only 42 subjects – that is, 21 in each condition. We are told nothing about who they were, although it seems likely that they were students. When the study was replicated by another team of researchers with a sample five times bigger than the original, none of its findings were supported. 

Now, there may be many reasons for this failure. Researchers, like everyone else, like to show that their hunches are correct. Perhaps further work will vindicate the original claims that were made. But it is clear that academic careers can be enormously advanced when people make groundbreaking claims that also appeal to a media on the lookout for the latest amazing ‘discoveries’. How many such claims rest on inadequate sample sizes, insufficiently rigorous analyses, over-hyping by authors keen to make an impact, and on occasional outright fraud? 

There is another problem with management research. Its academic journals are infatuated with the development of theory. This takes precedence over addressing important issues, thinking about implications for practice or writing clearly. The result is a great deal of pretentious gibberish masquerading as ‘theory development.’ 

Consider a paper published in 2006 and entitled Strategy as practical coping: a Heideggerian perspective. Here is its main claim to our attention: 

"…we argue that the dominant ‘building’ mode of strategizing that configures actors (whether individual or organizational) as distinct entities deliberately engaging  in purposeful strategic activities derives from a more basic ‘dwelling’ mode in which strategy emerges non-deliberately through everyday practical coping. Whereas, from the building perspective, strategy is predicated upon the prior conception of plans that are then orchestrated to realize desired outcome, from a dwelling perspective strategy does not require, nor does it presuppose, intention and purposeful goal-orientation: strategic ‘intent’ is viewed as immanent in every adaptive action." 

So far as I can figure, this means that instead of sticking to rigid plans managers are often forced to wing it. Well, yes – but we know that already. It is on a par with claims that the ground is dry when the sun shines but gets wet during rain. We don’t need to be fed the same information again, this time in prose that tastes like spam.

To be clear, I am not urging managers to ignore the evidence from business schools. But I am saying that it should be read critically. (Others think likewise. A network of management researchers has emerged committed to promoting more responsible research in business and management.) 

Among much else, our academic journals need to change. There is, of course, nothing wrong with papers that seek to develop theory. But it is preposterous to insist that they should all do so. We also need more papers that have larger and more representative samples, address important questions, and consider the real world implications of what they report. Managers would benefit. So would our wider society, and so would academics. 

We might find that our work becomes less boring and pointless, more interesting and more widely read.

Dennis Tourish is Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex Business School. He is the author of Management Studies in Crisis: Fraud, Deception and Meaningless Research, published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press

Image credit: CARSTEN KOALL/DPA/AFP via Getty Images

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