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Amy C. Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. She is the author of Teaming to Innovate, Teaming, and A Fuller Explanation, along with over seventy articles on leadership, teams, innovation, and organizational learning. She has received many awards, including the Accenture Award for significant contribution to improving the practice of management.

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Excerpt

Useful Research

Introduction

SUSAN ALBERS MOHRMAN
AND EDWARD E. LAWLER III

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BOOK is to provide frameworks and evidence-based guidance to scholars interested in doing research that advances both academic knowledge and practice. For us, and for many of the contributors to this book, this topic has been a career-long concern. We believe that the contribution of research to organizational practice is of critical importance in a world where organizations of all kinds are shaping the future and fundamentally impacting the quality of life and the health of societies.

Dual-impact research has been the mission of the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) at the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) Marshall School of Business since its founding in 1979. In 1983, we held a workshop of prominent organization and management researchers that resulted in an edited book, Doing Research That Is Useful for Theory and Practice (Lawler et al., 1985; reissued with a new foreword and introduction in 1999). Authors wrote chapters, discussed and refined their ideas about useful research at the workshop, and then revised their chapters for the book. Researchers were invited to be part of this project based on their doing research that was useful to theory and practice. The express purpose of that book was to demonstrate the legitimacy and importance of dual-purpose research.

Useful Research: Advancing Theory and Practice revisits the topic of research that is useful for theory and practice. Once again, we assembled prominent researchers, including some authors from the original book. Our purpose was to reexamine this important topic, this time focusing on what has been learned about how to do dual-purpose research. Again, researchers wrote chapters for a workshop, this time held on December l, 2009. Their chapters were then revised for this book to reflect the exchange that occurred during the workshop.

Today, doing research that addresses theory and practice is not the predominant orientation of the fields of management and organizational sciences. If anything, it is less a focus than it was in 1983. There are, however, beacons of hope as a number of leading scholars are intentionally and successfully conducting research that is significantly impacting management and organizations. There have been and continue to be periodic eruptions of voiced concern about the need for research to have a greater impact. Some of these have come from leading scholars such as Sara Rynes, Denise Rousseau, Don Hambrick, and others who have been highly successful in careers based on traditional research. Recently there have been a number of special journal issues and conferences on the topic, and many proposals and initiatives that are intended to bridge the relevance gap between management research and practice have been made. In his 2010 Presidential Address to the Academy of Management, Jim Walsh pointed out that more than half of the last 16 presidents of the Academy have used the occasion of their presidential addresses to emphasize the importance of doing research that contributes to practice, and have decried the lack of impact of prevailing research approaches.

The seemingly low impact of these waves of concern about bridging the gap between research and practice testifies to how deep seated the experienced conflicts are between rigor and relevance, theory and practice, career concerns and societal contribution. A dull murmur in the 1990s about the need for relevance has turned into a more strident advocacy of relevance to practice. Nevertheless, journals remain predominantly oriented toward the status quo, top-level business schools seem unconcerned that their research faculty do not carry out useful research, and entry-level organizational and management researchers continue to publish primarily or exclusively in the traditional research journals. There is a great chasm between the advocates of bridging the gap and the behavior of the many researchers who do not even try to do so and who do not believe it is an important or legitimate issue.

Recounting what is known about the nature of the gap between research and practice is not the major purpose of this book. Others have done so already. Rather, our purpose is to identify and describe research strategies and approaches that simultaneously advance academic and practical knowledge. We believe that research can lead to improvements in practice as well as advances in theoretical understanding. Academic knowledge is advanced when scientific theories, frameworks, and models accurately reflect and lead to greater understanding, explanation, and prediction of individual and organizational behavior. Practical knowledge is advanced when research enables organizations to carry out their purposes more effectively. In our view, the test of whether knowledge is useful to practice is not whether it is “theoretically” impactful—but whether it is actually used and results in improved practice.

The focus of this book is more on the challenge of linking research to practice than on the challenge of linking research to the advancement of theoretical knowledge. This choice should not be taken as a statement that all is well with respect to the latter. Indeed, many advocates of reducing the gap between theory and practice believe that a root cause of the lack of impact of research on practice is that research has not sufficiently advanced theoretical understanding.

Both Andrew Van de Ven (2007) and William Starbuck (2006) have compellingly described the methodological pitfalls of rigorous positivistic research that lead to a false complacency that such research is enhancing the understanding of organizations. They and others (e.g., Daft & Lewin, 2008) have described the tendency for research studies to become increasingly narrow and therefore unable to elucidate complex organizational phenomena. Starbuck has questioned whether our attempts to examine a representative sample to find average relationships through variance-based analyses are in any way informative to organizations that aspire to be excellent. Ongoing debates pit various methodological preferences and perspectives against one another, but these debates among research paradigms are not a major focus of this book. Instead, our focus is on how to do dual-purpose research.

