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Management research is clear as mud

by Ace Damon
Clear as mud

Not fit for purpose, argues new book

November 24, 2019

Beware of the guru with a theory that explains how companies behave or the perfect recipe for business success. Also beware of long academic studies with similar effect. This is the strong warning from "Crisis Management Studies: Fraud, Deception, and Nonsense Research," a new book by Dennis Tourish, a scholar of organizations at the University of Sussex.

The idea of ​​"scientific management" goes back to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who wrote a treatise on him in 1911. An example invoked the company Bethlehem Iron, where he allegedly convinced an employee named Schmidt (whom Taylor was very condescending) to work more. paying a fee per piece.

Taylor said his plans allowed employees to quadruple production. But he based his numbers on a handful of workers increasing their activity in a short period. Tourish estimates that his improved work rate would be equivalent to 71 tons on a ten hour day. But, he notes, “Taylor rounded this to 75 tons, calculated that sustained work was impossible, and reduced the target by 40 percent.” Hardly a model of scientific rigor, then.

Elton Mayo conducted another much cited study in the early twentieth century. He found that changes in lighting at the Hawthorne, Illinois, works increased productivity. Remarkably, the analysis indicated that making the lights brighter or less bright made no difference; the workers simply responded to the special attention paid to them. This was well received by many managers, as it implied that it was not always necessary to reward workers with more money to increase production.

But, as Tourish points out, only five women were studied, two of whom were replaced during the experiment when their answers proved unsatisfactory. And the lights changed on Sunday, when no one was around. The increase in productivity occurred thus on Monday. Further studies have shown that workers are generally more productive at the beginning of a week than on Fridays or Saturdays.

The modern age is also full of dishonest theories based on limited evidence. A few years ago, journalists noticed a bizarre tendency for British politicians to keep their legs apart like live croquet hoops. The fashion of the pose seems to have been motivated by a 2010 article that suggested that any leader who adopted this strange stance would feel more confident and seem more powerful. Then a second team of researchers conducted a follow-up study with a sample size five times larger than the original. Did not find this effect.

At least these studies had two merits: they were easy to understand and it was possible to verify their results. Much research in modern management, the author argues, is an inconsequential jargon mess, tailored to appear in major journals. Academics are judged for their ability to obtain papers published in these journals, and business schools are rated for their ability to employ the most prolific of these academics.

This rush to publish has led management research to be affected by the same problems as other disciplines. There is a bias to publishing studies that show interesting results. “Fishing expeditions” – selective use of statistics in search of a surprising conclusion – are common. Results that show an effect do not exist, as scientifically useful as positive findings, are stored in a drawer. A literature search found that 25-50% of management articles had inconsistencies or errors; another concluded that 70% of articles released too little data to allow independent verification of their findings.

And then there is the language in which the search is entered. As Tourish says, “trivial insights are converted into theoretical statements that look like English translated into Esperanto and then again.” He quotes a 57-word phrase that begins with “By introducing Heidegger's distinction between modes of construction and building strategy literature as a practice … ”(In the spirit of seasonal joy, Bartleby will spare the rest of readers.)

It's hard to believe that anyone reads these things except other academics. So what is the point? How many chief executives base their strategy on theories gathered from a management journal? Everyone would benefit if management research were clearly written, based on real-world and realistic examples of its broader applicability. Less Chomsky, please, and more cost-benefit analysis.

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