So now that I’ve had the time to decompress and think carefully about my experience at the 2nd Sumantra Ghoshal Conference on Managerially Relevant Research (see Off to London for background), I’m more convinced that my time was well spent.
It was nice to be part of a conference with the explicit intention of bringing academics and practitioners together to discuss research papers, and the role of academic research in the everyday lives of managers. The conference was attended by academics from various of the top business schools in both Europe and the U.S. Moreover, there was ample managerial representation from firms such as Accenture, Hoffman-LaRoche, McKinsey, Saatchi & Saatchi, RBC, and the Financial Times (to name a few).
Some highlights from the conference included:
- The organizers of the conference administered a survey before the conference began and presented some interesting data on the most important issues managers and scholars believe are facing businesses moving forward (credit concerns aside). What I found most interesting is that managers generally agreed about the most critical issues facing their businesses. They identified the following strategic issues as crucial: How to attract and retain talent; How to build and leverage knowledge; How to Identify the next area of growth for the corporation; How to align the organization toward common goals; and, How to draw up an appropriate mission statement. The academics, by contrast, were all over the map. We didn’t agree on much of anything. About the most you could take away from the data for the academics is that all of us in attendance have very different research interests. Some of us thought that “Building and leveraging knowledge” was important, some thought that “Identifying the next area of growth for the corporation” was important, some thought that “governance” was important. But for the most part, there was little agreement among us.
- There was general agreement among most of us that academics influence practice in a multitude of ways, and that influencing practice is not always about getting our research directly in front of the eyeballs of managers. In fact, if anything, this is probably a small part of how we influence managers. We obviously have the greatest impact through our teaching, at the undergraduate, MBA, and executive levels. We also influence managers through consultants (who borrow and implement our ideas), and on occasion, by consulting directly with firms. Scholars also influence practice through our impact on policy – by proffering informed opinions to politicians or testifying on business practice. In this sense then, we help shape the game and inform the agenda – helping decide which issues are important and which are not.
- One of the McKinsey representatives suggested that she (and other management consultants) routinely scan and read academic research to extract the latest ideas, concepts, and tools to apply on client engagements. Interestingly, one research paper presented at the conference suggested that those ideas, concepts, and tools are often applied inappropriately, and sometimes without effect. However, the research also suggested that although sometimes applied incorrectly, they get people within the organization to openly communicate about strategic issues, thereby generating some value, if not exactly that originally intended.
- With respect to our research, there was considerable debate on the type of research we ought to be doing – whether research that directly addresses specific management problems, or research that we ourselves consider important, irrespective of whether it’s managerial relevance is immediately obvious. One view expressed (with which I must say I agree) was that we must not lose site of the fact that as business school faculty, we are a part of an applied, vocational program with a mandate to train business leaders. We therefore cannot lose sight of, or become completely detached from, our audience when conducting our own research, for taken to an extreme, research that is disconnected with the interests of our constituents will ultimately repay us with lower enrollments.
All in all, I got a lot out of the conference. It was fun to spend a few days interacting with a bunch of really smart folks (both academics and managers) discussing some really interesting issues.