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Business and Management Research: Climbing down from the ivory towers

Business and management academics in the UK produce fascinating, insightful and highly relevant research into a range of business-related issues, but what use is that research if it never finds its way into practice? Steve Coomber and Des Dearlove look at how one team of academics are helping to ensure that management research actually makes a difference in the real world of work

Bodleian library, University of Oxford A frequent criticism of academics is that too many of them inhabit scholarly ivory towers, conducting esoteric research that rarely has an impact on the real world. It is not a criticism that business academics are exempt from either. There is a long-running debate among policymakers, academics, business practitioners and others regarding the relevance of research by management academics to the real world of work.

Now, Tim Hughes, a Reader in Marketing at Bristol Business School, based at the University of the West of England, together with a team of researchers, has made an important contribution to this debate with a new study that examines the ways that management and business research finds its way into practice.

The gap between theory and practice
‘There has been a lot of criticism that, as management has become more of an accepted subject within business schools and universities, academics have increasingly focused on gaining more scientific credibility while distancing themselves from practice,’ says Hughes.

Historically, business and management studies within business schools and universities had a significant practical dimension, with many staff having a background in practice. 

Increasingly, however, more people have followed a more traditional PhD career track and so embarked upon management research with no or little experience of management practice. The worry, says Hughes, is that, if this trend continues, there is a risk that business schools may lose a lot of credibility with practitioners because neither graduates, postgraduates nor executives will want to acquire knowledge from business and management schools if that knowledge has no relevance to business practice.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that the management research undertaken by academics is often not getting out into the business community in a useful way. This is partly due to the way the performance of business schools and academics is assessed, says Hughes.

Academic performance is judged via mechanisms that are in part based upon what gets published in academic journals. In turn, research grants may be dependent on these ratings. Consequently, there is a lot of pressure on academics to focus on publishing in academic journals that the average businessman will never read.

Surprisingly, very little research has been devoted to looking at the dissemination of knowledge between business and management researchers, and business practitioners, or at the gap between research theory and practice. So Hughes and his team decided to set out on a three-year study to look at the issues involved and see if the dissemination of research among practitioners could be improved.

To begin with, it was important to define terms and, in particular, to clarify the difference between knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange. ‘There’s an awful lot of confusion and sometimes the terms are used interchangeably,’ says Hughes. ‘But knowledge transfer is more of a one-way transaction, with the academics transmitting their knowledge to practitioners. Whereas, with knowledge exchange, you’re talking about the involvement of both academics and practitioners in deciding what is important to research, being involved in the research, and the interpretation of that research. The argument is that both knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange are important.’

While the value of knowledge exchange for practitioners is self-evident, as they can use that knowledge to improve the performance of their business, perhaps the benefit for the academics is less obvious. In a rapidly changing business world, however, knowledge exchange allows academics to keep a check on what is happening in the real world as well as providing a testing mechanism for their ideas.

In terms of methodology, the research involved talking to a wide range of business and management academics, practitioners and consultants, using interviews and a semi-structured questionnaire to get people talking about their experiences. Hughes used a team of researchers, each focused on a particular subdiscipline within management. The results were then gathered together, interpreted and written up by Hughes.

The research focused on two important questions. ‘Broadly, we were thinking about the different ways that academics and practitioners engaged with each other,’ says Hughes, ‘capturing the ways that people engaged, and looking at the effectiveness of those different methods of engagement with respect to knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange.’

Rules of engagement

UK research AIMs to engage

There is considerable awareness among UK business and management schools of the need to ensure that the research that takes place within their walls sees the light of day and has an impact on business practice.

As a result, the Advanced Institute of Management Research (AIM) was set up in 2002 with funding from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

AIM brings together leading researchers from a wide variety of universities in the UK, as well as a number of overseas fellows, to conduct research exploring issues associated with four main themes: sustained innovation; promising practices; services; and productivity and performance.

The research is designed both to shed new light on challenges facing the UK as well as informing practitioners and policymakers. Indeed, one of the four key objectives of AIM is to engage with practitioners as co-producers of knowledge about management. To do this, it employs a number of measures, including executive briefings written in a way that is easily accessible to practitioners, and workshops and other events aimed at disseminating research to practitioners.

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When the research was completed, it became clear that academics engaged practitioners in a number of ways, the six main methods being: courses and programmes; research; publications; conferences; knowledge networks; and academic consultancy. Their effectiveness varied considerably.

