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Useful Research

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Features a who's who of leading management scholars
Takes a stand on a major controversy in academia: should organizational research aspire to be relevant to practitioners?
A sequel to the seminal book, Doing Research That is Useful for Theory and Practice, also edited by Ed Lawler, Susan Mohrman, and Associates

For decades there has been an ongoing, at times heated, debate over how relevant to real-world organizational concerns academic organizational research should be. The contributors to this book argue that in order to keep organizational research relevant to both theory and practice, research must deviate from the orthodoxy of traditional positivistic research. The true test of whether knowledge is useful to practice is not whether it is “theoretically” impactful but whether it is theoretically impactful and results in improved organizational effectiveness.
The contributing authors were selected for their demonstrated ability to conduct useful research and their distinguished academic careers. Part I of the book features active scholars who describe the choices they make and the tactics they employ to ensure that their work advances both theory and practice. In part II, four highly respected researchers reflect on how they approached their careers so that they could have a broad impact on practice and still maintain academic rigor. Part III describes pathways to bring academic knowledge to practice—working with consultancies, executive PhD programs, OD specialists, and professional associations, as well as framing academic concepts in ways that are attention-grabbing, memorable, and credible to practitioners. Part IV looks at institutional constraints and enablers: the prospects for useful research in traditional academic settings like business schools, peer-reviewed journals, and the Academy of Management. Finally, part V sums up the themes of the book and the challenges and opportunities facing researchers who aspire to do research that advances both theory and practice.
Contributors: Jean Bartunek, Michael Beer, George Benson, John Boudreau, Wayne Cascio, Thomas Cummings, Amy Edmondson, Lynda Gratton, J. Richard Hackman, Gary Latham, Phillip Mirvis, Allan M. Mohrman, David Nadler, James O’Toole, C. K. Prahalad, Denise Rousseau, Sara Rynes, Edgar Schein, Ramakrishnan V. Tenkasi, Michael Tushman, Andrew Van de Ven, Ruth Wageman, Ian Ziskin

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One: Research for Theory and Practice: Framing the Challenge

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SUSAN ALBERS MOHRMAN
AND EDWARD E. LAWLER III

ORGANIZATION AND MANAGEMENT researchers have for decades emphasized theory development and testing with little concern for impact on practice. Why now the increased voicing of concern for relevance? As we look through the rapidly expanding research literature and listen to the voices that are advocating change, multiple rationales for closing the gap between research and practice are apparent. They include instrumental and pragmatic arguments, values-based positions, and methodological and epistemological arguments. The third rationale is based on the artifactual nature of organizations and the need to understand them in relationship to the purposes that people have for their organizations. Although these rationales are not mutually exclusive, each offers a different window on why and how to seek relevance and make a difference to practice.

In this chapter, we first examine these three rationales for focusing on relevance. We then address their key implication for the conduct of research that contributes to practice, specifically, the need to bridge multiple communities of practice. We suggest that relevance depends not only on the content and focus of the research, but also on how academics position their work in the broader landscape of actors who generate and develop knowledge to inform organizational practice. Finally, we raise the questions that researchers need to answer as they build their careers.

 

Two: Crossing Boundaries to Investigate Problems in the Field: An Approach to Useful Research

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AMY C. EDMONDSON

FOR MOST SCHOLARS in organizational behavior, the importance of advancing theory is obvious. In a field that arose in response to management challenges (Miner, 2002), one might argue that research advancing practice should be highly valued as well. Indeed, the need for strategies to manage the challenges faced by the organizations that inspire and fund our work creates an obvious imperative for research that helps those who manage and work in them.

We are told that the norms and demands of academic careers limit our ability to be useful (e.g., Fox, 2003). As the scholars in this book illustrate, however, the hurdles are far from insurmountable. Perhaps the dichotomy between theory and practice need not be so pronounced. Indeed, many of us draw inspiration from Kurt Lewin (1945, p. 129), who argued, over a half century ago, “Nothing is as practical as a good theory.” In this well-known statement, Lewin was not claiming that theory, by its very existence, is practical and should be respected as such, but rather that a good theory is one that can demonstrate its claim. As Lewin’s student Chris Argyris (e.g., 1980, 1982, 1993) has argued tirelessly, this is a tall order, but one that management researchers must embrace if we are to make a difference in the world. Though few journals appear to seek out or publish work with a practical component, the tradition of action research has remained vital and inspiring over the intervening decades (e.g., Argyris, Putnam, & Smith, 1988; Clark, 1980; Fox, 2003; Schein, 1987; Schwarz, 1994).

