A document issued by the Commission on Management Research (1994) advocates strengthening the partnership between academics and those in management and emphasises dialogue and mutual understanding of needs. It recognises that the apparent simplicity of this approach may disguise challenges and problems.
It undoubtedly does; the note of caution is to be welcomed. There are indeed essential problems which need to be explored and considered. Strategies to strengthen academic and managerial partnership need to recognise that universities and industry represent two distinct cultures. Although there may be some commonality of interest, each has widely differing needs arising from characteristically different purposes and priorities.
The university sector is primarily concerned with academic pursuits and the extension and transmission of knowledge. The whole purpose of industry is the creation of wealth and the profitable survival of companies. Despite recent external pressures, universities tend to be geared to long-term perspectives. Essentially there is an immediacy in business and management procedures which demand the translation of knowledge into action: for example, profitable outcomes depend on the quality of response to changing market forces.
Differences between the two cultures may be summarised by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle's concept of 'know that' and 'know how'. Reading a book on golf provides 'know that' and helps understanding of the theory of a golf swing but by no stretch of the imagination will it give the 'know how' of a Nick Faldo. University business schools are concerned with learning 'that' or acquiring information. They possess a breadth of knowledge which is not limited by experience in a finite number of companies and the 'know that' derived from relevant disciplines. Managers possess other knowledge: their 'know how' results from active experience in the decision-making and leadership of companies. The distinction implies no value judgment. Nevertheless, partnerships have foundered where participants have not recognised the contribution of either area of knowledge. The problem lies in assisting these areas to interact effectively. Existing means of interaction could benefit from careful review; these primarily concern teaching and research.
Teaching involves content and process, and credibility is a key factor in its success. Whether or not this knowledge successfully moves the manager forward in considering new opportunities and reviewing problems depends on the credibility of the source. To demonstrate credibility tutors must be familiar with the management situation within which their discipline is applicable. However, these situations are subject to continual change. Ensuring relevance of their subject requires tutors to have an ongoing involvement with managers. If the information is perceived as redundant, irrelevant or not consonant with experience, then there is a tendency for managers to dismiss its credibility: insufficient cognisance is taken of the manager's 'know how' which can profitably be used to extend knowledge and understanding. If tutors are perceived to speak the same language and have insight into management problems, then there is a greater likelihood of the 'information' they offer being accepted.
Interaction between the two cultures also concerns research, an area which can be equally problematic. Many managers are ambivalent about university research into their companies. In terms of the two cultures, researchers may have long-term objectives while managers are concerned with the here-and-now of survival. The research may attempt to describe best practice; the managers know that each company has its own culture and that problems and solutions described in research are not readily transferable to their own situation. Research may be descriptive and, like the content of some courses, merely tell the manager what he already knows. Managers and companies may feel like patients with interesting symptoms. Their role is passive while the doctors carry out various tests, peer and prod and complete questionnaires only to describe in somewhat more esoteric terms the symptoms the patient lives with day by day. They might reasonably expect improvement from the analysis of their condition. The key question is whether or not teaching and/or research produces a more effective manager.
Universities need to recognise that initiatives with industry require different criteria for staff performance. Although the situation has improved, promotion tends to depend upon published research in learned journals rather than upon enterprise in empirical research and liaison with companies. If staff are successful teachers, then this is regarded as a bonus - effective communication is not given priority in the promotion stakes. There needs to be opportunities for business school staff to work alongside managers to their mutual benefit. Those with 'know that' could thus gain insight into the problem of companies which might be pursued in mutually beneficial research.
Equally, companies need to rotate their axis. There is an expectation that course attendance ipso facto leads to an increase in performance skills. Unless companies are supportive and provide opportunities to assist managers to reconcile 'know that' with 'know how' then, there cannot be any guarantee that managers will perform more effectively. Research should not be that which 'happens' to the firm; rather, it is a means whereby academic staff and management gain insights into the problems of companies.
Research could enrich academic appreciation of what might be further explored, providing a knowledgeable sounding board against which managers could test new ideas and a means by which new approaches could be jointly developed. Management education is essentially an act of faith whereby performance may be improved through exposure to new ideas and understanding propounded by credible sources. In practical terms it is more often the performance of good works and will continue to be so unless the two cultures recognise, define and resolve the differences in dialogue and mutual understanding of needs.
Charles Baker Emeritus professor of Durham University, past director of Durham University Business Schools, past chairman of the Conference of University Management Schools, and companion of the IM.