Research has long-been criticized for being far-removed from the needs of on-the-ground practitioners. But can rigor and relevance go together after all? Professor Maciej Workiewicz, ESSEC Business School, dives deep into the numbers to explore business school rankings compared to research publications – and comes up with an answer.
Research and Teaching in Business Schools: Can the two go together?First published on the Maciej Workiewicz blog @ https://www.maciejworkiewicz.com/
Dividing business schools between teaching- and research-oriented is a common practice among academics; particularly those on the job market. The idea is that a research-oriented institution provides the right environment, resources, and support for scholars who pursue a deeper understanding of their discipline or at least the best proxy we have – publications in top, peer-reviewed journals. This belief has been held more strongly in the US, but it has recently found new accolades among the European and Asian business schools [see my other blog post here].
However, the idea that scientific research in business academia can produce useful knowledge has its opponents. It would require a separate and lengthy blog post to even sketch the outlines of that debate and that is not my goal here. For curious readers I can suggest Mie Augier and James G. March’s excellent book “The Roots, Rituals, and Rhetorics of Change”.
Here I will mention only one of the numerous accusations, which is that management research has little to do with management practice and there is very little a true entrepreneur, manager, leader, etc. can learn from an article in one of the top management journals. This probably is true in some sense as scientific articles are written for other scientists, are full of often necessary jargon and to fully absorb the information requires some training on the part of the reader.
However, this criticism extends to the authors of these articles as well and casts doubt on whether an entrepreneur, a manager, or a business leader learns anything useful from a management scholar. Should business schools be hiring researchers, or is it only some kind of a fetish imposed by arbitrary choices of business school ranking bodies?
Of research, teaching, and dollars
In this article I want to share some data that suggests at least a partial answer to the following question: can hiring researchers help a business school to offer better and more relevant business education? I will use two sources for my inquiry: a) the excellent UT Dallas Research Ranking, and b) Financial Times MBA and Executive education rankings.
In a post shared on my blog in 2018, I showed that European and Asian business schools have been catching up in terms of publications in the top management journals. Below is yet another way to show the same trend, but this time we will look at the performance of these schools in the FT MBA ranking as well. I will split the list of highest-ranked MBA programs into those based in North America and the rest of the world (mostly Europe and Asia & Australia). We will look at the relationship between the MBA rank and research rank for each of these groups as reported in the FT MBA ranking in 2001 and 2021. Figure 1. shows the scatter-plots and trend-lines. The first observation is that the research rank and MBA rank are positively correlated. This is to some extent expected. For one, research rank is one of the factors in the MBA ranking (it is 10% of the total score, right after salary and salary increase). However, remember that the argument presented by some is that research and teaching are substitutes and either the school excels in one or the other, so it could have gone the other way too or at least be flat.
One potential interpretation of this relationship is that the top schools use the resources obtained from the MBA and other programs to pay their faculty to do research instead of teaching. In most top business schools, faculty spends only a small portion of their time on teaching. Thus, according to this argument, the causality runs the opposite way: better teaching brings more money, more money can be spent on research. In other words, research is what professors like to do, thus more time for research is just one of the perks that come with the job. It is probably true to some extent.
Catch me if you can
The second observation is that while for the US schools the relationship between MBA and research rank remains more or less the same between 2001 and 2021, in other places, particularly in Europe, more and more schools are moving towards the North American model in that period. While in 2001 it would be relatively easy to split the North American and non-North American clusters, in 2021, they have become much more intermixed.
This has happened not because more non-North American business schools have improved their MBA ranking (this has happened to some extent too), but rather the research rank has markedly improved for them (i.e., the green the dots have moved up). Thus, Figure 1 shows that non-North American business schools have been slowly approaching the model applied by their North American cousins.
Exploring the usefulness of research
However, this doesn’t yet answer our question whether management research published in top peer-reviewed journals by the faculty enhances, at least in some meaningful way, our understanding of the key issues in the management domain that in turn provides business practitioners with useful knowledge and skills?
Let’s take a look at the FT ranking of executive programs. The neat thing about those is that participants in those programs are asked to evaluate the teaching quality and relevance of things being taught (FT Open Enrollment Executive Program Ranking 2018). More specifically, participants had to answer several questions. Here, I focused on three that I think approximate relevance and quality of teaching that interests us:
- Teaching methods and materials: the extent to which teaching methods and materials were contemporary and appropriate, and included a suitable mix of academic rigor and practical relevance.
- Faculty: the quality of teaching and the extent to which teaching staff worked together to present a coherent programme.
- New skills and learning: relevance of skills gained to the workplace, the ease with which they were implemented and the extent to which the course encouraged new ways of thinking.
Research and Teaching: It looks like rigor and relevance can go together
I pair these with the UT Dallas research score for each school. Specifically, I used The UTD Top 100 Business School Research Rankings to identify which schools in Europe made it to the top 100 in 2018. This ranking tracks publications by school in top 24 journals covering management, marketing, information science, operations, finance, and accounting. I took the research score that captures the research output of the faculty from each school in these 24 journals. I also smoothed out the variance by taking an average of three years’ publication score, thus, for year 2018 I took publications for years 2016-2018.
Then I checked the correlations between each of the FT questions and the research score calculated from the UT Dallas ranking. I used the UT Dallas score here instead of the FT research rank from the MBA rankings, because not all the schools in the Executive Education ranking are present in the MBA one. UT Dallas Research Ranking covers all the schools as long as at least one of the faculty in their schools has co-authored a paper in one of the 24 journals tracked by the ranking, which makes it more complete. Essentially, if a school is not listed in this ranking, this means that no faculty from that school have published in one of the top journals. I also took a little older data because there is a lag in accounting for publications in the UT Dallas Research Ranking.
Analyzing the data, it turns out that the correlations between pedagogy and research are all positive. Correlation with research output in top journals with:
- Teaching methods and materials: 0.507
- Faculty quality: 0.568
- New skills and learning (relevance): 0.470
Good news? Well, correlation is not causation, and these results should not be taken as a proof that rigorous research leads to impactful teaching. However, these numbers suggest at least that business schools can do both relatively well and don’t have to choose between the pursuit of knowledge and pursuit of relevance in management teaching. It also makes the alternative story that articles in top journals have nothing to do with actual management issues less plausible.
It seems that management research may be more than just debates between academics sitting in their ivory towers, while the real world outside does stuff. Yes, it looks like rigor and relevance can go together. At the end of the day, as someone once remarked, can you be truly relevant without being rigorous?
- Link up with Prof. Maciej Workiewicz on LinkedIn
- Visit Maciej’s blog for a host of other articles and insights
- Read a related article: Business education and the inevitable change
- Discover ESSEC Business School
- Apply for the ESSEC GMBA or EMBA.
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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.
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