Thursday, June 10, 2010

Passion in Research

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz.

What place does passion have in academic research, particularly in business disciplines? Perhaps a lot. Paul Shrivastava of Concordia University, speaking at the largest conference of business academics in Canada a couple of weeks ago, put it this way (paraphrased): “Passion and enthusiasm are the only things that will save us as academics, not methodologies or more regression analysis.”

While the theme was Sustainable Business, the issues he raised are rooted deeply in almost all business research and deserve careful attention.

On the need for Holistic Research:
“Academic research on sustainability is doomed to failure because of research being conducted in silos. The business academics working in this area typically follow the science research model, which is to narrow down and look deep. However, we need holistic thinking. We need to step outside the business schools. We also need to look at the arts approach – arts are integrative and capture knowledge of a different kind.”

On Journal Dictatorship:
“In particular, we need to step out of the modes of Strategic Management Journal or Academy of Management Journal (mainstream business academic journals) that have for thirty years dictated our life. It is not sufficient to write in academic journals where citations in any case are very few. It is mindless to be doing that when there are such immediate and serious problems facing the world.”

The key question for junior academics remains: What can I do? Here’s his honest thought:
“Institutions won’t change till individuals change, and some academics will have to take the risk.”

However, Robert Phillips from the University of Richmond, sounded a note of warning: “While sustainability research needs cross-disciplinary work, such work requires a lot of effort to understand disciplines other than one’s own. There is a threat of dilettantism in conducting such work without understanding an academic area in depth.”

Irene Henriques of York University suggested that:
“We need to think of the issue of positivist research versus normative research. Normative research is about what ‘should be’, and other disciplines such as developmental economics have such an approach. Why don’t we have that in management research?”

John Peloza, Simon Fraser University, raised the issue of different stakeholders in sustainability research:
“Different sustainability aspects are very different sources of value to stakeholders, and we need to take this into consideration.” He also mentioned that the need to highlight the role business academics can play on this issue, which is often neglected, “we face a threat of getting scooped by hard sciences, which have more credibility, on the topic of sustainability.”

Here are the questions I had on the discussion: Are we trained as/training business academics who pursue any of the qualities listed by Dr. Paul Shrivastava? Or is our training solely about how to run narrow regression analyses, how to find large sample data sources, without understanding the context, without listening to the field, without developing real passion for and deep embeddedness in a phenomenon? How many law or medicine professors do we see teaching at their professional schools without being embedded deeply in their phenomenon (through various forms of exposure to practice)? Why the difference in business – passion, experience, embedded field learning, context, judgment, and a lot more is sacrificed in deference to hands-off, dispassionate "objectivity" (that is in many cases simply shallow knowledge of the phenomenon masquerading as objectivity). How much of the cumulative knowledge from our studies can we take into the classroom? Why do we always come back to the holistic, qualitative case studies that focus on building critical thinking and judgment rather than “economic principles” when it comes to teaching? Why?

Dr. Suhaib Riaz is founding contributor of "Strategy and You." His current work is on organization-institution interaction in the context of the global financial crisis. 

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