Should Managers Read Academic Articles?
Leaders usually don't have the time to battle with the inaccessible prose of academic articles.
Absolutely. It gives them access to important new ideas much earlier than popular books. But will they do it? Probably not. Leaders usually don't have the time to battle with the inaccessible prose of academic articles.
One of the most successful business books in recent years has been Rita McGrath’s The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business. At its core is a bold idea: Sustainable competitive advantage is no longer an option.
Instead, companies should try to move through waves of advantages. Such a wave starts with innovation to find new ways of thinking, followed by ramping up new ideas and exploiting them before resources have to be allocated into the development of new ideas once again. As Steve Denning put it, the book marks the official end of Michael Porter’s concept of sustainable competitive advantage.
But is this really a new idea? While a wider management audience is probably familiar with the need to build temporary advantages, ever since Richard D’Aveni published Hyper-competition in 1994, Rita McGrath’s explanations of how to ride the waves of advantage certainly proved to be an eye-opener for many, although they had already been around for some time.
In his seminal 1991 article, Jim March from Stanford University introduced the idea that companies need to exploit old certainties to make a living, while they need to explore and prepare themselves for tomorrow’s opportunities – which is, in essence, the same argument that Rita McGrath makes. Jim March’s work on exploration and exploitation is not the only literature stream that deals with the need of companies to adjust to a world where sustainable competitive advantage in the Porterian sense is not possible.
The literature on dynamic capabilities, explains how companies can develop special types of resources which allow them to change their current resources. And the literature on real options discusses how companies can assess various options prior to committing capital and other resources.
All of these ideas are big, mainstream perspectives discussed by thousands of scholars. This means that managers could have known how to deal with the end of competitive advantage for more than two decades.
Rita McGrath’s book is just one example of a common phenomenon: Ideas which managers and consultants pick up from successful books have often been discussed in academic journals for years.
The problem is that much of that literature is inaccessible to managers. It is full of cumbersome jargon, heavily focused on theory, and there is so much of it that it is hard to find the most relevant articles. So how can managers access knowledge from academic journals?
Making ideas from academic journals accessible
The most time-consuming way to access the ideas from academic journals is obviously to start wading through them.
For those interested in strategy and innovation, there are seven journals that stand out from the others: Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Strategic Management Journal, Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, Journal of Product Innovation Management, and Research Policy. In each of these journals, you can find abstracts to skim through to help in forming an impression of whether an article is indeed worth reading. And if you only have enough time to focus on just one, then the Strategic Management Journal would be a good choice.
Admittedly, this does not address the jargon and theory issues. Probably the best way to get around these is to approach someone from your field of interest. Most professors should be able to point towards a few interesting articles and some will be able to tell you which ideas currently being discussed are most relevant to you.
You may also wish to find an expert who is able to translate scholarly work for practitioners. The most obvious professors to approach are those who are published in one of the journals mentioned above and also write for the Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, or blog for a big media outlet.
Another way to connect to the ideas from the academic world is through conferences and other events. The world’s top strategy scholars meet regularly at the Strategic Management Society’s Annual International Conference .
The society has tried to include consultants and managers more actively for years, but found it to be a difficult task. So you have to be prepared for quite a bit of theory and jargon yet again. Still, you will have interesting conversations and you're bound to leave with some new ideas.
In the end, accessing academic work is never going to be easy and straight forward. For most, it might be easier to wait until someone else discover and translate the ideas into a more easily digestible book.
But for those who want to be ahead of the curve, academic journals simply cannot be ignored. Rory Sutherland, the Vice-Chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, part of the world’s largest advertising agencies WPP, for example, trawls through the latest behavioral science research papers in his quest for new ideas.
For a sampling of what academic journals have to offer at the moment, check out Ronald Klingebiel and Christian Rammer’s article telling you how to get the best innovation performance by combining broad initial investment with selecting a few projects later on, my own work with Michael Mayer and Julia Hautz showing what it takes to expand into new industries and markets at the same time, or Giada di Stefano, Andy King, and Gianmario Verona’s discussion of whether social norms can replace other means to protect your knowledge.