 

Three: Collaborative Organization Design Research at the Center for Effective Organizations

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SUSAN ALBERS MOHRMAN
AND ALLAN M. MOHRMAN, JR.

WE DESCRIBE A RANGE of collaborative research approaches used over several decades in research programs at the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) in the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. These programs have focused on generating knowledge that is theoretically and practically useful about an unfolding set of organizational effectiveness and design challenges that have confronted companies through time. These programs and their constituent studies have been recursive: The knowledge gained in each project has informed ensuing research. We describe our foundational assumptions about design and design research that have guided our choices of research topics and methodologies, and we discuss the nature and importance of programmatic research approaches to address complex problems. We develop our view that collaboration is critical to organizational design research and describe some key elements of one particularly fruitful collaboration. Finally, we suggest a network collaboration approach that we are using in a current research program to increase relevance and speed of knowledge generation to better address the dynamic issues and innovative designs that characterize today’s organizational landscape.

 

Four: A Ten-Year Journey of Cooperation

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LYNDA GRATTON *

PREPARING THIS CHAPTER has provided a marvelous opportunity to consider the way in which my own research agenda has evolved and how engaged scholarship and action-based research (Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006) has been so central to my working life. Looking back, I see a long and continuous process of questioning where I have learned and continue to learn about a number of topics that are profoundly important to me.

One of the emerging themes in this book has been the extent to which the personal interests and experience of this group of scholars have shaped their research. I am no exception to this. Having spent the first ten years of my postdoctoral career in both a major company and a consulting practice before returning to a full-time post in academia, it is no surprise that my interest is in active collaboration with practicing managers. Like many of the scholars in this book, my initial training was as an industrial/organizational psychologist. My research preference is a combination of case writing, to build a deep understanding, and of diagnostics/instrumentation, to work at a broader canvas and discern the emerging themes. I like to use multiple methods to triangulate on the truth, and like Michael Beer, I am definitely a groundhog focusing on one or two domains of practice. So although I was trained as a psychologist to examine the individual, increasingly I have found myself intrigued by the complexities of large companies, particularly those that operate on a global scale. I find their scale fascinating, and I believe, like my colleagues Sumantra Ghoshal and Peter Moran (2005), that they can play an important and valuable part in the everyday lives of people across the world.

 

Five: Commentary: Walking on Three Legs

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J. RICHARD HACKMAN

HERB KELMAN, one of the most distinguished social psychologists of his generation and now an emeritus professor at Harvard, has devoted the last several decades to developing and testing strategies for ameliorating intergroup conflict. He has not been shy about taking on the hardest problems—the Mideast and Northern Ireland, for example—and he has learned a lot about what it takes to reverse, or at least to contain, the escalation of such conflicts. As much as anyone I know, Herb works productively right at the intersection of theory and practice. So it brings a smile when one reads what he has posted on the door of his William James Hall office:

Theory is when you know everything but nothing works.
Practice is when everything works but no one knows why.
In this room, theory and practice come together:
Nothing works and no one knows why.

That tongue-in-the-cheek lament poses the challenge. How have we done at surmounting it in the 25 years since the first edition of this book was published? Has there been discernable progress in developing research strategies that enable theory and practice to inform one another? What now commands the attention of scholars who seek to develop knowledge that is both conceptually sound and of practical use? What obstacles and opportunities are most likely to occupy our attention in the years to come? This commentary addresses those questions, fueled by the provocative essays by Susan Albers Mohrman and Allan Mohrman, Amy Edmondson, and Lynda Gratton.

 

Six: Rigor and Relevance in Organizational Research: Experiences, Reflections, and a Look Ahead

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PHILIP MIRVIS
AND EDWARD E. LAWLER III

THERE IS NOTHING so practical as a good theory.” “You cannot understand a system until you try to change it.” These are the practical dictums about the relevance of knowledge and its rigorous development offered by Kurt Lewin, the father of social psychology. They represent what we believe and do: in the case of Lawler, as an “applied scholar,” and Mirvis, his onetime grad student and longtime friend, as a “scholarly practitioner.” Our understandings and pursuit of Lewin’s twin precepts about knowledge gathering and use have evolved during a combined 70-plus years studying individuals and organizations.

In this chapter we reflect on matters of rigor and relevance in our scholarship and research programs. The first part is autobiographical as we contend that a scholar’s interest in and skills for producing useful knowledge are to some extent a product of self-selection, socialization, and identity formation, all in turn shaped by career stages, twists, and turns. One theme is that the dynamic “fit” between who researchers are and what they study influences (and can transform) their stance on rigor versus relevance over time. Our personal interests and career paths have led us to construct research programs that increasingly stress relevance and that take us deeply into the workings of organizations and management practices.

