Management Science: Nothing more practical than a good theory

On the train from Hanoi to Sapa, I shared a cabin with two English women. One was completing her PhD studies in corporate social responsibility and lamented the amount of work it takes to promote.

One professor of the Graduate School of Management of La Trobe University once tried to convince some students to continue with a PhD after completing the MBA. Most of us just laughed and shook our heads in disbelieve as every student will be happy to finish studying, at least for a while.

Later I had a discussion with him, and I put the point to him that a PhD does not create better opportunities on the job market and does not make you a better manager. There is a vast chasm between managerial reality and academic discourse. This chasm is not a bad thing because academic research is essential in advancing the knowledge and practice of management.

There are, however, great differences. For example, in scientific management, every fact that has been sourced from somewhere has to be referenced. Failure to do so is considered plagiarism, the worst sin that an academic can commit. This requirement leads to footnote fetishism, and even worse, it induces a fallacy in argumentation called the fallacy of notoriety. Just because something has been published in a reputable magazine, does not mean that it should be considered correct. The Fleischman-Pons announcement and the Sokal Affair are poignant illustrations of why this is so.

In managerial practice, nobody ever references anything—taking somebody else’s idea is called ‘best practice’. In my experience, adding references to business reports is looked upon strangely.

Another difference is that correct argumentation, essential for academic papers, is almost never practised in business reports. Business reports are usually dot-pointed and quite often lack precise argumentation and rely on rhetoric. I am not claiming that rhetoric is always dangerous, it is an essential part of life.

The third difference I’d like to point out is that academic management is about creating knowledge, while management practice is about achieving goals and those goals are most often not about gaining knowledge but relate to selling goods or providing services.

There are thus enormous differences between management as a science and management practice. It is important that for an MBA a balance is achieved between the two modi operandi.

Will I ever attempt a PhD in management? I love a healthy academic debate, and I love to research, but as a manager, I have found that it is important to leave the scholarly method behind and translate scientific knowledge so that everybody can understand how goals can be achieved, which is what business is all about.

Leave a Reply