In the opening chapter, we set the stage by discussing the mission of organizational researchers to do research that contributes to theory and practice. We believe that mission stems directly from the societal importance of organizations as well as from the role of professional schools. We examine different perspectives on what this mission means for the practice of and the practitioners of organizational research. We argue that impact can be achieved through a number of research approaches and ways of connecting to practice, and that all are necessary in today’s turbulent environment when the very nature of organizations and organizing is experiencing a fundamental change.

The authors in Part I were invited to write chapters because they are carrying out research with the purposes of generating academic knowledge and enabling more effective practice. They describe the choices they make and the tactics they employ in order to accomplish these goals.

Amy C. Edmondson describes her evolving research program at the Harvard Business School’s Technology and Operations Unit. She has been looking at the relationship of various team dynamics to outcomes such as medical error rates and quality in health care settings. She stresses the benefits to theory development as well as to practice that come from doing problem-focused research, spending time in the field, and working across boundaries.

Susan Albers Mohrman and Allan M. Mohrman, Jr. describe the longitudinal, collaborative, multicompany research approach that they have used at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC. It starts with an exploratory, grounded approach to understanding a broad problem, such as why companies in the 1990s were reporting that the teaming approaches that worked well in their factories were not working effectively in their engineering and technology units, and what they could do to improve their capacity for cross-functional knowledge work teaming. Using exploratory methodologies in several company sites to formulate a model, they tested the model through a rolling series of multimethod studies, including confirmatory action research.

Lynda Gratton describes a collaborative, multistaged, multimethod research program centered at the London Business School. She and her team started with a general problem that was raised by various companies of how to increase the performance of innovation teams, and moved through several highly participative stages of research to develop and test a model. Both the Mohrman and Gratton chapters describe research programs that include a research stage during which tools and methodologies are developed based on the knowledge that was generated in earlier exploratory and model-building phases of the research.

J. Richard Hackman has done foundational research on behavior in organizations, and the frameworks yielded by his research have had a major impact on practice. In his commentary on Part I, he bemoans the increasing disciplinary nature of scholarship in business schools, its orientation toward narrow, discipline-focused journals, and the distance between research and actual organizational behavior. He extols the advantages of Lewinian action science and calls for inventive ways to conduct fundamental research in context.

In Part II, we hear from four highly respected researchers whose lifeworks have had significant and broad impact on practice. They describe how they approached their careers and research programs in order to have the impact they desire.

Philip Mirvis and Edward E. Lawler describe the latter’s transition from very traditional, although field oriented, theory-driven psychology research to the development at the University of Michigan of a multimethod, multidiscipline, longitudinal approach to systematically examining the impact of interventions designed to create high-involvement work systems. They describe their ongoing commitment to research that is able to examine complex organizational problems. For Lawler, this led to his founding and directing the Center for Effective Organizations, which he specifically designed to house useful research.

Shortly before his untimely death, C. K. Prahalad wrote about his research career, in which he spent large amounts of time in the field working with companies and connecting to what he called “the preoccupations” of managers. Through learning about trends and picking up “weak signals,” he and his colleagues were able to anticipate, form a point of view, and learn and write about the emerging set of challenges and opportunities to be faced by companies.

Michael Beer describes a career that began in industry but led to the Harvard Business School, where he has worked closely and collaboratively with organizations to apply organizational knowledge that helps them improve their performance. In so doing, he evolved, tested, and published increasingly comprehensive intervention theories and methodologies and a model of high-performance organizations.

In the final chapter of Part II, Michael L. Tushman describes his research career at Columbia University and more recently the Harvard Business School. It is driven by a meta-question that he formulated when he was working as an engineer. The question is how can companies survive fundamental technology transitions. He describes a model that he and his colleagues at several universities have evolved for carrying out action-based executive education programs that are a catalyst to dual-focused research. In these programs, the academics build close relationships with executives that serve as a basis for the identification of important research questions relating to the problems their companies experience. The companies commit to house not only the action projects associated with the executive education programs but also academically oriented research.

Part III explores pathways to practice beyond the standard academic journal publication process that has been the major value stream for academia through time. The first three chapters look at the potential of bridging roles—consultancies, executive PhDs, and organizational development (OD) professionals—bringing academic knowledge to practice. Ruth Wageman recounts the benefits and difficulties of collaborating with consultants from the Hay Group in order to conduct a study of top leadership teams. The goal was to produce knowledge that contributes to academic theory and practitioner-oriented publications that would be a natural conduit to practice. She provides an in-depth account of the collaborative process working across the boundaries of academia and practice.

Ramkrishnan (Ram) V. Tenkasi shares learnings from his experience at Benedictine University teaching in an executive PhD program that equips line managers to become theory-based change agents and researchers in their corporations. He provides a systematic account of the ambidextrous dynamics set up by these scholar practitioners who combine their theoretical and methodological knowledge with the realities and culture of practice in order to address the performance strategies of their companies.

Jean M. Bartunek and Edgar H. Schein discuss the conditions under which OD professionals are conduits of academic knowledge to help organizations achieve their development goals. In their view, their influence does not rely on a diagnostic nor prescriptive presentation of academic knowledge. Rather, such knowledge is infused into the dialogic process by which people in the system, working with the OD professional, think through the issues and take action steps to improve performance. This requires that the OD professional have knowledge of the literature, especially of system dynamics, and is able to learn from the organization as well as enable it to develop.