 

Seven: Can Relevance and Rigor Coexist?

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C. K. PRAHALAD *

THE DEBATE ABOUT RELEVANCE and rigor in research is a favorite topic for academics. For as long as I can remember, this debate has been vigorous but inconclusive. This discussion is not limited to the focus of academic research and methodological preferences but also about the way the results of our research are communicated. Many practitioners find the language of academic journals overly (and often unnecessarily) complicated. Further, there is seldom an action bias in academic research. The next steps, for example, What can a manager do with these conclusions? How can she operationalize the results of academic research? have often remained unanswered. I have, over the past 25 years, avoided this debate about rigor and relevance. Early in my research career I made a clear choice: My primary audience was practitioners. My research, as a result, was focused on what I felt was relevant to managers and I chose outlets for my work that were practitioner oriented. Viewed from this perspective, I have been an academic “outlier.” I believe that was probably the reason that the organizers of this workshop invited me to write a chapter in this book. They asked me to reflect on my personal journey as a researcher.

 

Eight: Making a Difference and Contributing Useful Knowledge: Principles Derived from Life As a Scholar-Practitioner

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MICHAEL BEER

MY LIFELONG WORK as a scholar-practitioner has made a difference in the life of organizations and individuals; in a few cases, it has had a dramatic impact. Organizations and managers developed and became more effective, and the quality of work life improved. At the same time, I think I can claim that my work has had an impact on knowledge useful for theory and practice.

In this chapter, I articulate principles for developing knowledge that is relevant or actionable or both. I glean these from an examination of more than 40 years of work as a researcher and consultant, often occupying both roles at the same time. These roles have been symbiotic and have led to a broad set of activities ranging from academic research across several content domains; the development of interventions based on knowledge in the field of behavioral science; testing of these interventions through action research; and the formalization of knowledge gained through articles, books, and consulting tools. By repeating this process through many consulting projects in multiple organizational settings over a long time, I have been able to develop systemic practical theories. For example, research on large-scale corporate transformations published in The Critical Path to Corporate Renewal articulates a theory of organizational transformation (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990a). My recent book High Commitment, High Performance provides an operating theory of high-commitment, high-performance (HCHP) organizations and how to develop them (Beer, 2009). Most academics and consultants do not engage in such a broad range of activities, and as a consequence, both groups struggle to develop rigorous knowledge that contributes to practice and theory.

 

Nine: On Knowing and Doing: A Perspective on the Synergies between Research and Practice

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MICHAEL L. TUSHMAN

My career has been one of deliberately linking research (knowing) and practice (doing). As an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, I worked for five years as a co-op student at General Radio. This distinguished electronics firm was one of the first of its kind and was, at the time, the leading test equipment firm in the industry. However, during this period, the company began to fail in the face of technological change and the entrance of new competition (HP, among others). My carpool friends were about to be laid off. They faced the trauma associated with a historically dominant firm floundering in the face of a rapidly shifting competitive arena. As it turned out, making the same products better simply drove the firm more quickly out of business. I observed General Radio’s inertial responses to these competitive shifts and the disastrous consequences for its employees and stakeholders.

These experiences at General Radio led me to leave an electrical engineering career and move to graduate school to try to understand just what happened. For 30 years now, I have been working to answer the questions my carpool colleagues asked so many years ago. Just why do successful firms often fail at technological transitions? Why were seasoned executives rendered so incompetent at this particular transition? While my specific research questions have evolved over time, the central theme of my research has been rooted in this General Radio experience; that is, on trying to better understand how and why firms fail to adapt in the context of technological transitions.

 

Ten: Academic-Consultant Collaboration: Doing Research across the Divide

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RUTH WAGEMAN *

SOME TEN YEARS AGO, an unusual research collaboration began. A trio of senior consultants, deeply experienced in working with chief executives, reflected on countless observations of wheel-spinning, conflict-ridden leadership teams and wondered whether it really had to be that way. The popular press writings on top teams provided help . . . of a sort. These works described similar patterns: conflicts among members never surfaced effectively, chief executives driving an agenda with no signs of team ownership of the strategy, repeated returns to the same sticky issues. But the underlying message in these works was less helpful: That’s just how it is with teams of top leaders (e.g., Katzenbach, 1997a, 1997b).

