Watching his son progress in karate leads a doctoral student to reflect on management research. What really matters is how we engage with the world.
Ibrat Djabbarov is a PhD candidate in systems transformation and healthcare innovation at Cranfield School of Management.
Earlier this month, my son was tested for his next belt at the local karate dojo. For a karate learner, every test is a special occasion as they look to advance in belt colours: each signifying progress (and a rank). As a father, these occasions are opportunities to reflect on what the young boy is learning and, more importantly, what he is becoming.
At his school, he is inundated with ‘stars,’ certificates, and grades. And at the dojo (karate hall), it is easy for a young boy to confuse the goals of building skills and spirit with making progress on belts.
Schools and karate dojos can become miniature worlds, with their own rules and practices that may loosely resemble the world outside. Yet, as every parent knows, in the world outside, belts and ‘stars’ do not amount to much. What really matters is what you become through learning and how you engage with the world.
How management research is like a karate dojo
As a doctoral student learning management research, I share a lot with my son learning karate. In particular, my goal of understanding how the world works and how to address societal and organizational challenges can become easily replaced with our version of ‘belts’ and ‘stars,’ such as peer-reviewed publications and citation counts. As my colleagues and I try to advance our learning, we can miss what management research can be and what we become.
Business schools and karate dojos may seem worlds apart in their focus, but they actually share some key elements. They have common originating ideals: building communities of life-long learners who can positively influence the world. Indeed, the art of karate and the science of management can profoundly shape the identities and lives of people in and around them. Yet I see the two at different junctures.
Last year, karate debuted as a sport at the Tokyo Olympic Games, signaling increased prominence and influence for this martial art. Meanwhile, in management research, there is a growing discussion that we have become too insular and even regressed in some ways.
Many groups and individuals have been encouraging scholars to rethink how and why we do research; these include Responsible Research in Business and Management, Network for Business Sustainability, and Impact Scholar Community. In essence, their call is to conduct research that matters and that engages scholars with the world outside.
Research “matters” when it represents engagement
“Research that matters” can be framed in terms of gaining insights: seeing the way things work, what makes them work, and what works. But producing insights is insufficient unless they are shared with others.
It is important to share them with the scholarly community and publish in peer-reviewed outlets. But our paper submissions to journals can also serve as opportunities to reflect on what these insights mean to the world outside of these channels. How have we shared our ideas and insights with others beyond the walls of scholarly journals?
When I studied for my MBA, the course offered many insights about how organizations and management work. But as I tried to apply models and theories in different organizations, I soon realized that many of those insights did not quite work. I became more aware of the assumptions and limitations of research insights, which led me to search further for those that would enable action on organizational challenges.
Some research insights may not withstand the test of the world outside when they leave our research ‘dojos’. But they can improve. Just as cars, software and other inventions get modified and refined after exposing them to the world, our insights are likely to be refined further if we expose them to managers and the public outside of research communities.
I am currently finding this for myself as I try to teach ideas from my research in executive classes. Similar to inventors and entrepreneurs, I do not know how my ideas will engage and what their effect will be until I deliberately expose them to the world outside. Then, I’m often surprised by the richness and additional insight that develops – when I am open to it.
Doctoral programs should prepare students for research that matters
How researchers take insights into the world is rarely covered by doctoral programmes. They typically aim to develop skills of conducting research, with less attention to how to disseminate them.
Some argue that you can develop those skills once you become a faculty member. But does it happen? The lure of the ‘stars’ and ‘belts’ can be harder to overcome the longer we attend to them. The further I delay learning how to take even the emerging insights into the world, it might be that I am less likely to do that later on.
In my experience of working internationally – in Asia, Africa and the Middle East regions – I discovered that the more time I spent with the people in different cultures, the more it opened my eyes to seeing different perspectives and challenged my assumptions (and ignorance). This allowed me to better appreciate my existing frames and reconsider what I perceived to be settled facts.
As management researchers, we can benefit enormously by venturing out of our ‘dojos’ to both influence different stakeholders and allow them to refine our insights, and form fresh and deeper perspectives to revise what we know.
Inspiration from a Research Conversation
A webinar on “Conducting and Disseminating Research That Moves the World,” organized by Responsible Research in Business and Management, served as an inspiration for this blog. I participated in this webinar with Andy Hoffman, Anne Tsui, and Andy Van de Ven. Watch the full discussion.
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