Passionless scholarship

One thing I’ve noticed over the years of editing a journal, and reading scholarly management articles, is the lack of passion in the work. Very rarely does an author get excited about what they are writing. Or at least, if they do, this doesn’t come across in their writing. There are reasons for this.

First, science is supposed to be dispassionate. But is it though? If we are really developing knowledge in an innovative way, which is going to make a significant impact on the world, shouldn’t we get passionate about it?

Secondly, and connected to the first, is that scholarly work undertaken is often instrumental. It’s a means to an end. We take the path of least resistance to get our work published in good journals. So, the conscientious academics among us study the ‘form’ of the target journal. We see what they’ve published before, how articles in our area have been written, and we try to formulate our article on the basis of what may or may not be published. But, what is the end we have in mind? Of course it is to get our work into the public domain, but ultimately, or often quite immediately, to get into a good journal (as an end in itself), to get ourselves REFable (only UK colleagues will know this one), to get tenure (even though we don’t have this specifically in the UK, we know what it means). The point is that the scholarly end (to develop knowledge) becomes obscured by career needs, which I don’t think have changed particularly over recent years, but the means of control appear to have changed significantly: metrics, the journal you publish in rather than the quality of the scholarship (which aren’t necessarily the same thing), but particularly the journal’s  ISI impact rating (in our cv’s should we put the SSCI or note the actual contribution of the articles we list: the former of course!).

Thirdly, and also related to the previous two, is that there is really nothing to get excited about. Even though an article is published in what is regarded as a good journal, it doesn’t really enter the world with a crash and a wallop. It’s contribution may be marginally incremental, it’s also likely to contain a lot of redundancy (I’ve had papers rejected in the past on the basis that I didn’t cite Hofstede). Earth shattering contributions in management studies are rare. It’s a very conservative discipline and editors are often cautious about what they publish. But we also have to factor in the lack of recognition of the contribution of management studies to the world outside the discipline. Notice that management studies isn’t well served by funding bodies. This might be because there is an expectation that business can fund its own, but it may also be the perception of the field’s lack of contribution generally. We know what medical science does, we know that sociology, social policy, development studies and related social science make direct contributions to public policy. We know economics directly drives governmental and extra/supra- governmental decisions but what does management studies do?  Having asked this question, and being one of its perpetrators, I now feel I’ve got to answer this question (at the risk of stating the obvious) – with some passion!

Everything has to be managed. Hospitals, government departments, international aid (particularly lacking in appropriate cross-cultural management), pharmaceutical companies, every type of organization that develops knowledge, and puts into effect the products of knowledge, have to be organised and managed. It’s no good marvelling at the wonders of innovative medical science which is making such a fine contribution to the world that is no way matched by the paltry contributions of management scholars. Without the latter, the former can’t work.

The trouble is, management studies is dogged by either a lack of confidence in the work it produces (it can’t possible match that coming from disciplines that more directly contribute to the fate of humanity – an issue for those of us with a wider social science background perhaps) and therefore a lack of passion; or, overconfidence through the commoditisation of management scholarship (otherwise known as hype), perpetrated often by management consultants, but sometimes narrower management academics. This often looks like passion, but the sort of passion you will experience from a double glazing salesperson. This is the stuff often sold to organizations (including academic institutions – e.g. inappropriate performance management) as the product of good management scholarship. I’ve recently been bemoaning the use of ‘indigenous’ concepts such as Guanxi and Ubuntu as consultancy ideas that can be employed in western organizations. But often this is doing a disservice to real scholarship as it feeds back into scholarly work and stunts its development. Its often the case that the organizations buying into such hype are often very conservative, want something simple and easy, and don’t want anything that will overturn the levels and nature of control within the organization. This suggests, following from my assertion that organizations, and management studies tend to be conservative, that management studies is a political activity. But this is suppressed in what scholars actually do, and this is another factor in what removes the passion from our work.

So, how do we put the passion back into our work, assuming it was there in the first place? I think the first step is to really take a hard look at our motivation for doing a piece of work. I tell new PhD students that to sustain a major piece of work, undertaken as a lonely process over three year they have to have a passion for it. Sure, this could simply mean it has to retain their interest over this period. But they really need to think the work is actually important in itself (the pursuit of knowledge, its contribution to scholarship, its real-life implications – its intrinsic value) rather than the simplest route to achieving a PhD (its instrumental value). I still have an element of disbelieve in having to ask so many authors submitting their article, So what? If they had a passion for the work they were doing, surely they can show some enthusiasm in their writing about its value: What is it doing that is new? What is it adding to scholarship? and even (and this appears to be a very radical idea!), How is it completely overturning pre-existing beliefs and knowledge about the way we manage people and organizations? Now that would be something to be passionate about.

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