A few years back, one of the professors from my wife’s business school had come to London, and had given a talk to the alumni of the school. He was a professor of Operations Management (IIRC), and had given a talk about the Toyota Production System or some such.
At the time, my wife was working for Amazon and was completely unimpressed by the lecture. “This guy is 20 years behind”, she claimed, as she gave me a review of the lecture the same evening. The processes the professor had described were apparently extremely primitive compared to what Amazon was following at that time (I believe that).
So this got me thinking about management academia as a profession, and what value they add apart from teaching and preparing MBAs. I’ve sort of worked as one, though my position as Adjunct Professor at IIMB meant that I only taught and didn’t do any research. I did talk to some of the professors there during that time and tried to figure out what they were working on in terms of research.
Putting all this together with material I’ve gathered from Clayton Christensen’s obituaries, I think I’ve recognised a pattern that connects management research – it’s all about looking back at business over the last few years, deciphering patterns about them and then theorising about them.
In a sense it reminds me of second and third order levers. Scientific academic research is usually (though not always) cutting edge, with new science being created in the academic laboratories and then engineered in industries which then go on to commercialise this research.
Management research, on the other hand, is flipped. The true cutting edge in management happens at businesses, where the experimentation is relatively easier than experimenting with scientific stuff. Once some experimentation has happened at the business level and successes and failures have been observed, the academics get into action.
They look at the experiments that the industries did, meticulously collect data that documents the success or failure of these experiments (along with the external factors that might have affected the success or lack of it), and then theorise about the costs and benefits of these experiments, and the situations where they work (or not).
Sometimes the academics supplement their data gathering of the experiments and situations with experiments of their own, and some interviews, and then apply their deep academic and theoretical knowledge on top of it to create theories about them. And once the academic theoretical peer review process has taken place, the idea can get better traction in parts of the industry that have not already figured it out.
The competitive advantage that management academics have is that they sit an arm’s length away from the industries that they study, and they are able to gather data from large numbers of companies in order to build their theories. They may not be the originators of the ideas but their value addition in terms of synthesising ideas generated elsewhere is significant.