Management scholars struggle with making their research more relevant for practice. For instance, their publications are too abstract for practitioners, aim at scientific goals instead of practitioner goals or confirm the obvious for practitioners. Their studies report causalities that are not rigorous when applied in practice, their results are not timely, and they are too complex for practitioners to be useful, or poorly communicated. Consultants have solved many of these issues when working for management practitioners. Still, management scholars might not want to imitate consultants. Instead, they could consider them as intermediary audience.
In a study published in the International Journal of Management Reviews, Onno Bouwmeester, Stefan Heusinkveld and Brian Tjemkes have reviewed the academic management literature engaging in the relevance gap debate. They find that consultants can help academics in reducing the relevance gap by acting as intermediaries in different ways.
Two consultant roles in the relevance gap debate
By creating the relevance gap in management science, academics have also created a market opportunity for intermediaries like management consultants. As intermediary, consultants have developed many abilities to reduce these relevance gaps. As there is a need for applicable management knowledge, consultants search for such knowledge to share with their clients. They look for academic insights that help strengthen their consulting work. By realizing that consultants look for management knowledge, we consider them a relevant audience for management scholars. It may be better sometimes to target such an intermediary audience, than serving managers directly.
Next to this, the study finds that consultants can help management scholars as reviewer with reflecting on the various relevance gaps. They can help to make academic knowledge less abstract or detached. As practitioners themselves they know how to realize more descriptive relevance, goal relevance or timeliness and why it is important in practice. Consultants can also offer support with simplification and better communication.
Still, consultants have their limits as well, as intermediary. They may point at problems with the rigor of assumed causalities in academic theory, but they will not be of great help in improving on them. The same applies to improving non-obviousness: new insights sometimes come from practice, but they also come from science, and often the kind of contributions are different. Fruitful collaboration on scientific projects is hardly reported, and when tried, authors experience many challenges.
Management scholars do not necessarily need to change into consultants themselves
Intermediary audiences for management scholars
The important takeaways of this research are first that management scholars do not necessarily need to change into consultants themselves. Some have tried, but many scholars report tensions when they try: the consulting work translates mostly not into good scientific publications, the consulting work does not further the academic career, and consulting work takes time away from those academic activities that are seen as more central to their career, like doing scholarly research and academic teaching.
Secondly, instead of becoming an academic consultant and reaching out to management practitioners directly, management scholars can also focus on intermediary audiences such management consultants. There are more of them. Journalists report on academic research findings and they have a wide readership. Students at business schools are intermediary audience as they prepare themselves for a role as management practitioner. They will bring academic knowledge or an academic mindset to management practice. Practitioner PhD’s and executive students are also an intermediary audience when they study questions raised in their own management practice, and then apply academic research methods and lenses to make sense of these questions.
Management scholars are thus well advised to consider the knowledge interests of intermediary audiences such as consultants, journalists, executive or graduate students, and practitioner PhD’s when they want to make management science more relevant to practice.