Reforming Management Education
Reforming Management Education
This series will showcase seven visions for how to reform business management and public policy schools.

The belief that business school education and business school faculty members’ research should be “relevant” is longstanding in management studies. It has become so naturalized, I would argue, that it is often seen as self-evident.

Many faculty members find it hard not to grapple with questions of relevance at some points in their career. The debate on relevant research has also been kept alive over many decades by prominent business school scholars and has shaped numerous aspects of faculty training and development—ranging from doctoral programs’ designs to the faculty members’ promotion criteria.

What this debate, however, has clouded is the underlying power dynamics that contribute to labeling some research “relevant” or not, and the implications that such labeling has on the societal legitimacy of business schools’ pursuits, their faculty members’ research agendas, and, ultimately, their students’ education.

Relevance (Almost) Defined

So, what does relevance entail? The first point about defining relevance is that it tends not to be clearly defined. As I explain in my study of faculty socialization at the Harvard Business School, the notion of relevance often proves enigmatic for junior faculty members. In fact, defining relevance would probably destroy its potency and mystique, since this means setting intractable boundaries on what might be deemed relevant or not.

Relevant research, according to four Harvard Business School professors in their 2009 article “Crossing Boundaries to Increase Relevance in Organizational Research,” anticipates or deeply understands “some of the most fundamental challenges of our times.” In this view, what is deemed fundamental remains quite subjective. We know that maintaining ambiguity around a subjective or evaluative criterion is one of the many tools those in power rely on to maintain their higher social standing. If assessors—or those in power—are the ones defining what is relevant or not, yet maintain opacity around what constitutes relevance, then subordinates—in academia, junior faculty members—who are assessed on an elusive criterion remain at the mercy of their assessors’ whims.

Despite such ambiguity, clues to relevance can be gleaned from the writing of its proponents. For example, professor Ranjay Gulati, then at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, wrote in “Tent poles, tribalism, and boundary spanning: The rigor-relevance debate in management research,” “the starting point for all [business school] research must be subjecting hunches to the crucible of managerial insight.” He added that, “by probing more deeply into the problems and other issues that managers care about, we can naturally align our interests with more practice-relevant research, without sacrificing rigor.” Setting aside, for now, the rigor and relevance debate, Gulati implies that scholars’ interests can be aligned not only with practice-relevant research, but also with managers’ own interests. This position echoes repeated calls by several Academy of Management (AOM) presidents for business school scholarship to address managerial concerns.

To illustrate, Columbia Business School Professor Donald Hambrick noted in his 1993 AOM presidential address, “We must recognize that our responsibility is not to ourselves, but rather to the institutions around the world that are in dire need of improved management, as well as to those individuals who seek to be the most effective managers they possibly can be.”

Not all business school faculty members adopt this rhetoric of relevance. For instance, in her 2002 AOM presidential address, Carroll School of Management Professor Jean Bartunek stated that the professional association can be helpful to societal stakeholders, and that those should include not only shareholders, but also more vulnerable groups (such as retirees or younger people looking for work) that “do not seem to be considered at all by many corporations.” Nowhere does she mention relevance. Whether or not these vulnerable groups’ interests would hit the screen of managers’ interests—and therefore be picked up by scholars engaged in “relevant” research—is open to debate. But I suspect that these populations’ interests and struggles might not fully qualify as “relevant” to proponents of relevance.

Other scholars also have made a similar point about the blind spots of relevance. When assessing the extent of relevance in published work, UC Davis Graduate School of Management Professor Donald Palmer and his co-authors are well aware of what is not being discussed. In their 2009 article “Rigor and Relevance in Organization Studies,” they note after conducting an analysis of articles published in a major management academic journal (Administrative Science Quarterly) that they “consider the field’s primary constituency to be managers of one sort or another.” Yet, they also add, “[t]he number of possible constituencies of OS [organization studies] scholarship is very large, including managers, employees, labor unions, suppliers, customers, public policy makers, and community members.” Having found only three articles in their sample (ranging from 1956 to 2004) that offer recommendations “targeted to a nonmanagerial constituency,” they remark that such an understanding of relevance limits “the possibilities of OS scholarship.”

Finally, given that relevance is defined by what managers deem relevant, the definition hinges on who these managers are thought to be. While often agnostic in writing on the profiles of these managers, most proponents of “relevant” research seem to have an ideal in mind, and this type is usually narrowly restricted to include only managers of for-profit organizations. Thus, while relevance appears to be a broad and attractive concept, its practical embodiment is much more restrictive. What proves “relevant” seems to amount to what only a subset of managers deems so. This narrowing has critical implications on business schools’ foci, scholarship, and training: Our societal legitimacy is at stake when we cater to a single constituency.

Relevance Revisited

Contemporary debates about relevance in business schools have clouded rather than illuminated the power dynamics inherent to defining it. For example, by recasting discussions around relevance as a debate around rigor, Gulati elides the potential distinction between relevance and irrelevance. In fact, the false tension between rigor and relevance is quickly debunked as a way to justify the need to focus both on relevance and rigor. This of course leaves the question of relevance versus irrelevance as unproblematic.

Yet the contents of this nebulous relevance can easily amount to what the most powerful managers deem important. As an example, pay inequity between lower ranked employees and CEOs might not count, since many managers might consider CEOs high level of pay a fair compensation for the efforts put in. As UCLA Professor of Sociology Jack Katz keenly observed in another arena, the term “policy relevant” is an indirect way to ask that certain priorities be followed when laws and budgets are passed, as well as to ensure that others issues never get prioritized. With respect to relevance, the key question therefore should be what does relevance hide, rather than what does relevance include.

Relevance, I would argue, hides many things, including those perhaps most disturbing to many corporations, such as wages, environmental sustainability, employees’ health coverage, and more. One might think that faculty members have more leeway than managers to raise those issues, but in an era where certain business schools have policies allowing faculty members to conduct a large number of consulting days (on top of teaching) per year, their incentives to speak up are quite low. On the contrary, the more their views are seen as aligned with managers, the more frequent and higher paying the gigs that come their way.

By praising and aiming for a different type of relevance or what proponents of relevance might deem irrelevant, my hope is that business school faculty members will prove more relevant to their varied constituents and not align merely with one. One of these constituents is our student body. Ultimately, these students will go on to work in a range of settings and organizations. As their teachers, we should hope that they will rise and encourage others to engage in worthy pursuits, be it by creating jobs in given communities, or leading others in new ventures. These students deserve to learn more than only what the powerful deem relevant. They deserve to learn how all members of society—regardless of whether their interests are aligned with managers—coalesce, even in seemingly irrelevant ways, to build our shared world.