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Business School Research and Needs in the Industry: A Two-way Street or a Road to Nowhere?


 

 

Good afternoon invited guests, professor chancellor, professor president, administrators and staff, students and fellow academics.  If the salutation seems unusual, it is because it is unusual, but it is not necessarily wrong.  I will argue that it is in fact most appropriate, but that is a matter for another lecture. I saluted the chancellor and president using the correct titles – professors because that is what they are – I will NOT address them as Mr. Chancellor, or Mr. President as some would.  I must confess that I have developed a healthy respect for professors knowing what it takes to become one.

 

I consider it a privilege and honor to be invited to deliver a public lecture as a part of the 10th year anniversary celebration of the founding of Regent University College of Science and Technology.  Celebrating an anniversary of any kind is a special occasion, and celebrating the 10th year anniversary of the founding of a private university of this kind in an intensely competitive space of private tertiary education in Ghana is a remarkable achievement.  Congratulations to the visionary founder and all his able assistants.

 

For a celebration of this sort and for an institution with religious-focus such as Regent, you must permit me, ladies and gentlemen, for a rare personal indulgence to look at scriptures for an inspiration.  And so I quote

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” – Mathew 5:16.  

Regent is shining this light today for others to follow and the rest will be history.

Looking at the list of speakers before me, it quickly occurred to me that I am in an extremely good company and hence have very big shoes to fill.  You, ladies and gentlemen, have had the privilege of listening to accomplished industrialists, engineering scientists, mathematicians, entrepreneurs and theologians as part of the anniversary lecture series, and now you will also have the pains of listening to a self-described accidental academic.   

I call myself an accidental academic because I did not plan to be in academia.  In fact, I consciously pursued trajectories that were supposed to have taken me far from the corridors of universities, but as one of the many happy accidents of my life, I “fell” into academia by a strange twist of fate, and perhaps I am better for it.

 

A word about the Topic

The topic for this lecture is not as catchy as the topics of your previous lectures.  The topic is rather a mouthful, but that is not to say that it is unimportant.  In fact, it is a topic that needs addressing.  Amongst business academics, it is the “elephant in the room”.  We know it is there, but either we do not want to discuss it or would rather pretend that it is not there at all.  But guess what?  This elephant is not going away on its own.  So, we must address it – and the sooner the better.  The question that is still being asked is whether our research speaks to the needs of the industry, or whether it is something that we simply do for its own sake in order to get tenure and be promoted. If our research addresses the needs in the industry, then ladies and gentlemen, we have a two-way street; but if our research is done simply to get tenure and promotion, then we have a road to nowhere, and that cannot be sustained.

 

Business School Education and Research

Many who are educated, but who do not understand the role of universities have written to complain about the uselessness of academic research. The humanities and the business research seem to be frequent targets.  The question I will address in this brief public lecture is whether the critics have a point.

The answer to this question as you may guess depends on who is being questioned.  Professor Moehrle and his colleagues in addressing this very question in their paper which was published in Accounting Horizons in 2009, almost a decade ago, had this to say:

“We believe that research can, should, does and will continue to affect the effectiveness and efficiency of individual firms, not-for-profit organizations, government, and capital markets, as well as the governance of these entities and markets.” (Moehrle et al., 2009.  p. 412 cited in Albu and Toader, 2012).

My own response to the question, ladies and gentlemen, unsurprisingly is not so categorical.  My answer is a little more nuanced and I will in the following minutes explain my position.

 

Fellow business academics, the fact that questions are often raised about the merits or the relevance of our research seems to suggest (at least to me) that we (business academics) are failing to properly educate the vast majority of those who come through our lectures and who we are supposed to be educating.

Why should I take such a position?  Well, this is why - one with good university education should know what universities, in general, are about, and what business school education in particular and research in business schools are intended to accomplish. One with good university education should know the difference between basic research and applied research.  And one with good university education should also know the difference between a professional school and a non-professional school. Conflating these issues makes people more confused about the role of Business Schools and certainly what our research is about.

 

Perhaps, a more germane question is whether Business Schools are professional or non-professional schools.  This is also a debate that continues to rage.  Anyone who has read about the debates that surrounded the founding of the Said Business School in the University of Oxford or the Judge Institute in the University of Cambridge should be well acquainted with these issues.  I will not go into them now, but it should be obvious from what I have just alluded to that it will take more time than we have today to clearly unpack these issues. 

In fact, bridging the gap between business academic research and industry needs, in my view, could mean several things.  However, I will limit myself to two.

First, questioning the relevance of academic business research can be taken to question the very nature of research that we conduct in business schools.  Second, and perhaps a broader meaning could be to question the nature of our teaching techniques which are supposed to be driven by our research.  Yes, our research amongst other things should impact our classroom teaching. 

I argue that this broad interpretation of the question is valid because our graduates (the products of our system) also take up positions in industries and therefore constitute or should constitute a part of the “road” that we are talking about this evening.

 

Argument

I have a simple trial strategy as a lawyer and that is to make sure that I spare no efforts in laying a solid foundation for whatever case I have at hand.  I am going to violate my time-proven trial strategy by lounging right into my arguments without having properly laid my foundations.  I will do so because I do not have enough time.  I have only 40 minutes to make a philosophical argument.  Besides, I am talking to a rather sophisticated audience who can and will easily, even without my invitation, fill in the “blanks” and “holes” that I have left.  Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, I need not make every foundational point.

