The workshop that I attended this afternoon shone the light—brightly—on a serious problem that has troubled the research community for many years: relevancy. That academic researchers want to study SMEs and SMEs want to access up-to-date research does not necessarily make for a healthy and meaningful interchange.
Jo Lumb (Leeds University) hosted a great session which involved the lived experience of a SME business owner and a career academic. The role play (using live material) was delightful. It served to highlight the problem: that researchers and SME business owners typically talk past each other. The discussion went like this: researchers tend to be motivated by rigour, qualified statements and a drive to publish; whereas SME business owners look for quick results, clear recommendations and common sense language. Consequently, neither "side" respects the other to any great extent.
The challenge for the delegates in the room was to identify options to address the problem. Our table thought that the primary issues were ones of communication and of achieving a common understanding of what was required. One one hand, researchers need to get off their high-horses, to produce meaningful research with clearly articulated answers to the "so what?" question. On the other, SME owners need to accept that their businesses are not unique, and that off-the-shelf "instant" answers are unlikely to provide sustainable answers to their problems.
Another idea that was discussed was to ensure that researchers spend some time in the field, to get a feel for what their research subjects experience every day. Few if any of the career researchers present had spent any meaningful time at all doing this. Just imagine how reliable any medical research might be if the researcher was not a doctor or medical specialist? SME research strikes me as being no different. Perhaps the time has come for SME researchers to down their research tools to spend some time working in and amongst those that they wish to investigate. Maybe then research requirements and outcomes will have more meaning, and the two parties will no longer be as ships in the night.
BAM2014 got underway this morning, with a light breakfast of croissants, pastries and coffee to welcome first-time attendees (a great way to help break the ice, thank you organisers!). A series of professional development workshops followed. Seventeen topics were offered, across two workshop sessions, before lunch including:
The workshop sessions were intentionally interactive, with the facilitators actively eliciting comments from, and the experience of, the delegates in attendance. I attended the cognitive mapping session (quizzically, not really understanding much about the topic) and the generating impactful research (hoping to pick up some tips for my own research) sessions. The cognitive mapping session was really helpful. It exposed me to a method of moving meaningfully from the vast quantity of data that is typically gathered in observations and interviews toward some meaningful conclusions. However, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, because I now realise that I may have missed a trick in my research analysis—something that I'll need to give some careful though to in the coming days. The impactful research session was aimed at researchers seeking external (funding) assistance to support their research. This session was of less interest to me as I plan to return to professional practice and advisory work.
After the lunch break, several business and academic speakers will open the conference. They will address the conference theme: The role of the business school in supporting economic and social development. In my rather limited experience, one of the shortfalls of many business colleges relates to relevance. That business research conclusions often have limited practical application is an indictment on business schools and on the research process. This should be an interesting discussion.
The 28th Annual British Academy of Management Conference starts in Belfast today. With over 700 delegates registered, 640 papers to be presented (at times over 20 parallel tracks!), the next three days promise to be very busy. My intention is to attend as many of the corporate governance papers as I can get to, strategy papers and a selection of others. I'll post reflections that various points over the next three days, and encourage those interested to follow the hashtag #BAM2014.
A new corporate governance code will be introduced in the UK later this month. The CEO of the Financial Reporting Council, Stephen Haddrill, says that the code requires boards to consider and report on strategic risks that could affect the long-term viability of the business they govern. This sounds like a positive development: that measures designed to refocus the attention of the board on the long-term viability of the company can only be good for company continuity and performance. However, I'm not convinced.
Compliance type regimes were insufficient in averting the corporate collapses of the early 2000s; the global financial crisis of 2008–2009; or some of the more recent failures of corporate governance. Statutory reforms and codes of practice, introduced in response to corporate failures and the behaviours of recalcitrant directors and boards, appear to do little to protect against failure, or improve the quality of corporate governance or company performance. Indeed, the sharp focus on monitoring and control that often occurs as a result of statutory reforms and codes may actually reduce performance and, in more extreme cases, contribute to corporate failure. Compliance-type regimes tend to do that. Will the new UK code be any different?
The contentious topic of board performance seems to be getting more and more attention in the popular press. The attention is great, because boards are responsible for company performance, in accordance with the wishes of owners, and they need to be held accountable. However, not all of the discussion is helpful. For example, this provocative article appeared in the Economist recently. While the article was well-written, the proposal it contained—to outsource the board—was irksome. I remember tweeting about it at the time.
The board is a proxy for absentee owners, to represent their interests. Why any owner (shareholder) would allow a board to (re)outsource what is, in effect, an arrangement that is already outsourced is beyond me. If the board is not delivering the results the owners want it should be replaced, not outsourced. Thankfully, an influential commentator has provided this rejoinder to Schumpter's article, and in so doing reintroduced some much needed balance and a modicum of sensibility.
The organisers of the BAM2014 conference have published all of the conference papers online. If you wish to read a copy of my paper, On the use of critical realism to advance governance research beyond correlations, please click here. The purpose of the paper is twofold: to debate some of the core assumptions and approaches that have been favoured by many corporate governance researchers to date; and to offer an alternative approach to research—one that has the potential to help researchers solve the challenging problem of explaining how boards can influence the achievement of company performance outcomes.
The ideas in the paper form an important foundation stone of my doctoral research, so please feel free to post a reply, or to send an email, if you wish to make any comments about it. I'd welcome the feedback!
The 28th Annual British Academy of Management Conference is now less than a week away. The conference is being held in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on 9–11 September, and the final version of the BAM2014 programme is now available on the conference website. I'm down to deliver my paper on Thursday morning.
This year, over 640 full and developmental papers will be delivered over three full days. Helpfully, the wide range of topics have been grouped into 24 tracks. In addition to the papers, keynote speakers will address the delegates each morning; and there are symposia; special interest group meetings; professional development workshops; and, a gala dinner (at the Belfast Titanic Museum, no less) to attend. Delegates will be busy!
If you are interested in a particular track or specific paper, but cannot attend, please let me know. I will do my best to attend the presentation for you and report back. Also, if you are planning to attend the conference and would like to meet up over a coffee or snack, please contact me via Twitter or email.
PS: As has become my practice during conferences, I will provide summaries and reflections throughout BAM2014, so please check back regularly if you are interested.
Thoughts on corporate governance, strategy and effective board practice; our place in the world; and, other things that catch my attention.