Teaching on undergraduate courses and programmes has limitations in terms of knowledge transfer into business practice, says Hughes, primarily because it takes a long time for undergraduates to get into a position of power within an organisation where they can use that knowledge in a significant way. Plus, knowledge decays over time and so this also lessens the knowledge-transfer impact. Postgraduate and executive courses, however, do offer a more direct transfer route.

Knowledge exchange on undergraduate programmes is likely to be minimal. On postgraduate and executive programmes, however, there is more opportunity for interaction and sharing of knowledge between academics and programme participants. 

With research, engagement varies, depending on the type of research being conducted. ‘Many types of research do not actually involve much of a dialogue with practitioners, who tend to be the subjects of research,’ says Hughes. ‘So, if you’re doing a big quantitative study, you might just push a questionnaire out, and try and get people to fill it in – which, often, people are not that keen to do. So, most research, and particularly the type that gets published in the top journals, doesn’t actually involve much knowledge exchange or transfer in practice.’

With a few exceptions, such as the Harvard Business Review , academic publications do not tend to be very effective methods of research dissemination as they are rarely written in practitioner-friendly language. Nor do people in business have time to read these articles. Publishing in more mainstream business and professional publications is one way of reaching business practice, but, because of the way that academics are assessed, there is not much encouragement for academics to publish in these kinds of publications.

Another way that academics can engage in knowledge transfer and exchange is by attending and speaking at conferences. The challenge here, says Hughes, is that conferences tend to be segregated into academic conferences and practitioner conferences – two different worlds for two different needs.

A more promising method of knowledge dissemination and co-creation is knowledge networks, which tend to be sector-specific and offer good opportunities for researchers to get involved with practitioners. ‘A good example is a financial services network which has been going for over ten years, set up between a business school and people working within the financial services industry,’ says Hughes. ‘Industry professionals commission joint research, decide what is important and valuable research for the sector, and then the academics conduct that research and report back on it.’

Although knowledge networks can be very effective, they also have their challenges, not least because it takes a lot of effort on the academics’ part to keep them going. 

Finally, there is consultancy work. This, says Hughes, is a difficult area for academics because there are issues about objectivity if academics are being employed by a business, and also issues relating to commercial confidentiality. So, it can be a route to knowledge transfer and exchange, but there are lots of practical and ethical barriers.

As well as identifying a number of different methods of engagement, Hughes also looked across all of the research to see what people were saying about the more important factors for effective engagement. The results revealed a number of individual and institutional factors – preconditions for successful engagement – both within the academic and the practitioner world.

‘Academics could be divided into three groups: those who want to engage with practice and are equipped to do so because they have got the experience; those that want to engage with practice, but are not really equipped to do so – maybe they are young, have done a PhD, but don’t really have the practical experience; and those who do not want to engage with practice because they feel that it is not really their role to do that.’

On an institutional level, dissemination to, or the involvement of, practitioners is not rewarded in the way that publication in academic journals is, so there is a need to find a way of rewarding knowledge transfer and exchange.

‘On the practitioners’ side, a minority do engage with the academics, enjoy engaging and are good at it,’ notes Hughes. ‘Some think it is a load of rubbish and that they would be wasting their time. A bigger group, who’ve probably done degrees in the past, are favourable to engaging, but don’t get round to it because the opportunity doesn’t arise.’

A framework for success
Hughes presented the research team’s findings at the British Academy of Management Conference in September 2008. The message seems to be that there are effective ways for management and business researchers to engage with practitioners, and that academics need to consider the merits of different routes of engagement as well as appreciate the benefits that can be derived from such interaction with practice.

‘You have to admit the limitations of depending on one or two single routes of knowledge transfer or exchange. If you’re doing research and thinking of publishing in the academic journals, most of it doesn’t see the light of day. There’s an awful lot of work for very little return,’ says Hughes.

Academics, says Hughes, should use the model developed during their research as a framework to help think about the different ways they could engage with practitioners and therefore allow their research to have more of an impact in the wider world.

‘Knowledge creation is a social process; it is about directly relating to practitioners and working within practitioner communities, understanding the context in which practitioners work,’ says Hughes. ‘And, as a social process, our research has revealed the particular importance of a number of factors, such as knowledge networks.’

With more research like this, assuming, of course, that Hughes’ own research gets the knowledge transfer it deserves, then the relationship between management academics and practitioners may be a much more productive one in the future.

Des Dearlove is a long-time columnist and former commissioning editor for The Times.

Steve Coomber writes for The Times , CEO Magazine and Business Strategy Review.


Read more Business & Management research highlights, including a 2006 research paper about Psychological Contracts and 2007 research about The Appliance Of Science.