So why should people continue to talk about a gap between business academic research and industry needs when we graduate millions of students who go to work in the industry each year? 

How can people in the industry talk about a gap between business school research and industry needs when they in their daily practices use concepts or techniques such as: Balanced Score Card (Kaplan and Norton, 1992)

Corporate Social Responsibility (see Wood 1991 and its progeny)

Management by Wandering Around (Peters and Waterman, 1982)

Bounded Rationality and Decision Making (Simon, 1957, 1991), and several others like these?

 

Questions

I suppose people continue to question the relevance of business school research partly because they are still confused about what we do.  Or it could be that they are not well informed on what we do.  Somehow, people have taken for granted such concepts as Activity Based Accounting without thinking of how they came into existence or without recognizing that it is a product of business school research.  But part of the problem may be our own making. 

We (business academics) are beginning to believe our critics, and we are beginning to doubt our reason for being.  However, before the situation gets worse, we need to take a breather and answer three simple questions.

  • One, what are we, or better still who are we? 
  • Two, what is our role? And
  • Three, how can we better serve our constituents?

 

Answers

If I am asked to answer my own questions, I will say the following:

To, the question who or what are we?  My answer is simple.  We are a part of institutions of higher learning.  And I must say that we should never lose sight of this, because if we do, we will also lose our Raison d’etre.  Our reason for being is that which distinguishes us in the educational space – we are either a part of a university or a university system AND NOT a vocational institution.  There is a big difference.    

To the question What is our role?  I will say the following - In my view, our role is to produce critical thinkers, regardless of their discipline - that is critical thinkers regardless of their area of specialization.  These critical thinkers will or should go on to solve tomorrow’s problems regardless of where they occur; that is whether they occur in business, non-government organizations, or in governments.  I see this as our real mission and we trivialize our role when we fail to do this well. 

 

Now, to the question of how can we satisfy our constituents? I will respectfully submit that we all know how this can be done; what is missing is perhaps the willingness to do it. My dear colleagues, periodic survey of our stakeholders cannot be replaced by what you and I think, or even how you and I feel.  Periodic surveys will help us to literally keep our fingers on the pulse of our stakeholders.  While on this issue, let me pose this question:

When was the last time that we as individual lecturers or professors, on our own, without the institutional requirement, asked our students for a feedback at the end of the semester on whether the course that we have just taught met their expectations, and how we might improve the course? 

If we haven’t done this, then I suggest it is a high time we started.  It is an important part in being relevant.  Being relevant here is addressing the needs of our consumers.  Let us always be mindful of the fact that our students are both our customers and our “products”.  They are our face in the industry and do become part of the industry!

 

Business School Research

Research will be required of us, as long as Business Schools continue to be a part of a university or university system.  As far as I know, “publish or perish” is still the dictum; and it isnot likely to be abandoned any time soon.   However, we can do a better job in making the public and industry more aware of what we do. 

Let me ask my fellow academics these questions; the answers may be helpful to us in building a two-way street with the industry:

  1. When was the last time that you gave an interview to the press (popular media) on the significance of a research that you have published?
  2. When was the last time that you wrote an “Op-ED” piece to highlight the impact of your recent research?
  3. When was the last time that you reviewed a significant research in your field in the popular press?

Mind you, I am not saying that we should start “blowing our own horn” (this is coming from someone who has been described as intensely private), but what I am saying is that we must make the public aware of the good things that we are doing by our research.  And there is even a Christian precept for argument, I quote:

“No one lights a lamp and puts it in a cellar or under a basket.  Instead, he sets it on a lamp stand, so those who enter can see the light” - Luke 11: 33.

 

Why should we relegate our research publications only to libraries?  It would seem to me that publicizing our research is now an additional responsibility that we must assume.  We need to do that and must do so in order to educate the public, save our profession and to make our profession more relevant.

According to Bob Dylan “Times, they are changing” and we must also change or risk becoming irrelevant.  The days of being closeted in the “ivory tower” and remaining oblivious to the things going on around us in the larger society are over.  In addition to “publish or perish” perhaps we must also add the phrase “and adapt or risk becoming irrelevant”.

THANK YOU!!!!!

 

 

References

Albu, C.N.., and Toader, S. (2012), “Bridging the gap Between Accounting Academic Research and Practice:  Some Conjectures from Romania,” Accounting Information System, Vol 11, #2, 163-173.

Kaplan, Robert S; Norton, D. P. (1992). "The Balanced Scorecard – Measures That Drive Performance,"Harvard Business Review (January–February): 71–79.

Moehrle, S.R., Anderson, K.L., Ayers, Bolt-Lett, C.E., Debreceny, R.S., Dugan, M. T., Hogan, C.E., Maher, W.W., Plummer, E. (2009), “The Impact of Academic Accounting Research on Professional Practice:  An Analysis by the AAA Research Impact Task Force,” Accounting Horizon, Vol. 23, #4, 4111-456.

Peters, T., and Waterman, R. H. (1982), In search of Excellence:  Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies, Harper and Row, N.Y, NY.

Simon, H. (1957). "A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice", in Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting. New York: Wiley.

Simon, H.  (1991). "Bounded Rationality and Organizational Learning," Organization Science. 2 (1): 125–134.

Wood, D. J. (1991), “Corporate Social Performance Revisited” The Academy of Management Review Vol. 16, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 691-718