The Academic Research Disconnect

James T. Berger headshot

James T. Berger
Senior Marketing Writer

Published October 5, 2016

The commerce world appears to be having problems with the lack of relevance produced by business school conducted research, according to an article by Carmen Nobel in the Sept. 19, 2016 edition of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

“Academic research can be helpful, but it tends to be overly complex, hard to digest, and not backed by real quantitative insights from customer populations or engagements,” says Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council, a global affinity network of more than 10,000 senior marketing executives based in San Jose, California. “There is often a disconnect between practitioners and academics, who tend to be far removed from operational complexities and market dynamics.”

Neale-May articulates a long-standing problem with academic research when applied to the world of business. “Research conducted at business schools often offers no obvious value to people who actually work in the world of business.”

The author cites an example of other disciplines where academic research has led to practical business innovation. In one case, academic research in agricultural farming has led to the development of a “second skin” that could improve drug delivery, or could alert farmers and scientists on how to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural farming.

Scholars Not Interested In Practical Business

Harvard Business School Prof. Michael W. Toffel addresses this subject in a forthcoming article in Production and Operations Management. “This is my soapbox message to academics: be more relevant,” according to Toffel.

“Most [business scholars] would agree that our primary duties include teaching our students and generating new knowledge in our research,” writes Toffel. “But the lack of practical relevance of much of our research might suggest that few of us also have the ambition to improve the decisions of the managers and policymakers whose actions we study.”

The bottom-line, according to the Working Knowledge article, is that the real world business environment is losing out because all this serious brainpower is being used to do research for academic and not practical reasons.

Why the Priority Paradox?

So why don’t more business school scholars try to make their work practical and relevant? One reason is that faculty members continue to believe that working on practical issues will have little impact on faculty members’ academic success.  The scholar aims for tenure. He/she is evaluated partially by quantity of papers they publish in peer-reviewed journals.  It’s the old “publish or perish” paradigm. Such articles are directed to other academics not real-world practitioners. Such journal articles often place emphasis on novelty rather than applicability.

“In academia, ‘basic’ research sets out to increase general knowledge of how the world works, while ‘applied’ research sets out specifically to address a practical problem, with the intent of solving it,” according the Working Knowledge article. “That poses a potential dilemma for scholars who want to influence business practice and achieve the requisite journal publications for a successful academic career. But that balance, while challenging, is achievable.”

It is possible to bridge the gap as illustrated by one Harvard Business School professor who seems to have added elements of practicality to his work. Harvard Prof. Benjamin G. Edelman, an expert in online markets, focuses his research on ways to protect consumers related to online businesses.

“My research is made better by choosing questions that are relevant to practitioners,” says Edelman, an associate professor in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets (NOM) unit. “My intended audience includes managers at companies as well as policymakers and regulators—seeking to inform and, to be sure, persuade these folks.”

Edelman’s efforts have exposed privacy violations by Google and have been instrumental in fighting against adware and spyware companies.  He also has co-authored multiple studies published in top academic journals that have led to practical consequences in the real world such as uncovering racial discrimination by Airbnb hosts and guests.

About The Author

James T. Berger headshot
James T. Berger, Senior Marketing Writer of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.