How could our research be beneficial?

Image: Tiffany window at Winchester House by Chris McSorley, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Image: Tiffany window at Winchester House by Chris McSorley, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

[Ed note: This is the sixth of six articles in a virtual panel on Who should benefit from organizational research?]

by Hugh Willmott

Professor Davis asks: who should benefit from organizational research? Rather than taking for granted its beneficiaries, he usefully poses the question. To the extent that organizations research has a practical impact, it informs decisions made by business and governments, amongst others. In turn, as Professor Davis (2015) notes, those decisions ‘shape the life chances of workers, consumers, and citizens for decades to come’. This expectation provides what I commend as an answer to his question: there is potentially as large and diverse audience for knowledge of management and organization as there is diversity of stakeholders in the widely diffused practices of management and organization. The audience includes, but is not restricted to, managers.

There is perhaps some irony in how the established, critical case for challenging the role of business academics as ‘servants of [executive] power’ is now been joined by a pragmatic recognition that the audience of managers is diminishing. As Professor Davis reports, bean counters have (with scientific rigor?) assigned the status of ‘manager’ to 7 million Americans, but the number of employees who manage others is, in all likelihood, in sharp, and probably irreversible, decline. There is, then, some common ground between long-standing critics of managerialism and those now wishing to expand the audience (market?) for business academics.

It is indeed fortunate for business academics that there are possibilities for engaging the concerns and priorities of other audiences. Addressing their concerns is, however, likely to require some reorientation away from a comparatively narrowly defined, managerialist agenda devised to service managers as this agenda is primarily dedicated to bestowing a neutralising degree of “scientific” legitimacy upon their practices of power.

Professor Davis commends the generation of specific kind of knowledge of management and organization – one that permits ‘replication’ or the delivery of ‘truth’ (unless otherwise indicated, all single quotes are drawn from Davis, 2015). Relatedly, he cautions against appealing primarily to what delights readers – that is, audiences – is a ‘nihilistic dictum’. Yet, refusal or failure to pique the interest of readers risks the consignment of knowledge to oblivion.

Challenging entrenched wisdom presents an alternative to the quest for ostensibly ‘reliable knowledge’ based upon ‘deductive and inductive methods’ – knowledge that frequently abstracted or distanced from any specific audience or area of concern. Enabling audiences to reflect critically on what they have come to ‘believe to be the case’ so as to contemplate the possibility that it is partial, mistaken, or at least contingent upon the existence and continuity of particular circumstances and assumptions, speaks directly to their lived experiences and associated “interests”.

It is arguably more credible and important to question received wisdom than to offer ostensibly authoritative enhancements or replacements of it, even if this questioning cannot be supported and defended by replicable studies or ostensibly authoritative ‘truths’. When ‘truths’ are adopted uncritically – consider, for example, Scientific Management or Credit Ratings – they almost invariably result in “getting things wrong”.

The ambition to produce knowledge that claims to ‘get it right’ is alluring but also fraught with danger: the conviction that research has ‘got it right’ invites complacency and unchecked technocracy, potential tyranny and/or unanticipated disaster. In the name of a unified, methodologically correct conception of science, self-styled experts or autocrats then call the shots while dismissing other, competing views for being insufficiently “scientific” or accusing them of harboring ‘systematic biases’.

In this context, the Winchester Mystery House may hold some overlooked virtue despite, or perhaps because, its design lacked any ‘specific function’ or ‘shared vision’. Actually, irrespective of whether it is considered rational or effective, the ‘folly’ did have a purpose: ‘to appease the spirits’ of those shot by Winchester rifles – a legacy that clearly weighed heavily upon Winchester’s widow who funded and specified the features of the House. Constructed 24/7 from 1884-1922, it stands not only as physical mausoleum but also as a fitting metaphor for the frenzied activity of modernity, exemplified in the 24/7 busyness of contemporary business academia stationed on the tread mill of publication and marking, where ubiquitous processes of disenchantment drain life of meaning and fill it with stress. Symptomatic of the folly of academia is a displacement of the advancement of knowledge directed at major, pressing issues (e.g. inequality, climate change, nuclear proliferation) by work driven by career incentives that conspire to conflate ‘good science’ with what is most readily publishable in the ‘top’ journals and/or receives the most citations.

Building the Winchester Mystery House was not an ‘end in itself’. Yet, had it been so, it would have been an anti-monument to instrumentalism. The Mystery House presents a challenge to calculating reason. It invites consideration of, and commitment to, ultimate ends – ends that might include inter alia CO2 omission reductions and global justice. The field of organizational research lacks sufficient critical reflection upon, and engagement with, issues worthy of study. An associated challenge is to gain funding and recognition for research that addresses and illuminates those issues; and to resist and subvert pressures and practices which reward and reinforce the emulation of so-called ‘good science’.

The central problem of organizational research is not the pursuit of ‘novelty’, as Professor Davis claims, but the triumph of vacuity where frenetic production of the nothingness of novelty is substituted for substance. Indeed, in order to address the diverse concerns of the new audiences that Professor Davis seeks to reach – novel research may be necessary, even essential. The challenge is to address those concerns in ways that have substance, and so avoid the warm, but largely specious, rhetoric of corporate social responsibility, for example.

In academia, demands for methodological rigor and rapid results too often inhibit and limit the pursuit of impactful research upon pressing issues that affect large and diverse audiences. When commending ‘good science’, it is time to rejoin the meaning of ‘good’ to an ethical sensibility that challenges and extends well beyond the equation of ‘good’ with what is largely irrelevant but pleasingly inoffensive to business, or what conforms to narrowly defined standards of technical competence.

Instead of lampooning the Winchester Mystery House as a ‘sprawling and incoherent’ folly, it could alternatively be celebrated as a (flawed) symbol of diversity. In its metaphorical refusal to subscribe to a notion of unified but ethically vacuous ‘good science’, the House may alternatively be understood to offer a series of inspiring and illuminating imaginaries (e.g. a finely crafted staircase or its Tiffany stained glass). The corresponding imaginaries in academia are the insightful, critical ideas that can puncture and debunk the pretentiousness, superficiality and formulaic character of what is widely presented in our ‘top’ journals as ‘good science’.

Hugh Willmott is professor in organization studies, Cass Business School, City University London and Cardiff Business School. He thanks Emilio Marti for his comments on a draft of this response which helped him to appreciate and articulate points of convergence with Professor Davis’ analysis.

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