Most International Management (IM) scholars have entered academia with hopes that their work will have an impact on practitioners. Some share their findings with students in the classroom and this way indirectly shape future management practice. Most researchers share their findings in academic journals. It is the latter channel of sharing knowledge that received increased attention and criticism in the field of International Management (Carter, 2008). There is evidence that many practitioners do not implement research findings into their management strategies and practices (Abrahamson, 1996; Mowday, 1997). This phenomenon is often described as research-practice gap.
In order to answer the research question, “how can IM research contribute to IM practice”, I examine some underlying causes and provide some suggestions how academics and practitioners can contribute to narrowing the research practice-gap in general and in the field of IM in particular. For the latter purpose, the meaning of IM in the context of this paper is clarified as there is a lack of consensus on what IM research is. Werner (2002) categorizes the field into (1) “pure IM research”, (2) “comparative management research”, and (3) “foreign domestic studies”. This classification, category two and three in particular, provides a good starting point to question the prevailing North-American research paradigm and demand for more context theory as well as context-sensitive IM theory. An explanation of these concepts will be provided as we go. The literature has largely treated “international management” and “cross-cultural management” similarly, and these terms will be used interchangeably in this paper.
The discussion in this paper leads from rather global issues, referring to the closed academic cycle and the academic publication process, to issues specific to the field of IM. Furthermore, social processes of knowledge transfer between individuals are examined and suggestions of how effective researcher-practitioner interaction could narrow the research-practice gap provided. In a concluding last section I argue that the contribution of IM research to IM practice is not solely dependent on the efforts of academics, but requires the facilitation of research in the world of practitioners.
THE RESEARCH-PRACTICE GAP
Defining the Research-Practice Gap
In order to address the causes and develop suggestions how to narrow the research-gap in the field of IM, its existence in the field needs to be acknowledged. Researchers must recognize that their findings often do not translate into management practice. Secondly, it needs to be acknowledged that the research practice gap is not only existent in the field of IM, but indeed can be observed in nearly every field where there is a separation between those who conduct research and those who have the power to implement research findings (Lewis, 2002; Rogers, 1995). Hence, there might be more general solutions which are not only valid for the field of IM, but also the greater academic disciplines. Thirdly, the problem needs structure. For this purpose, the literature often defines the research-practice gap in terms of a knowledge production problem and a knowledge transfer problem (e.g. Beyer, & Trice, 1982; Pettigrew, 2001; Carter, 2008; Shapiro, Kirkman, Courtney 2007). Knowledge production primarily refers to the lack of managerial relevance of research. Knowledge transfer addresses the need to better translate research findings into comprehensible and accessible publications that managers can absorb, access, and apply (Sharpio, Kirkman, Courtney, 2007). As a starting point it is important to recognize that bridging the research-practice requires both problems to be addressed.
Causes of the Research-Practice Gap
Knowledge Production. Academia often fails to integrate practitioner’s perspectives into research design and to relate findings to practical applications. The reasons are deeply embedded in the nature of our academic world. In order to pursue a academic career, scholars write academic articles, often in collaboration with each other rather than with practitioners, and eventually publish their work after it has undergone a critical review by their own peers. Academics are the ones sitting at the publishing journal’s editorial boards, reviewing submissions, and deciding on the articles that get published. Hence, there is a unilateral academic paradigm of good research where practitioners have little voice. Senior researchers mentor upcoming talents and produce new professors who enter the academic world with the same, inherited paradigms. Vermeulen (2007) refers to this as a closed loop. This dilemma is especially problematic as researchers and practitioners often do not share the same thought-worlds. While researchers are mainly concerned with the production of novel technical knowledge and building abstract theory, management professionals are most concerned with concrete practices that increase administrative efficiency in a concrete environment (Cascio, 2007).
