Having been involved in teaching regularly in different business schools and universities since about 2009, the question of the impact of business research has always been quite fascinating to me. As a former researcher in cellular biology, who shifted to growth business' management before diving full-on into innovation consulting, this question is quite fascinating – and yes, don't fret, I'll as the question 'Does innovation consulting matter?' soon.
Like many of you, I'm pretty critical of the general picture of business research, for this is a very bleak picture. I mean, the simple test you can perform is to ask any level-C executive in a major industry, or worse, any successful startup CEO, what was the most influential piece of business research for her. The answer is usually a blank stare or a good laugh.
The reasons why are at this point too numerous to list, but the short version is that academics have zero incentive to produce applicable and meaningful research. Business schools and universities alike have a religious belief in rankings and various international accreditations. Since their inception in the 70s, these ranking and accreditations processes have been heavily factoring in the volume and quality of academic research. Why? Simply because this was the get-go metric in science, and these programs wanted to demonstrate credibility? And after all, having world-leading researchers teaching bleeding-edge discoveries to passionate students has always been a consensual illusion shared by all types of institutions.
Does it work, though? Well, of course not. We know that because it doesn't work in science either. Most of the research production focuses on aggressively narrow topics that researchers from a slightly adjacent field cannot grasp anymore. And in any case, this research goes through a year, or two... or three, of review process if it manages to hit renowned publications. I've been reading educated and productive criticism of this system for decades now. Still, no one really cares. Rankings sell, and rankings want research publications.
And I'm certainly not saying that a few rock-star professors do not manage to have an impact on business leaders or that many others don't do consulting on the side... But it's essentially a second job they decide to have for themselves, like cultivating bonsais or producing organic goat cheese. If it's not entirely frowned upon by academia, it's not useful either.
OK, you get the point.
But is business research that disconnected and irrelevant?
If I now play the devil's advocate for a moment, I'd say that the fact that the whole world of business research is mostly in a self-sustained feedback loop that no one cares about is not so important. Why? Because eventually, it does produce directionality and afterwhile solid practical outputs. It's just that these outputs are not linked to one paper or one professor most of the time – if ever. But does it matter that we can't trace the origin of this new theory if it just delivers?
This is the cerulean blue episode of The Devil Wears Prada:
To misquote the movie, aggregated business research is filtering down through the department stores of the internet TED talks, industry conferences, and airport book stalls to trickle on down into management practices. Eventually, we, the business practitioners addressing live business challenges, have absorbed this vast output to some degree and make use of it.
Is that the story, then? A 'problem solved' moment?
Certainly not. If we can believe that, as an aggregate, business research does have an impact, it's at best terribly inefficient.
Where I'm still fascinated when I read anything from Geoffrey Moore or Clayton Christensen, how long did it take for just a few of their simplest ideas to trickle down as de facto good practices? In a best-case scenario, we are talking ten years, probably more. This also points to how poor business research is at tackling dramatic market turnarounds like the ones we are currently going through.
The irony in all this is that by chasing research publications, business schools and universities ended up adopting the worst traits of scientific research, which it's incapacity at translating said research into practical applications. And this is where I'd personally like to see some change.
If we step back a little, it's worth remembering that best-in-class science and technology universities have one thing in common: a fantastic tech transfer unit where students, researchers, and professors find an efficient bridge from research to market. Something like Standford's Office of Technology Licensing, which brings in +$100M in royalty revenues each year to the school?
Isn't it amazing that there is no such program in business schools and universities? And no, I'm not speaking of the sad excuse for incubation programs that many felt compelled to launch a few years ago. But real business-making and business growing operations.
Imagine a world where currently struggling business schools, still struggling with the impact of covid, would generate 20% of their income with the businesses their students and professors would have launched? Imagine a world where the Financial Times would rank business schools on this criteria too. And for those of you that would immediately object that in 2022 this is not all about profit-making but social or environmental impact first and foremost, I'd say even better! Let's stop just giving classes about it. Let's have some of the academia deliver as well.
Keep in mind, though, that my point here is not to advocate for academic teams that shift from being a pure center of costs to helping pay the school's bills. My point is that this would be an amazing first step to help refocus business research and make it way more practical and visible to other regular businesses.
I don't know if "those who can't do teach." I know that you should listen to those who can teach and do it. But where are they?