Ernest O'Boyle
November 10, 2016
Jon Marcus

With a doctorate in management, a speciality in work behaviour and positions on the editorial boards of academic journals, Ernest O’Boyle was frustrated that, as he put it, he had more impact talking to people in airports who were killing time between flights than with practitioners of the business strategies that he studies.

So Professor O’Boyle, an associate professor of management and organisation at the University of Iowa, and co-authors from three other universities in the US have set out to prove that there is a gap between the people who teach and study business and those who practise it, while also proposing some ways to narrow that divide.

The authors accept, in a paper published in the Academy of Management Journalthat it’s a problem that has been identified not only in the field of business“There’s a lot of science-practice-gap papers out there. Every field has them,” Professor O’Boyle said. But management professors “are applied scientists. Everything we have to do has to show value to our field and its stakeholders.”

Instead, he said, a system of incentives encourages publication in journals that are largely inaccessible.

“There’s no way that a middle manager at Microsoft is going to be downloading academic papers,” said Professor O’Boyle. “It’s almost designed to obfuscate.” His journal article calls this “the greatest challenge facing management scholars”.

In a survey of more than 1,700 US academics and practitioners, Professor O’Boyle and his colleagues at the universities of North Carolina State, Virginia Commonwealth, and North Carolina at Charlotte found little common ground, with the two camps agreeing on only eight of 22 challenges that they considered urgent.

“We don’t need to be fully overlapping but that’s not great,” Professor O’Boyle said.

He said that there is also some resistance in businesses to hearing, or believing, what research finds. Success among entrepreneurs, for instance, “sometimes is just luck of the draw. Some people are just highly intelligent and highly creative individuals. Entrepreneurs don’t want to hear about that. They want us to look at things such as grit and perseverance.”

But for the most part, Professor O’Boyle said, the disconnect “is on us”. Especially in an increasingly competitive global economy, “we absolutely have to engage these businesses and these employers and show them there are things we can contribute”.

The journal authors have collected pledges from 400 organisations that agreed to allow academics into their businesses to do hands-on research.

“We have huge pressure on us to make sure that theoretical models work,” Professor O’Boyle said. “If you have, let’s say, six or seven of these organisations that are interested in this work, you can test the model, make refinements and end up with a theoretical model that you know does work.”

The authors also recommended that academics using new online publications and social media offer practical management advice in plain language, and a new formula for evaluating faculty that would include their practical impact on business and society.

Academics, over time, “became obsessed with theories and models, not research that could really change the dairy industry, for example”, Professor O’Boyle said. “The pendulum is swinging back now [and] I think that this is because of increasing understanding that the research isn’t getting out there.”

The same is true of teaching future managers, he said.

“Business moves faster than our curriculum, so take something such as human resources; the way we’re currently teaching HR would be awesome for IBM, for Kodak, for big corporate megaliths. You look at what HR departments want now? They want data miners. They want people who own social media. That is virtually absent from our curriculum. We need to get better at that.”