Flawed research

The Boston Globe ran an interesting story over the weekend, looking at the rise of the management guru and the flawed research on which some have based their reputation. Since the publication in 1982 of “In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman—the book widely credited with giving birth to management guru culture—business school professors and management consultants have searched for the killer idea that will lift them from the masses. To be taken seriously, many adopt what they claim to be a rigorous, scientific approach to their research.

Which is where the problems start. Business schools have always had a chip on their shoulder when it comes to rigour. They are often belittled by other university faculties, which snobbishly dismiss management as a subject ill-suited to academia. In response, aspiring gurus wrap their research in a cloak of scientific thoroughness. Only they often get it wrong.

According to the Boston Globe, when measuring what makes for a successful company, one common mistake is to study only those companies that are themselves considered successful. “In Search of Excellence” listed eight attributes which 43 succesful US companies—handpicked by the authors as examples of excellence—shared. However, there was no corresponding study as to whether such characteristics were also found in failing, or even moderately-performing firms.

The Globe’s article quotes Michael Raynor, a researcher and consultant at Deloitte Consulting, as saying: “When you take a closer look at the companies they study, the accomplishments of the vast majority are just as likely to be due to simple luck. It’s the equivalent of finding someone who flipped a coin seven times and happened to end up with seven heads and asking for her secret.” In other words, there is no control group—one of the basic tenets of scientific research.

All of which makes for a fascinating sub-plot to the perennial rigour versus relevance debate which engulfs business school research. For years professors have been accused of producing research that is esoteric and overly-theoretical at the expense of anything that is actually useful to business. But if they are not even getting the rigour right, exactly what value are they adding?

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Addendum (15/4/09)
: Further to Richard King’s post below, it is interesting to note Tom Peters’ defence:

“The ‘research’ represented by the In Search of Excellence ‘product’ should never, ever be confused by the research-experimentation performed to confirm Einstein’s theory of relativity. That is not nor will it ever be the standard in the so-called ‘social sciences.'” In fact I added that I was one of the ones who think it’s a travesty to award a Nobel in economics—economics ain’t physics either.

Perhaps this goes to prove that the dual ends of relevance and rigour truly are irreconcilable?

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2 Responses to “Flawed research”

  1. Pedro Says:

    The very fact that this question is even posed is worrysome.
    This is no news for business school’s faculty – many of which complain that the frantic release of studies/articles by institutions is all about increasing the profile of both (supposed) researchers and institutions alike.
    I’m afraid to say that when I read some papers, this is exactly the impression I’m left with.

  2. Richard King Says:

    Tom Peters has commented at length on the original Boston Globe story on his blog at http://www.tompeters.com (see “Say it ain’t so, Jim” posted on 13th April).

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