Recognizing the Value of Management Know-How

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Wednesday, January 4, 2023
By Vince Mitchell, Eric Knight
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
If business schools want to impact practice, scholars should pay more attention to the management know-how embedded in real-world workplaces.
  • Faculty research too often focuses on easily measured “explicit knowledge” that will not have a real impact on practice.
  • Business schools can create more valuable knowledge by providing opportunities for students and faculty to work closely with organizational partners.
  • Business schools also can participate in scientific projects in other fields as a way to expand and share management knowledge.

New knowledge is foundational to the functioning of late modern economies, and business schools play a central role in creating and disseminating that knowledge. However, the knowledge that faculty are producing today isn’t necessarily useful or relevant for the practice of business.

Business schools most often celebrate and recognize knowledge that is published in top-tier journals. It is considered “explicit knowledge” because it can be easily articulated, codified, stored, and accessed. Explicit knowledge first became the dominant style of management research in the 1950s, when business schools attempted to establish greater scientific legitimacy by hiring social science researchers from areas such as economics and psychology.

Today, business schools commonly use 24 research impact indicators to categorize the knowledge that their faculty produce. The recent Academy of Management’s Practice Theme Committee report shows that 21 of these indicators fall into the category of explicit knowledge—that is, they apply to scholarly articles, scholarly citations, scholarly books, and competitive research grants. Only three indicators—executive teaching, consulting, and membership on corporate or government boards—describe activities that are likely to share know-how and have an impact on practice.

While research articles are clearly important, they don’t reflect the full practice of management. Management decision-making is heavily context-dependent, so there are few explicit rules that can be generalized. Unfortunately, many articles ignore or underplay the importance of both context and know-how—areas that many firms, such as McKinsey, recognize as highly valuable. We discuss this disconnect in an earlier article on tacit knowledge.

We believe that research articles are not the best vehicles for teaching students about management as they are not well-connected to management practice. If business schools are going to produce knowledge that will have value to both students and business leaders, they must build their capacity in the practice of management. While many business schools already maintain close connections with industry, we believe they could take three steps to strengthen those collaborations in ways that not only produce a greater impact on business, but also provide students with a better understanding of management.

Increase Student Exposure to Practice

The first step business schools can take toward this goal is to look for ways to get all students more deeply involved in real-world business. Administrators can do this by making industry interactions more integral to the student experience.

Most schools already expose students to practice through business consultancies, case competitions, simulations, internships, international work exchanges, and dissertations that are based on interactions with practice. However, in many cases, these activities are optional. Schools can strengthen students’ connections to industry by making these activities required and by ensuring that more of each student’s time is devoted to them.

Business schools should get students more deeply involved in real-world business by making industry interactions more integral to the student experience.

But to scale up connections between students and organizations, business schools need to involve their alumni more. They also need to do more to involve existing students who are currently employed—particularly students who are in part-time MBA or PhD programs such as the Global Executive PhD at ESCP.

Additionally, schools can bring in more “pracademics” (teachers who have been practitioners) or seek out connections with “academitioners” (practitioners who have academic qualities). While academitioners generally have no current connections with universities, they are highly reflective thought leaders who often write books and articles about their practice. One example from the marketing field is Keith Weed. Pracademics and academitioners can serve as adjunct professors, executives-in-residence, or guest speakers.

Because these experts have both practical experience and theoretical knowledge, they bridge the thinking-versus-doing camps. They ensure that business schools are places that encourage critical thinking, as well as places that teach students how to do things and allow them to showcase their knowledge. Not only can these individuals teach practice—they also know how to impact it.

Strengthen Connections to Practice

The second thing business schools can do is encourage faculty to form deeper connections with practice so they can develop research that contributes to the knowledge economy. Schools already take many steps to promote those connections: They offer executive PhD programs, ask advisory committees to give input on course development, provide internal grants to support engaged research, and maintain active alumni offices that facilitate research connections. But some small strategic adjustments could have significant impacts.

For instance, schools could augment their course advisory committees with practitioners from other major professions, such as engineers and healthcare workers. These individuals could provide real-world knowledge of management practice in their fields.

Schools also could ask advisory committee members or affiliated organizations to co-deliver courses. As an example, the Macquarie Business School in Sydney delivers a financial markets certificate in partnership with the Australian Financial Markets Association.

Schools and their business partners could co-create executive education programs that combine academic research “know-what” with organizational “know-how” to spark meaningful change.

As part of such collaborations, partner organizations could act as test beds where scholars and practitioners can try out new research knowledge. Subsequently, schools and their business partners could co-create and co-deliver new executive education programs that combine academic research “know-what” with organizational “know-how” to spark meaningful change.

Practice ‘In-Reach,’ Not Just Outreach

While it’s important for schools to build on or adapt their existing relationships with industry, they also should look for new ways to gain knowledge about management practice. One good approach is to collaborate with other departments within the university—such as medicine, engineering, and law—where know-how and practice are both essential.

For instance, at the University of Sydney, MBAs from the business school work with other departments to help commercialize scientific breakthroughs and spinoffs. The involvement of the MBAs provides academics with access to other networks and communities that they might not have through their own industry contacts.

Business professors and their students also could explore management practice by reaching into the university. Through intra-university cooperation, students could analyze systems and impact practice in many areas of the institution, including catering departments, sporting venues, executive education programs, academic departments, student societies, and central administrative offices. These experiences would provide students with a highly controllable way to improve their skills as they help the university learn from itself.

This multidisciplinary approach can have benefits that extend beyond teaching, especially if faculty apply for grants to scientific projects that have significant socioeconomic and legal implications. As an example, GenomeCanada has invited individuals across many disciplines to contribute to research focused on developing genomics-based technologies that improve people’s lives. Such a collaborative model suggests that a number of practice areas could benefit when business scholars partner with scientists on research projects.

Seeking Greater Teaching Impact

In a recent paper, we argue that when both research and teaching drift too far toward explicit knowledge, business schools undervalue the importance of hands-on management experience. To counter this tendency, we advocate for business schools to expand their current connections with industry and explore new ones.

As they develop a greater understanding of real-world operations, faculty will be able to develop new knowledge that not only will improve management education, but also will ensure that management research has a greater impact on the business world.

Vince Mitchell
Professor of Marketing, University of Sydney
Eric Knight
Dean and Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Business School
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