19 Sep 2016 20:09 IST

Missing the wood for the forests?

Most scholars today engage in making bricks, not quite knowing where these will be used or how these will be joined with other bricks produced by colleagues in other functional areas, that will eventually create a meaningful whole | ImageFlow/Shutterstock

Though management is a hybrid science, specialisation has become a sign of academic rigor

While organisations have become the dominant institution on the social landscape, research and education in organisation science seem to be drifting, facing a crisis of relevance.

Unlike a field such as economics, research on organisations has not typically focused on problems relevant to business and government organisations. Consequently, such organisations have not drawn on the work undertaken by organisational scientists.

More than 50 years back, Forscher pointed out that we are becoming brick-makers: “Academic scholarship was becoming fixated on generating lots of pieces of knowledge — bricks — but was far less concerned with putting them together into a cohesive whole that could fully explain the corpus of their inquiry”.

‘Specialisation’ signals

Although management is a hybrid and interdisciplinary science that draws inputs from different disciplines, specialisation has now become the signal of academic rigour; treating ‘interdisciplinary’ as synonymous with ‘multidisciplinary’. Interest seems to have shifted from ‘management as an amalgam’ to ‘individual functional areas’that go into building the amalgam.

As a result, most scholars engage in making bricks, not quite knowing where they will be used or how they will be joined with other bricks produced by colleagues in other functional areas, that will eventually create a meaningful whole.

Theory fetish

Individual scholars are happy as long as other brick-makers cite their work. Concern for building the edifice of knowledge is largely missing. A ‘theory fetish’ has taken a firm hold on our academia, leading to pursuits of things where

(I) Practical relevance is over-shadowed by theoretical rigour; and

(II) Empirical evidence is used to inform theory, not the other way around.

The growing insularity with which the various functional areas of management get treated in our schools has created a desire for academic-empire-building, rather than responding to the needs of functional organisations.

The predominant focus on A-level journals has further fed this psyche which, in part, has received a fillip from the rating/ranking agencies — they tend to assign some 25-40 per cent weight to what they call ‘intellectual capital’.

The whole and the part

This has had its fallout on teaching too. We now find ourselves in a rather awkward situation where management is hardly taught in B-schools. What gets taught, instead, are finance, marketing, operations, HR, systems, and others. The justification is that all these go into making the ‘whole’ called management.

While it is true that the whole cannot be created without the parts, it must be remembered that the whole is ‘something plus’ — something more than all the parts combined. Given the prevailing mindset in academia, in general, and B-schools, in particular, that ‘something plus’ is getting lost.

Some may ask, “Does that make any difference?” Indeed, it does.

What it means

The difference lies in the fact that you can divide me into parts and then put back all the parts, but I will not be found. I am not a mechanical device in which parts are accumulated and arranged. Management is similar. It may be composed of the parts, but they together do not constitute the whole.

Little wonder, then, that executives typically do not turn to academics or academic research findings to develop management strategies and practices. Researchers, too, hardly turn to practitioners to identify research questions or to interpret results. Instead, they treat such acts as distraction.

This happens even in institutions that have come up with numerous cells going by the names of “industry interaction cell” or “industry interface cell”.

Why the lag?

So why do such initiatives not produce the desired effect, even though one seems willing to have meaningful dialogues?

No clarity

One reason is because no one seems to be very clear about what one can, or should, learn from the other. More importantly, academics and practitioners seem to have fundamentally different frames of reference when it comes to the types of information that constitute valid bases for action.

So much so that there are notable differences between academics and practitioners with respect to the goals they seek to influence, the social systems in which they operate, the variables they attempt to manipulate, and the acceptable time frame for addressing problems.

Thus, both sides see coming together as an act of compromise, and that can have no fruitful outcome.

Normal science mindset

Second prominent cause for the drift is the field of organisation science being caught in a normal science mindset.

Thomas Kuhn (American physicist, historian and philosopher of science) observed, normal science begins with a paradigm that defines a set of problems for a community of scholars. The power of normal science is reflected in the flow of research articles enabled by fundamental agreement about the research assumptions. Commitment to a way of thinking becomes a source of intellectual belief and security.

The field of organisation studies has, wilfully or otherwise, prematurely settled into a normal science mindset, largely adopting a positivist paradigm. This seems to be inappropriate at a time when developments are still in progress. It must be recognised that organisations are complex, variable-rich phenomena that can be studied from multiple perspectives.

Therefore, fixation with any hypothetico-deductive approach may not take us very far. Social organisations, unlike clockworks, control systems, cells, plants or animal systems, pertain to human groups or communities that have unique characteristics which emerge only in group-settings.

If we accept that organisations are variable, rich, multidimensional, and perhaps chaotic, then we will also agree that it is inappropriate for the field of organisation theory to settle on a limited set of conceptual boxes.

The questions

Researchers try to develop parsimonious theories based on a small number of variables that can explain phenomena across a range of organisations. Prescriptive research, however, requires comprehensive understanding of a specific situation that is not general enough to be applied to other settings.

The field of organisation studies has not become an applied science, largely because of the natural reticence of social scientists to undertake prescriptive research. As Daft and Lewin said, “Social scientists are trained to do good empirical research and descriptive theory building without being overly concerned about the implications for organisation design or performance outcomes”.

Many questions are likely to arise at this stage:

~ How do we make the transition from the parts to the whole?

~ How easy or difficult is it to reverse the current trend?

~ What paradigm(s) do we develop, or embrace, to make our research more relevant?

~ What does being relevant mean?

~ Is management practice characterised by a different logic from that of management science?

None of these questions is unanswerable but, first things first. “Do we sincerely desire a change?”

(The author is a former dean and director-in-charge, Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow; and former director at Jaipuria Institute of Management, Lucknow. )

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