The importance of cross-boundary relationships for researchers carrying out dual-purpose research and for scholar practitioners bringing academic knowledge to bear on company problems is mentioned in all of the chapters described so far. Generating and applying academic knowledge that is useful for practice requires the development of relationships with practitioners that enable a deep understanding of their world. Wayne F. Cascio describes the active role that professional associations such as the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) are playing to build relationships between academics and practitioners and to make academic knowledge accessible to practice. He points out that these relationships provide valuable research opportunities for academics who are willing to invest energy, build relationships, and learn about the world of practice, its interests, and how to communicate with it.

Denise M. Rousseau and John W. Boudreau focus on the need to learn new communication approaches. They suggest that academic knowledge is more accessible to practice if it is communicated using “sticky concepts”—attention grabbing, memorable, and credible—that are useful in enabling practitioners to make better decisions.

George S. Benson takes a look at a particular form of communication—the role of management books. He finds that many of the most popular management books, as measured by sales, do appear to have sticky messages but are not based on systematic research knowledge. He suggests that influential academic researchers impact practice through periodic books that are aimed at particular target audiences and that describe the practical implications of their research streams to date.

In a commentary on Part III, Gary P. Latham reiterates the availability of many ways for academics to better connect their work to practice. Encouraging and rewarding young academics for doing useful research is a key challenge facing the field. He argues that encouragement is the responsibility of senior academic leaders, who must push back on the prevailing norms that have developed in business schools. As he notes, it is the senior academic leaders who hire new faculty and establish tenure expectations and who thus decide what kind of performance is valued.

A panel discussion with practitioners was held at the end of the first day of the workshop, and we present excerpts from it. David Nadler and Ian Ziskin shared their reactions to the preliminary chapters and to the discussion at the workshop, and their own thoughts about relevance to practice. They emphasized the importance of helping practitioners solve problems and of getting beyond jargon and esoteric theory to clearly and efficiently communicate learnings about practice.

Part IV examines the trends in the critical institutions that shape the field—business schools, journals, and the Academy of Management. Thomas G. Cummings recounts the barriers to doing useful research and provides a rather pessimistic view on whether useful research can find a comfortable home in business schools. He sees these schools as being driven by market forces that make them dependent on ratings and prestige that is primarily based on publications in top-level academic outlets.

Sara L. Rynes then counteracts this pessimism by recounting the major forces in the Academy of Management, key management journals, and various academic communities of practice that are encouraging and recognizing the kind of longitudinal, qualitative, problem-oriented research that is advocated in this book. She argues that a high level of prestige and career success is likely to come to academics who do dual-purpose research effectively.

Finally, James O’Toole provides an essay in which he argues that scientific research is not an adequate or even appropriate methodology to use in order to discover useful knowledge for organizations. He believes that business schools should evolve a professional model in which researchers and clinical faculty are equally valued.

Part V takes stock of the themes from the book and the implications for academics who aspire to do research that has an impact on practice and theory. Andrew H. Van de Ven relates the themes of this book to the framework he provided in Engaged Scholarship (2007). There he described methodological approaches for conducting multistakeholder collaborations in order to examine important complex problems. He advocates knowledge “arbitrage”—taking advantage of differences in knowledge across participants in order to more fully understand complex problems and to yield theoretical enrichment and advancement. Van de Ven’s advice to young scholars is first to practice the basics of sound research with input from stakeholders and then to proceed to more complex, multistakeholder investigations. He is optimistic that following such a course will lead to successful academic careers with impact.

Finally, we lay out two overarching challenges for academics who want to impact practice. The first is to better connect with the complex value stream through which organizations seek useful knowledge. The second is to build the rich personal networks of cross-boundary relationships that are needed to combine knowledge effectively and to ensure the generation of actionable and relevant knowledge. We invited authors to write the chapters for this book based on their ability to address these two challenges. Doing research that has dual purposes requires an expansion of knowledge and capability beyond a solely theoretically driven research program, but it can be done. We believe that young scholars should develop their skills and take advantage of opportunities to broaden their awareness and knowledge of practice, just as the authors of the chapters in this book have done. In this way they will learn to combine their knowledge with knowledge from practice and other disciplines, and to connect effectively to the value stream through which organizational practitioners get knowledge.

REFERENCES

Daft, R. L., & Lewin, A. Y. (2008). Rigor and relevance in organization studies: Idea migration and academic journal evolution. Organization Science, 19, 177–183.

Lawler, E., Mohrman, A., Jr., Mohrman, S., Ledford, G., Cummings, T., & Associates. (1999). Doing research that is useful for theory and practice. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. (Original work published 1985)

Starbuck, W. H. (2006). The production of knowledge: The challenge of social science research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van de Ven, A. H. (2007). Engaged scholarship: A guide for organizational and social research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, James. (2010). Embracing the Sacred in our Secular Scholarly World. Presidential Address to the Academy of Management, August 8, Montreal, Canada.

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