Academics and Managers

The application of research is a big topic in marketing. We debate whether we are useful or relevant. And then we debate whether we should care about whether we are useful or relevant. I think of myself as an academic who values ideas that matter outside universities. (Indeed I like that we occasionally get a reality check). That said I don’t believe our purpose is to be solely “applied”. I’ve seen talks that would make fantastic consulting presentations but wondered why an academic did them. If the finding only applies to a single firm on a single occasion the firm should pay for the advice. As John Deighton (2007, page 281) says, “… analysis has to rise above the specific context and map onto a broader theoretical issue.” Good point.

But Deighton continues… “However, the race to abstraction may have been overdone.” Here I also agree. Excess abstraction, omitting context, is a problem because decisions are made in context, theory may need context. That said clamouring for context, which I cautiously endorse, does generate its own problems. Academics panic and feel they should apply their work. Things often go wrong here, however, because the idea wasn’t developed with application in mind. The application is shoehorned in; often shockingly badly. People who would scream if you violated psychological theory abuse marketing. The managerial implication is merely sprinkled on to trick readers into thinking the idea has immediate application. (I’ve seen academic advice that says don’t sell extended warranties on electronics at point of sale, people will be more responsive at home. Really?)

The important thing is that work is of high quality. Some research will have no obvious “use”. Managers should acknowledge that basic research matters; someone will eventually find a use for good work. Similarly I’d advise academics to ensure that every word they write is high quality. We should recognize that generating meaningful managerial implications is at least as hard as testing a new psychological theory. It is better to have no implications in a paper than claim incorrect, or silly, managerial implications. Reviewers should, at a minimum, insist upon removal of weak managerial implications. Managers have a right to expect academics understand what they opine about. Academics should aim for quality work, not try to trick people into thinking the work they were planning to do anyhow is somehow “useful”.

Read: John Deighton, 2007, From the Editor* The Territory of Consumer Research: Walking the Fences, Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 3.