Fiona McQuarrie is an associate professor in the School of Business at the University of the Fraser Valley and author of the textbook Industrial Relations in Canada.
In August, the annual meeting of the Academy of Management – the largest global association of management and organization scholars – came to Vancouver. In more than 2,000 sessions over six days, 11,000 researchers presented the results of their work. Their research looked at many extremely timely topics: gender representation on executive boards and in senior management, work-life balance, organizational strategy, effective hiring procedures, corporate wrongdoing and precarious employment.
The convention centre was just steps from Vancouver's financial and business heart. But I couldn't help but notice that very few managers or business leaders were in attendance. And other than a few news stories about the size of the meeting, and press releases from universities about faculty members' participation, the research received almost no wider attention.
There's always been a gap between academic research about management and organizations and the actual practice of management in organizations. However, bridging that gap is more important now than ever, as Canadian businesses are prodded to become more innovative and when postsecondary institutions are being urged to become more relevant. By understanding each other better, our management researchers and practitioners can gain huge benefits. All it might take is a few shifts in mindset on both sides – and a little help from the media.
Management researchers face a number of constraints in conducting their work. One of the most significant is time. Research that produces meaningful and useful outcomes can take years to design and carry out. That reality doesn't offer much help to managers who need actionable information yesterday.
But over time, management research has produced a body of knowledge that every manager uses at work every day: For example, our understanding of the possible motivations for employee workplace behaviour and effective strategies for managers to help employees focus on positive and productive activities at work. That body of knowledge emerged from the cumulative results of many separate studies, by different researchers testing theories or ideas in different settings and learning from each other's results. More tolerance of the realities of that process, including the time it takes to produce meaningful knowledge, could go a long way toward bridging the researcher-practitioner gap.
Managers and employers also may occasionally have unrealistic expectations about what management research can accomplish for them. For example, according to a Conference Board of Canada report, Canadian employers have cut their spending on workplace training by more than 40 per cent in the past two decades. Management research can certainly help employers develop more effective training practices, or help decide whether an organization should recruit or train. But research alone can't address the lack of skills that might result from a lack of investment in training. Research can't be expected to solve every problem an organization faces.
However, researchers can show managers what their research can do by trying to make their results more accessible to wider audiences – both in how those results are presented and the means by which they're communicated.
Academic writing doesn't encourage direct, straightforward language, and doesn't always focus on real-world applications. And too often, management researchers only communicate their research results to other researchers, by publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals without wide readership. But as one of my colleagues points out, when postsecondary faculty members teach classes, they have to communicate complex academic information to a non-specialist audience. So researchers may have more experience in this kind of communication than they think.
In this social-media age, academics have an increasing number of ways to communicate their research findings to the public and to practitioners. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook lend themselves particularly well to making broader connections, but also to sharing research results with a diverse, potentially worldwide audience. (I've found that my own research has hugely benefited from the responses of people outside academia – they often have insights or perspectives that I otherwise would have missed.)
Postsecondary institutions also have a role to play. One outcome of workplace research is the finding that workers are more likely to engage in an activity if they perceive that it will result in a meaningful reward – so to encourage management researchers to share their research outside academia, postsecondary institutions' promotion and tenure criteria could give more weight to broader public communication.
The media can help bridge the gap, too. Workplace problems are often complex and can't always be effectively addressed by a quick-fix, point-form list of solutions. So when media coverage of workplace issues features "new research findings" that are cleverly packaged but poorly supported, that's incredibly frustrating for management researchers.
There are many management researchers who conduct less flashy research that ultimately has much more useful outcomes. If reporters and editors make the effort to reach out and to present their research with the appropriate context and depth, perceptions of the value of management research might change for the better.