Moreover, the emphasis on rigor in the academic review process has produced many articles with restricted practical relevance. Here the debate is academic rigor versus relevance. Rigor can be informally defined as the sound, coherent and logical development of theory whose justification is based on solid methodology and analysis that test its validity (Carter, 2008). Policies of leading academic journals (e.g. JIBS, 2009; AOM, 2009) and consequently their reviewers press hard on methodology and theory, but ask little for practical application. Such policies are likely to cause an expense of relevance for rigor. Many authors focus to meet the rigorous academic requirements and neglect the discussion on practical implications and applications of their findings (Cohen, 2007) which I consider the section of major interest to practitioners. Why then would managers read scholarly articles?
Furthermore, the pressure on rigor is likely to have contributed to the prevailing dominance of quantitative methods in IM research (White, 2002, Tsui, 2007; Rynes, 2007; Gephart, 2004; Lee, 1992; Carter, 2008). For example, White (2002) finds in a review of 830 journal articles on management in Asian contexts that many papers used only correlation techniques to answer comparative management research questions. Such studies might be able to validate the link between antecedent and outcome, but do not reveal the processes creating this link. Other authors view quantitative research methodology in general as insufficient to study cross-cultural management phenomena (Lee, 1992; Tsui, 2007). You simply cannot capture beliefs and values of social actors as well as different contextual settings by analyzing homogenized, quantitative characteristics. The dominance of quantitative methodology in the field of IM may provide “comfortable conformity” with academic rigor requirements, but limits the questions that can be explored and the answers that can be found (White, 2002).
Looking on the bigger picture, the product of a research culture where knowledge is pre- dominantly produced through quantitative testing of explicit hypotheses, is a host of researchers that lacks the skill to analyze and interpret qualitative datasets to its full potential and therefore struggles to produce qualitative research papers that meet the criteria of academic rigor (Gephart, 2004). A vicious cycle that relegates subjective and interpretive methodology along with novel research questions and answers that might contribute to IM practice (White, 2002).
Knowledge Transfer. Researchers’ (over)-emphasis on knowledge creation rather than its diffusion also contributes to the research-practice gap. Most researchers simply take it as given that publishing in top-tier, peer reviewed academic journals results in the diffusion of their work amongst practitioners and consequently contributes towards evidence-based management practices (Cascio, 2007). Evidence-based management (EBM) means “translating principles based on best scientific evidence into organizational practice” (Rynes, Giluk, Brown, 2007, p. 987). There is substantial evidence that executives do not turn towards EBM (e.g. Abrahamson, 1996; Mowday, 1997; Porter & McKibbon, 1988). What could be possible explanations for the non-establishment of EBM?
As a first premise for EBM to establish, managers have to read what researchers write. This is often not the case due to the nature of the manager job. Unlike medical doctors or lawyers, managers are not specifically required to absorb scientific knowledge about their field in order to qualify for their profession (Cascio, 2007). Intelligence, practical experience, emotional intelligence, coordination and cross-functional thinking are often considered as management qualities rather than scientific, evidence-based knowledge. Moreover, statements like: “Have you ever tried to read a research study or academic journal? They’re overwritten, irrelevant, convoluted, and have poor sentence structure” (Gore, 2007, p. 12), published in a well-known business magazine, do not help to gain manager’s appreciation of scientific knowledge.
As a second premise for EBM to establish, managers need to be able to find, comprehend, and apply scientific findings. Many management professionals grew into their positions by reflecting on experiences and earning degrees from business schools that teach best practices rather than research findings. Cohen (2007) correctly concludes: “Without the foundation to understand scientific evidence or the reinforcement of seeing it in business school teaching, how is EBM ultimately to take hold?” Researchers, on the other hand, write for their peers. For example, they make active use of qualifiers in order to make absolutely valid statements and use acronyms for existing theories and concepts known to their academic colleagues but usually not to practitioners. Especially, methodology sections, which are crucial to judge the credibility of an article and its findings, are often inaccessible. In other words, academic research papers are not written, insufficiently comprehensible, hence not applicable, for the non-academic reader.