We are not alone – business schools are also concerned about added value

While reading today’s edition of Financial Times (July 21, 2008), an article about research in business schools struck me as having an interesting parallelism with the topic of this blog – consultants’ contribution to business. The article, by a former dean of Saïd Business School, reflects on how a number of renowned business schools follow a research “hit culture”, hindering their ability to produce true knowledge. I believe we consultants also often fall in the same mistake.

The article first observes that business research is often seen as detached from practice, with “researchers having a poor understanding of the worlds they claim to study”. This is also one of the main claims against consultants, as they are seen as outsiders to businesses and rather insensible to “real” day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, it would appear that this claim is true, as every CxO or director’s office is stacked with presentations and analysis that only few have seen and that lack significant influential power.

Like business research, consultants also tend to fall in the methodology trap. They dwell upon methodologies and frameworks, instead of delving into practice and from there coming up with recommendations that impact the business. The article wonders if this excessive concern about methodology, shared by business research and consultants, really does improve organizational performance. The risk is that content can easily become less relevant due to “an exaggerated focus on methodology and intellectual appearance”.

These two aspects may be related. Big consultancies have a certain appearance to live by, for which they effectively charge their clients, and may resort to publications, structures and strategies to try and compensate for their external role to business. Business schools also seem to look more at form in their research, building their market value on how much research they publish rather than on its substance. This is what the article calls a “hit culture”, defining it as the opposite of an ideas culture.

After all, not only we consultants wonder about our role in business. Business researchers also ponder about their relevancy as “outsiders”. The conclusion is, for both of us, that we do not need to add value by adopting an “intellectual appearance” and measuring productivity by quantity, but by reinforcing a knowledge culture that, as the article puts it, “translates the core into practice and brings ideas from practice into the core”.

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