In this article, we talk about management research and explain how it impacts organisational practice.
How does management research impact organisational practice?
This is a question that has long concerned researchers who have developed expertise on different features of organisations and who analyse to identify trends and improvements. The challenge for these researchers is to ensure that their knowledge and insight can be aligned to the specific (and sometimes idiosyncratic) concerns of managers in a wide range of different organisations.
For example, sometimes management research focuses on wider theories or more fundamental issues (for example, how can we prove that HR practices lead to better organisational performance?) whereas managers want an answer to more immediate questions (such as, how can we make our performance management processes work more effectively?). However, when the concerns of researchers and managers come together, there is lots of evidence that this can have an impact. You can see examples of this by looking at the Research Excellence Framework impact case study reports
, the UK’s national evaluation of research activity.
You might be in a very interesting position which bridges these two roles because you are both a manager and a researcher. This dual status means you have an opportunity to design a great research project – your management role means your research should be relevant to a current issue in your organisation, and your researcher status as a member of this course means you will have to show how this issue links to a wider theoretical framework.
The scope of management research
Before we do this, it is worthwhile thinking about the scope of management research so you have an understanding of the type of issues that might form the basis of your research.
One of the issues here is (as always) one of definition. We are using the term ‘management research’ because it brings together a vast array of work that tries to help managers improve their organisations and so reflects your specific role. However, we could equally have used the terms ‘organisational research’ or ‘business studies’ as these capture similar themes.
There are pros and cons to all of these terms – for example, some would reject the idea of management research because they reject the idea of management itself (Parker, 2002). The point is that management research does not have to simply focus on what managers do, although as we saw in the first step this is a valid question and one that Mintzberg sought to answer in his research. Instead, it can be read as any piece of research that addresses an organisational issue or problem in which managers have an interest because it has the potential to impact on their practice.
There is a rich and varied history of this type of research, some of which continues to resonate despite it being conducted over 100 years ago. Perhaps the most famous example of this is F. W. Taylor, who based his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management
on extensive research in different organisations.
Taylor was obsessed with improving industrial productivity and solving the problem of systematic soldiering where workers would deliberately reduce their effort in order to maximise their rates of pay and maintain levels of employment. By breaking down each job into specific stages and describing these, Taylor was able to show how work could be done more efficiently and more quickly – something that evolved into ‘time and motion’ or ‘stopwatch and clipboard’ studies.
As a piece of management research, Taylor did not achieve immediate success (he was asked to leave the Bethlehem Steel Company where he developed his work and his ideas were famously satirised by Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times
) but his work was voted the most influential of the 20th century and can still be seen today in every production line or call centre.
Another example of management research which has resonated over many decades is the Hawthorne Studies conducted at the Western Electric Plant in the 1920s and 1930s (Roethlisberger & Dickson 1939). This study started out as a piece of research looking at the effect of illumination on worker productivity. The findings proved to be inconclusive but the research expanded into one of the first pieces of work which addressed the issue of employee wellbeing and its impact on productivity – something that has influenced a significant tradition in management research which focuses on solving the question of whether happy people mean higher profits.
These studies (and in particular the initial focus on lighting) have also given us the Hawthorne Effect, a key issue in all research which warns the researcher that the act of studying something can change its behaviour.
These examples show that management research has impacted practice over many years. Today, most (although certainly not all) management research is conducted in university business schools. Business schools have existed for nearly 200 years with the first MBA taught at Harvard in 1908. Today, there are over 13,000 across the world with many, like Coventry University, engaged in a wide range of teaching and research. Broadly speaking, business schools divide this teaching and research on the basis of core business functions (marketing, leadership and strategic management, accountancy and finance, HRM and organisational behaviour, operations management) although there are many different subcategories or specific specialisms contained within these areas.
The sheer variety of this research is represented in the hundreds of academic journals dedicated to publishing this research. This is a real advantage to you because it means that whichever issue you decide to focus on for your research, there will be some pre-existing research that you can draw upon to help develop your thinking.
For now, you should reflect on the fact that management research can make a vital contribution to how we understand organisations and has for a long time. Your research will form only a small part of this overall discipline but it should still aim to impact on some aspect of your organisation or management practice. This might sound daunting, but as we will explore in the next section, much of this can be addressed by defining the main problem you are trying to examine.
Mintzberg, H. (1973). The nature of managerial work. Harper & Row.
Parker, M. (2002). Against management: Organization in the age of managerialism. Wiley.
Roethlisberger, F.J. & Dickson, W.J. (1939). Management and the worker: an account of a research program conducted by the Western electric company, Hawthorne works, Chicago. Harvard University Press.
Taylor, F. W. (1911). The principles of scientific management. Harper & Brothers.