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SUSAN ALBERS MOHRMAN AND EDWARD E. LAWLER III
ORGANIZATION AND MANAGEMENT researchers have for decades emphasized theory development and testing with little concern for impact on practice. Why now the increased voicing of concern for relevance? As we look through the rapidly expanding research literature and listen to the voices that are advocating change, multiple rationales for closing the gap between research and practice are apparent. They include instrumental and pragmatic arguments, values-based positions, and methodological and epistemological arguments. The third rationale is based on the artifactual nature of organizations and the need to understand them in relationship to the purposes that people have for their organizations. Although these rationales are not mutually exclusive, each offers a different window on why and how to seek relevance and make a difference to practice.
In this chapter, we first examine these three rationales for focusing on relevance. We then address their key implication for the conduct of research that contributes to practice, specifically, the need to bridge multiple communities of practice. We suggest that relevance depends not only on the content and focus of the research, but also on how academics position their work in the broader landscape of actors who generate and develop knowledge to inform organizational practice. Finally, we raise the questions that researchers need to answer as they build their careers.
Instrumental and pragmatic arguments posit that it is in the self-interest of practitioners and researchers to close the relevance gap, because each will then be better able to accomplish their purposes. For example, evidence—based management—practice that is informed by research-based knowledge—is advocated as leading to greater organizational effectiveness (Rousseau, 2007). Rynes (in press) argues that broad social and economic trends in the environment make it important and advantageous for employers to base their human resources practices on research-based knowledge. As an example, she refers to the legal context that requires organizations to be able to demonstrate the validity of their employment practices. For researchers, there is evidence that closer links to practice provide access to high quality data, and that the amount of researcher time in the field is associated with greater academic citations as well as greater practitioner use of the findings (Rynes, in press).
Society has expectations that professional schools will deliver knowledge that can be used in practice. Funding is increasingly being directed to research involving collaboration with companies and defined in a manner likely to be valuable to practice. Examples include the Advanced Institute of Management initiative (AIM) in the United Kingdom that has funded research expressly designed to be more relevant to policy, competitiveness, and practitioner needs. In the United States, both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have funded university-industry research initiatives with similar purposes. This shaping of research priorities through societal funding mechanisms has been linked to the growing importance of the commercialization of knowledge in today's economy, with a seeming acceptance that knowledge has shifted from a public good to intellectual property and a source of competitive advantage.
This shift in the relationship between science and society also relates to changes in the institutional structures of knowledge generation and application that challenge the privileged position of academic research. The generation of knowledge no longer occurs primarily in universities but rather is happening in a more distributed manner involving many stakeholders (Gibbons et al., 1994). Knowledge is being created in new venues closer to use and application—institutes, temporary consortia, venture companies, and consulting firms, to name a few. Nowotny, Scott, and Gibbons (2003) argue that there is a shift from Mode 1 research—university-based knowledge generation incorporating positivistic epistemologies— to a Mode 2. The latter is characterized by greater institutional and methodological flexibility, co-production among many stakeholders, and greater linkage of knowledge production to application.
Mode 2 knowledge dynamics have become prevalent in the fields of management and organization, where many alternatives to universities—consulting firms, commercial knowledge bundlers, survey researchers, professional societies and consortia—are now providing knowledge that informs practice. Advances in information and communication technology have motivated and enabled a shift to problem-focused research that is no longer defined through the narrow boundaries of disciplines and professions. Practitioners seek information and knowledge relevant to their problems from these many sources and often through new Web-based media that are often disconnected from academia.
One response by university researchers to the changing landscape of organizational knowledge production and consumption is to focus on making their research findings more accessible. The assumption underlying this response is that the work done by academic researchers yields useful knowledge and that the failure is in communication. Researchers are urged to cull through the staggering archives of research and conduct meta-analyses that distill them into clear findings and principles that can be readily shared with practitioners to guide their decisions (Rousseau & McCarthy, 2007; Rousseau, Manning, & Denyer, 2008). Academics are urged to publish practitioner-oriented articles and books and to contribute to Web-based repositories of knowledge that reach practitioners. They are also counseled to write in a compelling and interesting style that captures the minds (through communication based on logos), hearts (through pathos), and consciences (through ethos) of practitioners (Bartunek, 2007, and Van de Ven, 2007, drawing on Aristotle as translated in 1954). As a foundation, academics are urged to have more contact with practitioners to become more aware of their concerns, gain their trust, and establish a relationship with them, so that they will become more capable of crafting research that is useful.
