15 November 2012

What have academics ever done for us?

Is seems that academics can never do anything right, especially when it comes to their work with businesses. Companies complain that university “boffins” don’t want to know about the sort of science that makes money, and when they do show interest in how businesses work, they are dismissed for being out of touch.

The latest manifestation of the latter complaint shows in the responses to a news item on Times Higher Education (THE), Business schools unveil plans for enterprise research centre. The story itself is a straightforward report of plans by Warwick Business School and Aston Business School to set up a Enterprise Research Centre.

The announcement was one of a PR binge that the government went on to mark Global Entrepreneurship Week, in a desperate attempt to appear to be doing something about business. Aston University, in its announcement of the initiative, says “The new £2.9 million centre will become a national and international focal point for research, knowledge and expertise on small and medium-sized businesses.” What possible objection could there be to that?

Back at the THE, ‘whatalife’ whines “I do find these ‘setting up’ of Business Schools to encourage enterprise very amusing. The vast amount of academics could not run their own weekly shopping budget and yet they try to tell business men how to run a business.” Then we get another comment from yet another person who does not want to reveal their real identity, ‘John’, who adds “Coming from the industry, I wonder whether these academics from business school know about real world business at all, let alone doing research in this area.”

I wonder if any of the business people who slagged off business schools on the THE site have actually read any papers based on the academics' research. I regularly read and write about papers about R&D management, for example. While these publications rarely deliver staggering intellectual insights, they are much better than all those expensive consultants when it comes to providing details of what they have done and in analysing their material. They are certainly superior to the ‘make it up as you go along’ style of management that has brought many British companies to their knees.

You won’t read papers from commercial consultants, unlike academic who consult on the back of their research. The ‘borrow your watch to tell you the time’ brigade don't dare reveal their sources, lest the audience see that there is nothing there. Just read the bland articles that many commercial consultancies put on their websites.

Jibes about academics' inability to manage their shopping seem to fall into the trap of thinking that understanding something is the same as doing it. Academics understand how water flows through pipes – it is called fluid dynamics – but no one expects them to be great plumbers.

The independence of academics – and perhaps the fact that their primary motivation is not to re-package old ideas in the mode of some commercial consultants – means that they are free to talk at great length to many many managers, far more than a practitioner can hope to reach without shirking on their paid work.

Academics also have the advantage that they are not in competition with the businesses they study. Companies will say things to academic researchers that they would never put on the record and would certainly not say in front of a rival. As a result, academics are more likely to have a better understanding of what goes on in the business world than many of the wonderful managers who have been so successful in recent years.

Unlike, it seems, these critics, I have read papers from both Warwick Business School and Aston Business School. They have interesting things to say and have worked with some of the more successful business around. Putting the two together in this way makes sense, not least because they sit in the middle of an industrial hotspot, stuffed with just the sort of businesses that the Enterprise Research Centre will study.

I have no idea if business schools are any good at training managers, although there is evidence to suggest that they are not a complete waste of time. I wouldn't be surprised if they are less than great. But that isn't what the new centre is all about.