I appreciate Teppo Felin’s previous contribution in this blog (and I would also like to reply to a post on his own blog) since constructive debate is a truly academic exercise and one of the best avenues to improve our practices. I agree with his statement that business schools should develop cutting-edge research -who wouldn’t agree? The question here, though, is how “cutting-edge research” is defined. At the same time, I do also favor the idea about business schools investing in basic research but, again, the risk is to fall in a semantic trap when defining “basic research”. For some time, some academics have taken for granted the meaning of the mentioned concepts and the debate has been metatheoretical or semantic. My intention is to try to throw some light and rationality on the debate. Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” but, I would add, we should not let language bewitch our intelligence.
Some years ago I was commissioned by EQUIS, the European accreditation system, to develop a set of standards that could be applied when evaluating business schools as regards their research activity. One of the first things I realised at the beginning of this task was that research is a contested concept, i.e., a concept with different conceptions or meaning with some even conflicting. In order to avoid the semantic trap the working team decided to give up the controversial concept research and stipulate a new one: RDI, which stands for research, development and innovation, a more ample concept that would leave room for many different forms of production and diffusion of knowledge.
True, “research” is a contested concept in a similar way to other abstract concepts such as justice, liberty and merit. They can be interpreted in different ways and we may even hold contested or opposite conceptions when applying them to some particular case. The concept “research” shares the same contested nature. We may define a core meaning of research but the controversy comes when different adjectives are added: academic (vs. applied?), theoretical (vs. empirical?), original or basic (vs. developmental?), client oriented (vs. “ars artis”?), pure (vs. impure?). A rule commonly employed to classify the different sorts of research is the pedigree of the channel used in its diffusion. According to this taxonomy, basic or original research is published in refereed academic journals whereas developmental or applied knowledge is distributed through professional publications. However, is this always the case? In fact, evidence shows that a good number of valuable and original management ideas and models have been generated outside academic publications.
Academia is not the only reservoir of management knowledge, a fact that reinforces the detached view of business schools, discussed in my previous post, a view defending that business schools should act as bridges between academia and the real business world. Consulting companies, investment banks and publishing houses are sometimes the source of valuable, original knowledge and business schools could promote an active dialogue with this and other institutions to further develop these ideas to higher grounds. Adjunct and clinical professors can play a vital role in this process and this is why I favour their intense participation at business schools