Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why I "Dared to Care" about Philosophy and Research Methods at the Academy of Management, Montreal

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz.

My reflections during the largest annual conference of management scholars, held recently in Montreal, were focused on two words and their relationship to each other: philosophy and methods. Though very few others seemed to "dare to care" about it, I believe these words might well hold the key to why most mainstream management research has lost relevance in the real world. 

Philosophical assumptions behind our methods do not get as much coverage as they should. At a workshop on the "philosophical foundations of organizational research" that was ably chaired juggled by Raza Mir (given the eclectic nature of the talks), Teppo Felin remarked that mainstream journal reviewers in our field typically push authors to move any philosophical issues to “footnotes” (hence the title of his talk: What is Reality? Footnotes...). This problem has deep ramifications for what we study and how we study it. 

One aspect of this problem involves our notions of probability distributions underlying social phenomena. Pierpaolo Andriani, speaking at a workshop on "empirical exploration of complexity in human systems", shared how most of our statistics are based on Gaussian assumptions, while the real world is more Mandelbrotian / Fractal and closer to Paretian assumptions - a fact that Schumpeter was aware of. The talk was reminiscent of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's work, both in terms of its content and in how it was ignored by most mainstream researchers at the conference. 

This leads to broader questions of how statistical tools have been used by scholars in our fields. An investigation of such statistics using an ethnomethodology approach is much needed, and was the subject of a talk on Ethnostatistics by Robert Gephart. Gephart shared how his concern started years ago during his PhD years as a qualitative scholar attending quantitative methods courses. His exhortation was for us to encourage more critical studies of methodology practices and ultimately make statistics more meaningful. I left with a strong feeling that ethnostatistics has the potential to revolutionize our field by posing challenges to mainstream work, particularly if conduced with a focus on the loss of relevance in our work. 

In general, it is puzzling to see why, out of the 7000 or so academics gathered at the Academy of Management conference, more of us are not following the philosophy and methods of scholars that have led to impactful research. If we needed any confirmation on the link between methods and relevance, here is an extract from the recently published last interview of C. K. Prahalad on the importance of qualitative methods:

“Every one of my research projects started the same way: recognizing that the established theory did not explain a certain phenomenon. We had to stay constantly focused on weak signals. Each weak signal was a contradictory phenomenon that was not happening across the board. You could very easily say, “Dismiss it, this is an outlier, so we don’t have to worry about it.” But the outliers and weak signals were the places to find a different way to think about the problem.

If you look historically at the strategy literature…the most powerful ideas did not come out of multiple examples. They came out of single-industry studies and single case studies. Big impactful ideas are conceptual breakthroughs, not descriptions of common patterns. You can’t define the “next practice” with lots of examples. Because, by definition, it is not yet happening.”

A confirmation of this approach came from Yves Doz, Prahalad's long-time research collaborator at a session where he shared stories on how they conducted qualitative work: interviewing executives, avoiding simple explanations, and working through the qualitative data over extended discussion sessions. Not surprising that Doz often stayed over in CK’s basement, and they started breakfast by throwing out solutions from the previous night’s work. Little wonder that Mary Yoko Brannen introduced Doz as Prahalad's "brother"!

On another note, it was nice to get to thank Richard Scott for a paper that he encouraged two years ago at the same location, and also get some feedback thoughts on the appropriateness of a qualitative study underway on narratives during the current economic crisis. Scott and other participants provided some interesting insights during a session on how to interweave emotions and identity into institutional theory. For my work-in-progress on the global financial crisis, this also had interesting tie-ins with the amazing keynote address in the critical management studies division by Stephen Barley on the need to investigate how business organizations interact with and mold governments. But more on that another time...

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