So far, the story is not unusual: Observant practitioners noted a pattern of dysfunction and an opportunity to provide help to clients. They began exploring a significant opportunity to build a new practice for their firm.

Then the story becomes unusual. These senior consultants turned to an academic colleague to find out whether scholarly research on top teams might guide interventions to improve their functioning. With a literature review of upper-echelons research (Hambrick, 2000; Hambrick & D’Aveni, 1996; Hambrick & Mason, 1984) and another academic colleague drawn into the mix, this group collectively reached a conclusion: Existing research is informative about leadership team dysfunctions, but the field is wide open for some inventive new understandings of how to help such teams become more effective.

 

Eleven: Integrating Theory to Inform Practice: Insights from the Practitioner-Scholar

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RAMKRISHNAN (RAM) V. TENKASI

TRADITIONALLY, THE CHALLENGE of connecting academic theory and research to practice was seen as the exclusive responsibility of the research-scholar. Academics were asked to devise clever ways to make such bridging possible through the contextualization of their research results so that it has enhanced meaning for practitioners (Tenkasi, Mohrman, & Mohrman, 2007); to write in a compelling and interesting style that captures the minds, hearts, and consciences of practitioners (Bartunek, Rynes, & Ireland, 2006; Green, 2004; Van De Ven & Schomaker, 2002); and to contribute to an evidence-based management infrastructure that builds evidence-based practice capabilities among managers (Rousseau, 2006).

Recent decades have seen several intermediates emerge between the world of research knowledge and its application. These intermediates have changed society’s perception of the research-scholar, who has gone from the primary or sole agent responsible for translating and applying scholarly knowledge to one of several agents involved in the process. Several intermediate bundlers and co-producers of knowledge, including practitioner-scholars, consulting firms, and professional groups, now serve as alternative pathways for translating and integrating scholarly knowledge to practice (see Chapter 1, Research for Theory and Practice). The focus of this chapter is one such intermediate agent—the practitioner-scholar—and how he or she applies theory and research knowledge to practice in order to produce outcomes for an organization and, in this process, at times advances scientific knowledge.

 

Twelve: Organization Development Scholar-Practitioners: Between Scholarship and Practice

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JEAN M. BARTUNEK
AND EDGAR H. SCHEIN
*

WE BEGIN THIS CHAPTER by stipulating that academic-practitioner relationships and the ability of academics to communicate with practitioners matter deeply. We and many others hope very much that academics’ research findings can help to facilitate more effective management practice (e.g., Bartunek, 2003, 2007; Hambrick, 1994; Huff, 2000; McGregor, 1960; Rousseau, 2006; Rynes, Bartunek, & Daft, 2001; Schein, 1965, 2009a, 2009b; Van de Ven, 2002, 2007; Van de Ven & Johnson, 2006). We also hope that academics can learn from practitioners (Bartunek, 2007; Schein, 2009a, 2009b; Van de Ven, 2007).

Nevertheless, we realize that accomplishing such improved communication is not easy. As Pettigrew (2001, S61) stated, “If the duty of the intellectual in society is to make a difference, the management research community has a long way to go to realize its potential.” Regardless of its difficulty, attempting to have scholarly findings facilitate practice and practice facilitate scholarly learning is important. Bad management is tangibly damaging (Adler & Jermier, 2005; Ghoshal, 2005; Rousseau, 2006), and if academics do not speak, less rigorously developed—but much more effectively marketed—knowledge (cf. Ernst & Kieser, 2002) is going to be virtually the only source of management knowledge for practitioners.

 

Thirteen: Professional Associations: Supporting Useful Research

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WAYNE F. CASCIO

PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS HAVE a visible, leading role to play in supporting and assimilating management-related research that has a useful impact on practice. Over the years, many reasons have been suggested for the great chasm that seems to exist between academic research and the practice of management. For purposes of this article, I adopt Gelade’s (2006) definition of practitioners, namely, those who make recommendations about the management or development of people in organizational settings or advise those who do. Research is relevant to the extent that it generates insights that practitioners find useful for understanding their own organizations and situations better than before (Vermeulen, 2007).

In Chapter 1, Research for Theory and Practice, Mohrman and Lawler describe three broad perspectives on the science-practice gap:

1. From an academia-centric perspective, the gap is the result of a knowledge-transfer problem. It assumes that knowledge emanates primarily from academia and focuses on ways to make practitioners knowledgeable about the “facts” that are discovered through academic research.