If spending more time with practitioners in the field, learning to write in a compelling manner, and focusing on what we know is useful to practitioners are the keys to doing research that is relevant to practice, then one has to wonder what is keeping academics from doing these things. Pragmatic considerations alone might be expected to motivate academic researchers to close the gap between their research and organizational practice. Yet many who advocate that both academics and practitioners can better achieve their purposes through better connections with practitioners also point to the structural and institutional barriers to such connections. University promotion criteria do not motivate researchers to spend more time in the field, conduct research on relevant topics, and ensure that the knowledge they produce is disseminated to both academic and practitioner users. Journals do not favor the publication of research that can have an impact on practice.
To address an apparent lack of interest by practitioners in most academic research, some advocate measures that would turn management into a profession that depends on and orients itself to a systematic knowledge base. They argue that establishing a professional certification would stimulate greater practitioner attention to research findings, create a greater understanding of research and the principles of management that stem from it, and lead managers to make evidence-based decisions.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for the persistent distance between academic organizational research and organizational practice may be that many academics do not place a value on doing relevant research. The fact that a number of highly respected academics have had very successful careers pursuing dual-purpose research suggests that there are factors beyond institutional barriers that lead to academics not doing useful research. Indeed, those who advocate doing useful research often have a strong values-based argument for doing so.
Building on personal values, Denise Rousseau, in her 2005 presidential address at the Academy of Management, talked of her early hopes and then disillusionment that the study of organizations would make organizations more fulfilling places to work and eliminate bad management practices (Rousseau, 2006). She argued that academics should develop an evidence-based management infrastructure and build evidence-based management capabilities in order to connect managers with the knowledge they need to become more effective. In Chapter 16, Commentary, Gary P. Latham states that "The narrowing of the scientist-practitioner gap through research that is used by the public warrants attention because we are citizens of this globe first and foremost, and secondarily scientists, practitioners, or scientist-practitioners." He argues that it is unethical for researchers not to communicate to practitioners knowledge that will help organizations become more effective.
Values are also reflected in the choice of topics to be researched. A number of studies demonstrate that even when academia has developed, or thinks it has developed, sound knowledge to guide practice, there is often little connection between this knowledge and the concerns of practice (e.g., Cascio & Aguinis, 2008). Furthermore, it has been pointed out that academia is rarely the source of major organizational innovations (Mol & Birkenshaw, 2009; Pfeffer, 2007). In fact, the advancement of practical knowledge often precedes the generation of associated academic knowledge, putting academics in the position of playing catch-up and not being able to contribute meaningfully to change (Bartunek, 2007; Lawler et al., 1985). Whether this lack of impact on practice is of concern to academics depends on their values, their beliefs about the mission of professional schools, what they feel researchers owe to society, and their personal aspirations for making a difference in the world.
Some researchers argue that since management and organizational studies are applied sciences and are often carried out in professional schools, contribution to practice is inherent in the very definition of good research. In their view, discussions that assume a researcher has to make a choice between doing rigorous research or practice-relevant research are conceptually flawed. Relevance should be a defining characteristic of rigor in the study of organizations (Starkey, Hatcheul, & Tempest, 2009) and should become one of the standards of excellence in the field (Hambrick, 2007; Mohrman et al., 1999).
One of the strongest values-based statements of concern came from Sumantra Ghoshal (2005), who clearly stated that the purpose of researchers in business schools should be to make the world a better place. He pointed out that values are inherent in all theory and research, and he decried not only prevailing methodologies but also the prevailing economics-centric theoretical base underpinning much organizational research. Framing the field in terms of economic models has in his view contributed to a pessimistic view of organizations and people. It also has created a focus on dysfunctions and control, on a self-fulfilling cycle of management behavior based on these pessimistic views, and on research that does not have the potential to make the world a better place. The recent positive organization studies movement tries to set up an alternative to the focus on the sources of dysfunctionality in organizations by conducting research that focuses on positive human dynamics and outcomes. However, it is unclear that this theoretical and empirical focus is associated with a value on the relevance of the research.
