By Hugh Courtney
Business schools have dual research missions. First, we must develop and disseminate cutting-edge research that shapes academic thought. Such research ensures that we are teaching timely, rigorous, and evidence-based concepts that advance management science. A business school that isn't built on a strong research foundation, on the other hand, may be too reliant on isolated "war stories," outdated theories and "collective wisdom" that is just plain wrong.
Our second mission is to have a significant, positive impact on business practice. We must translate this cutting-edge and often arcane academic research into relevant concepts, tools and frameworks that our students, alumni, and the business community at large actually use. There must be an active feedback loop between practice and research so that research programs and business tools are constantly evolving to address the most pressing business issues of the day.
Some argue that these two missions—producing rigorous research and having a profound impact on business practice—are in conflict. They claim that the academic research and business practice worlds are distinct, and that business schools should focus on one world or another. This is absolute nonsense.
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate how impenetrable the borders between academic research and business practice can often appear to be. In fact, Debra Shapiro, Brad Kirkman, and I argued in a 2007 Academy of Management Journal article that there are two "translation" issues that often prevent research from impacting practice. Some research is "lost in translation;" it addresses issues that are crucial to successful business practice but is communicated in a manner that only other academics can fully understand. Other research is "lost before translation;" it addresses issues that are not of interest to business practitioners.
In diagnosing these translation problems, we also identified key levers for closing the research-practice gap. First, it is crucial that business schools be committed to "use-inspired" research. Such research may involve deep conceptual modeling and theory building so doesn't fit neatly into what we often think of as "applied research." Rather, no matter how the research is conducted, it is motivated by real business and societal issues that matter to practitioners. Use-inspired research is never lost before translation.
At the same time, it is crucial that research results get translated into practice. Many academics don't have the skill and/or incentives to communicate directly with practitioners. Both of these barriers can and should be addressed by business school deans. When one considers how much time and effort goes into publishing an article in a top-tier academic journal, it is absurd not to try to fully leverage that investment by taking the core insights and results and repackaging them for practitioner audiences. Faculty should be rewarded for doing so—especially if they publish in high-impact practitioner outlets such as the Harvard Business Review. In addition, they should be provided the editorial support necessary to successfully translate academic work. Finally, faculty should be encouraged to engage in select consulting and executive education projects—not merely to line their pockets, but rather to better define use-inspired research programs and develop their translation skills.
By setting the tone at the top and redirecting resources toward use-inspired research projects and incentivizing "translation" activities, deans can help ensure that their investments in faculty and research drive both academic thought and business practice. Our missions require that we do so.