 

Fourteen: Sticky Findings: Research Evidence Practitioners Find Useful

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DENISE M. ROUSSEAU
AND JOHN W. BOUDREAU

What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Cool Hand Luke

Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity.
CHRISTOPHER ZEEMAN

The hardest problem of all: how people think.
EDWIN KREBS

STICKY FINDINGS ARE RESEARCH RESULTS that grab attention, gain credibility, and are readily shared. The merits of taking aspirin after a heart attack (Smith et al., 2001) or limiting TV watching for kids (Hancox, Milne, & Poulton, 2005) are sticky findings that many people have acted on. Still, an eminently useful evidence-based idea is no guarantee of uptake. Indeed, a destructive idea often stands a better chance of acceptance and use if it captures the attention of people whose interests it serves. Consider the overreliance on stock options in management compensation as one widely popular but bad-for-business idea (Ghoshal, 2005). What is popular is not necessarily scientifically valid and vice versa. Nonetheless, for research findings to be used they need to be sticky, or perhaps more accurately put, they need to be presented in sticky ways. Our chapter’s thesis is this: We need to design our research and communications with users in ways that make our findings sticky. The users we have in mind are business professionals, organizational leaders, regulators, and the general public.

 

Fifteen: Popular and Influential Management Books

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GEORGE S. BENSON *

A QUICK TRIP through any bookstore shows that the public’s interest in reading business books might only be exceeded by the willingness of gurus, academics, and executives to write them. Amazon currently sells more than 250,000 books categorized as “Management and Leadership.” Simply based on sales, a number of these books appear to have captured the attention of managers in the United States and around the world. There are also numerous examples of books without seven-figure sales whose ideas have helped shape business practice. This chapter investigates whether popular and influential management books are written by university-based researchers and addresses the prospect of translating organizational research to managerial practice through management books.

The degree to which popular management books are based on sound research has been hotly debated. Over the past several decades academics and other commentators have regularly criticized popular business books for presenting unsupported conclusions and poor quality research (e.g., Pierce, Newstrom, & Cummings, 2002). Despite their sales, popular business books in general have been widely panned by academic researchers as presenting simple prescriptions, promoting trademarked phrases, and repackaging common wisdom (Argyris, 2000; Rosenweig, 2009). Popular business books are often viewed as advertisements for seminars or consulting rather than as actual prescriptive ideas based on theory and research.

 

Sixteen: Commentary: Observations Concerning Pathways for Doing “Useful Research”

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GARY P. LATHAM

THE SPECIFIC HIGH GOALS of the workshop on which this book is based were, in my opinion, threefold: (1) Determine whether there is consensus among the presenters and discussants as to whether the interrelated academic fields of human resource management (HRM), industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, and organizational behavior (OB) are in serious trouble from the standpoint of widening the scientist-practitioner gap. (2) Identify the causes for the gap if the gap is getting larger rather than smaller. (3) Provide prescriptive solutions on ways to at least minimize, if not eliminate, the gap between these two groups.

The workshop participants were predominately senior scholars whose academic careers exemplify the practice of science for the purpose of improving organizational behavior. Although his name was not invoked during the workshop, all of the participants have had careers that exemplify Kurt Lewin’s credo (1945) of no research without action, no action without research . “Useful research” was implicitly defined by some, and explicitly defined by others, as research that significantly influences and is influenced by practice in organizational settings. The desired reciprocal influence of these two domains has been discussed elsewhere (Latham, 2001a, 2001b), as have disagreements with this viewpoint (Hulin, 2001).

 

Seventeen: Practitioner Perspectives: Comments from a Panel Discussion

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DAVID NADLER
IAN ZISKIN
EDWARD E. LAWLER III
MICHAEL BEER
SUSAN ALBERS MOHRMAN

THE FOLLOWING COMMENTS come from a discussion at the December 2009 book workshop. David Nadler and Ian Ziskin, both of whom are long-term supporters of and participants in the research of the Center for Effective Organizations, were asked to provide a practitioner’s perspective.

David Nadler has been an academic, a consultant, and a senior executive. He served on the faculty at the Graduate School of Business, Columbia University. In 1980, he founded the Delta Consulting Group and was CEO of the firm for 20 years. In 2000, he managed the acquisition of Delta by Mercer, a Marsh & McLennan Company, and continued to run Mercer Delta through 2005. In 2007, he was appointed vice chairman of the Marsh and McLennan Companies, a global professional services firm.

Ian Ziskin is president of EXec EXcel Group LLC, a consulting firm he founded after a highly successful 28-year career as a business executive. He is the former corporate vice president, chief human resources and administrative officer for Northrop Grumman Corporation.

 

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