Values-based arguments, if internalized, may lead to important changes among academic researchers, including how they spend their time, how they see their responsibility to ensure that knowledge reaches practitioners, and what their criteria are for good research and for the topics they research. Perhaps there may even be changes in the theoretical underpinnings of the field. Our argument in our 1985 book that organizational researchers should be concerned with their impact on theory and practice reflected deep-seated values about the outcomes that define important and good research. How organizations are designed and operate has a fundamental impact on people and society. These values also reflect a belief that organizations are mutable artifacts that can be shaped by knowledge, not simply studied and understood. This perspective has implications for the means—the methodologies and kinds of theories—that should be used to do research.
Organizations as Artifacts Shaped byPractice
Arguments for bridging the gap between research and practice often rest on ontological and epistemological considerations—conceptions of organizations as artifacts that are shaped by practice and associated implications for how organizational knowledge is created and used. According to this view, valuable knowledge can only be created when there is a close connection between research and practice. Organizations are not inanimate objects that exist independent of the intentions and understandings of their members. They and their members cannot be studied as subjects in away that distances the researcher from the context and its participants.
Organizations are socially created and express the purposes of their creators and those who subsequently design and implement their ongoing changes. Organizational and management researchers are not studying stable entities with stable characteristics and dynamics, but rather continually unfolding social systems whose characteristics and dynamics result from the decisions and activities of their members. Practitioners do not respond to "prescriptions" from academic studies as if they are in some sense "right"—but rather in the context of what they are trying to accomplish, the many factors they are considering in the course of carrying out their practice, and the needs of a particular situation (Chia, 2004; Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Jarzabkowski, 2005).
Starkey, Hatcheul, and Tempest (2009) also point out that methodologies that assume stability are not appropriate for organizations because management is a relatively new practice area that is pre-paradigmatic and new forms of organization are continually being created. In their view, organizational research should focus on new models of organization, since the world we all live in is being shaped by the way businesses decide to operate. Simon (1969) and others (Avenier, 2010; Mohrman, Mohrman, & Tenkasi,1997, Romme, 2003; Van Aken, 2005) have argued for synthetic rather than analytic approaches to study artifacts and for methods that yield knowledge that contributes to solutions and designs relevant to organizational problems. An organization design orientation requires research to be situated in the organizational context and to apply interdisciplinary knowledge, and multimethod, multilevel approaches that can capture the complexity of the phenomena and the purposes of the various actors. Because these purposes are often in conflict, organizational research necessarily has an ethical element (see also Scherer, 2009; Willmott, 2003). Methodologies must be capable of taking into account the viewpoints, values, and intentionality of the stakeholders.
The adaptive research framework (described more fully in Chapter 6, Rigor and Relevance in Organizational Research) used in the Quality of Worklife (QWL) research program that was conducted at the University of Michigan in the 1980s (Lawler, Nadler, & Cammann, 1980; Seashore et al., 1983) is an example of an approach that recognized the dynamic and continually changing nature of organizations. It systematically studied organizations that were intentionally changing to become high-involvement systems—work systems designed to yield high performance by providing the workforce with greater knowledge and skills, information, power, and rewards. At the core of these studies was a belief that organization al research should yield knowledge about how organizations can be more effective for their various stakeholders. Interventions to alter the work systems were carefully studied by a team of researchers to test their underlying theories and to determine their effectiveness. The methodology involved tracking changes and their impact, including those that were being introduced through intentional interventions, by longitudinally measuring many aspects of each complex system at multiple levels and using multiple methodologies. This approach aimed at both theory development and practical impact.
Excerpted from Useful Research by Susan Albers Mohrman Edward E. Lawler III Copyright © 2011 by The Center for Effective Organizations. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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