By Dr. Ken Grant
In common with several other mid-career academics at the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM), I have been doing my doctorate part-time (at Henley Business School in the United Kingdom), while working at TRSM and, happily (and to my wife’s great relief), I have now been awarded my Doctorate of Business Administration.
For my thesis, I examined Knowledge Management (KM) in Professional Services Firms and my particular perspective was using KM to consider the impact of management fads and fashions on business practice.
In this long and often circuitous journey, I also came to realise that quite a few of my findings relate to the relationships between business academics and industry in general and, more directly, with management consultants. One thing that stood out in my review was the often uneasy relationship between business academics and consultants. As someone who has now been on both sides of this fence for some time (20+ years in full-time consulting, 12 years as full-time academic), this has been a particularly interesting, though not always comfortable, insight.
Consultants and business academics share many things: their work is based on a significant knowledge base; they are interested in understanding and influencing business behaviour, often from a management perspective; and consulting firms are major users of one of business schools key products ‒our MBA graduates. However, there seem to be some significant gaps in mutual understanding and even in mutual respect. The academic literature about consultants is frequently condescending ‒even, at times, quite insulting. The consulting literature is often totally silent on academic contributions, even when they are using academic outputs. (I once saw a report from a major consulting firm that implied that Michael Porter’s 5-forces model was one of their own techniques!) Employers often criticise the skills and knowledge base of our graduates, yet provide limited input and support to improve this situation.
This is particularly relevant when we look at how innovations happen in the workplace. Management Fashion Theory and other related research suggests that most business innovations are first introduced by champions who have high institutional influencing power ‒ consultants, industry gurus and a select few academic gurus. Newspapers and trade literature pick up on the idea and start to describe content and early adoptions. Academics, in general, get involved a bit later; they hear about the new idea and decide to study it, often emphasising the theoretical elements. Over time, the idea either becomes adopted widely in practice, or interest and use decline. The initial proponents move on to new fields, while academics often continue to study it, often for many more years.
My work in the KM field supports this view. I examined KM as an overall theme along with seven other key sub-themes (e.g. Intellectual Capital or Communities of Practice). In each case, I found strong evidence of early promotion from all three types of influencers, with academic interest typically lagging by two or three years. In some areas, industry interest continued and widespread implementation is evident, in others, while the idea has not been widely adopted in practice and industry has moved on, academics continue to investigate and publish on the topic. However, when compared to other topics investigated as management fads (e.g. BPR or Management by Objectives), KM exhibits some unusual characteristics as it attracts quite varied practitioners (e.g strategists and IT professionals) as well researchers from a wide range of disciplines (from philosophy to accounting).
This varying perspective has an impact on what we teach in our programs and how we teach it. This can be a cause of friction between student expectations and faculty behaviour. Except for the occasional “special topics” course, it is not easy to introduce new concepts in curriculum. Academics tend to be cautious about introducing the new topic until they are sure that (1) it is of real importance and (2) that we know enough about the topic to teach it in a rational manner. To further complicate matters, finding reliable sources (e.g. textbooks) for the new topic is often challenging and such sources can often become outdated quickly. In addition, the process of curricular change can move at almost glacial speeds.
So what about the Ryerson MBA program? I think we can take some pride in the things we do to introduce new ideas and to mix the best of academe and industry. Our faculty include both top researchers and real industry experts. Our experiential learning ‒ including integrative weeks/weekends and our Internships linked to the Major Research Paper project (MRPs) ‒provide an opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and topics that are at the forefront of management innovation. But we could do more. We could think about ways to present new ideas that are not yet fully developed, perhaps through more guest lectures and special seminars. We could encourage more of our students to participate in real world activities ‒ consider the Digital Media Zone, a directed readings course, or working with faculty on external projects.
Dr. Ken Grant is an Associate Professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management specializing in Information Systems Management, Entrepreneurship, Organizational Strategy. Professionally, Dr. Grant has acted as the Vice President of Strategic Consulting at the DMR Consulting Group, (Toronto), and as the Vice President at A.T. Kearney/EDS Canada Ltd. (Toronto).