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In the name of research

The field of management research appears to be suffering.

You know things get interesting when there is research about how research is conducted in a particular field. Note that my use of the word “interesting” is not euphemistic. It is interesting because it research the research is popping the bonnet of this sports car of a field, and we get to see what’s making it tick.

And it would seem there is a lot of ticking.

The agenda-backed research

I was thumbing through the Sage Handbook of Organiszational Research Methods (fun read for data geeks!). It’s all about the challenges that organisational research is currently facing.

One of the key issues the book explores is the fact the research is increasingly privately funded, even if it is done through universities. This is equally evident in other fields of research, when an organisation with an agenda will back research that will back its agenda.

That’s a lot of backing. And with all that backing, biases tend to show a wee bit more, too.

The hidden consultancy/marketing clause

To tie in with last week’s blog, there are some researchers out there that use the offer of research to gain an “in” to the organisation. To them, research is just preamble to a consultative offering.

What’s equally demeaning to the practice of research writing, is the fact that white papers and case studies have become a marketing tool. So I don’t know about you – but I rarely take these at face value if they come from a company that has a product I could be interested in.

“Publish or Perish”

Even if the research is done for the sake of seeking knowledge and funded by a non-interested party (such as a university), researchers need to publish. Now, not only do they need to publish, they need to be published in prestigious publications.

The whole point of publishing is that it contributes to the prestige of the university. That’s how the quest for knowledge earns its keep: publish, publish well and publish in the right places. If you don’t publish, or if you publish in the wrong publications, there may not be room for you and your quest.

Here’s a thing about prestigious publications: they prefer quantitative research. So qualitative stuff tends to not make the cut. Mixed methods research (qual and quant methods applied in tandem) is even worse – those have the worst track record of being published.

So researchers design methods that will get them published, that appeal to the objectivist rationale. And that’s a bias too.

Data that tells you what you don’t want to hear

Last but not least, which is not in the book, is a bit of feedback I get when I talk to organisations about them taking up my offer of researching them.

I get asked “but what if it tells me something I don’t want to hear?”

When I was told this the first time, my first reaction was silence - I was dumbstruck. My second reaction was disbelief.

Then I came to realise it’s a hard question. It’s hard because – and this is a very personal choice – if data tells me something that makes me think, that makes me feel defensive, that makes me angry: that’s a good thing!

You should always challenge the data, challenge the researcher. Ask more questions and see where they lead you.

But not everyone is like that. To a lot of people, data is a crutch. And if you take the crutch away… well… you may not be able to walk very well.

The noble quest for knowledge

Research isn’t there to make you feel good about yourself.

Research isn’t there to make you feel better.

Research isn’t there to sell you something.

Research should be about enhancing our understanding, contributing to the font of knowledge. We now have the power to do amazing things with research and data. We – literally – have the technology.

So don’t cheapen research.

Be brave and go on your own noble quest for knowledge.

(apologies for lack of photo credit. I've lost it with my old website. :( )

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