Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why is Business Research So Unbusinesslike?

I always look forward, as a Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University alumna, class of '06, to my regular emails from Harvard University, including those that I receive from the Harvard Gazette.

This morning in the email from the Harvard Gazette headlines was the intriguing teaser: Why is Business Research So Unbusinesslike? When I clicked and read the article I knew that I would have to comment on it on this blog. The teaser was for the article: Why Isn't Business Research More Relevant to Business Practitioners?  from the Harvard Business School (HBS) and its main focus was on the paper by HBS Professor Michael Toffel, Enhancing the Practical Relevance of Research, which appears in the September 2016 issue of the journal Production and Operations Management.

Since I am in the Department of Operations and Information Management at the Isenberg School of Management, I am a member of the Production and Operations Management Society and subscribe to this journal. Interestingly, Professor Chris Tang of UCLA's Anderson School of Management had a similar article in the journal MSOM: entitled: Making OM Research More Relevant: Why?" and "How?" which I had blogged about.

Toffel, in his article, focuses on Operations Management as well as Organizational Behavior, two disciplines, which are not usually cast together. I find it quite interesting that the relevance issue keeps on coming up. I know from personal experience in terms of my research and that of many of my collaborators as well as my doctoral students that much of our work is driven by crucial problems that need solving in practice and, oftentimes, that need will also drive our theoretical and methodological work in operations research. I do see papers and quite, frankly, now decline reviewing such where a multitiered supply chain that is studied in a paper consists of a single manufacturer and a single retailer. I find that the drive towards managerial insights on problems that are simplistic and not real may be easy to solve but with the availability of both data and algorithms, why not tackle and handle problems that exist in reality? Our work on supply chains has ranged from pharmaceuticals to fast fashion, food, medical nuclear supply chains, and also to humanitarian relief supplies and blood supply chains.

Some highlights from Toffel's article I further discuss below.

I very much enjoyed seeing the quote from an article by Larry Wein, who is now at Stanford, but I met him when I was at MIT for 2 years as a Visiting Professor and Visiting Scholar. Larry is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. In writing on which research projects are likely to have a big impact in terms of policy he recommends the following and these are fabulous guidelines:

My rule of thumb for working on a problem was whether the answers to the following four questions were yes, no, no, and yes: Is the problem very important (i.e., could it directly or indirectly lead to catastrophic consequences?) Has the problem been sufficiently addressed in the academic literature? Has the problem been satisfactorily addressed by policy makers? Would the problem be fun (i.e., sufficiently challenging) to work on?

In terms of enhancing research relevance, Toffel suggests reading practitioner publications and the popular and industry presses, which I regularly do and urge my students to, as well. He also recommends creating on-campus encounters with practitioners to give guest lectures to students (and you can also meet with them). And he even notes the importance of student clubs! As for the former, every spring I teach a course on Humanitarian Logistics and Healthcare in which I bring practitioners as guest lecturers. They provide educational experiences for students and also raise many research questions. In addition, I am in my 13th year of serving as the Faculty Advisor to the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter and we co-organize a speaker series and also have field trips, such as to ISO New England, which is responsible for electric power reliability for New England. I consider activities of the student chapter so important that I have used my Smith Chaired Professor funds since the chapter's inception to support the chapter's activities.

Toffel recommends attending crossover workshops with practitioners and also practitioners conferences. I can personally attest to how wonderful the INFORMS Annual Analytics conference is, for example, where practitioners and academics as well as students can interact intensely and benefit from longer than the typical conference presentations. As for workshops, we have even obtained grants to organize workshops. We have done one on cybersecurity held at the Sloan School at MIT two years ago, which I have blogged about. I also organized an amazing one at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center on Lake Como on Humanitarian Logistics: Networks for Africa.

Toffel also mentioned that it is important to convey relevant insights to practitioners and this can be done through blogs and social media. He highlights several blogs but not a single one from female bloggers. I single out Laura McLay's long-running excellent blog on operations research.
Of course, everyone in Operations Research is also well-aware of Mike Trick's blog. Mike is an Associate Dean at the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon University and also the President of IFORS.

Toffel ends his article by suggesting how academic institutions need to change and that includes the training of our doctoral students. He also notes that making changes takes time and implementing his recommendations is time-consuming.  I know that my conscience is clear. And, besides, as Larry Wein says, doing these things is fun! Relevance is richly rewarding.