The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

How management academics have locked themselves in an iron cage

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 Our field of management as an academic pursuit faces threats that many acknowledge but our practices seem resistant to change. Scholars within the most prestigious universities, the research leaders in our field, are primarily concerned with research and publication, but there is limited impact of such published works, even within the academic community (judging by citation counts). This research has little impact upon the practice of management. Very few managers are aware of the hundreds of academic journals and their contents apart, perhaps, from Harvard Business Review. Students complain that academics are more interested in their research than they are of teaching yet it is income from students that pays salaries and funds research. The cost of publishing in the very top academic journals has been estimated to be between £200-300,000 per published article.

Nonetheless, the academic journal publishing route has become de rigueur for a successful academic career in a top-tier school. Ironically for those who argue that business schools should aspire to be professional schools, the only audience for the research on which such publications is based is the very few scholars who review or read such publications. This has created a career path insulated from the subject of the field. We are faced with the threat of perceived irrelevance. Yet, despite more than 20 years of debate about how to alter this state of affairs, there is an inability or unwillingness of actors in the system to break out of it. This is not a new phenomenon or one peculiar to the UK. Don Hambrick’s presidential address to the Academy of Management in 1993 was entitled ‘What if the Academy actually mattered?’.

It is our contention that the business school system, at least in the UK and the US, has become an iron cage in which academics have allowed themselves, willingly or unwillingly, to be trapped. In using the phrase ‘iron cage’ we have in mind Max Weber’s famous phrase which he used to describe the end state brought about in the West by the processes of rationalization and bureaucratization. Our perception is that the iron cage of the publication imperative has become increasingly stronger over the last two decades. The unintended consequence of this is that management research has come to be seen as increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of practice. We need to recognise, understand and acknowledge the forces that have created this situation if we want to make a case for the centrality of management research in understanding and facing the many challenges we face, in business and in society.

Here we set out what we see as the causes of the problem, framed, from an institutional perspective, as a system problem, and some proposals. It is, however, important to repeat that, in so doing, we do not argue here that the priority should be relevance and impact at the expense of good scholarship. This is not an either/or issue. We argue that both are needed. But the dysfunctional aspects of the publication system and its causes need resolution. It would be perverse of us, as management scholars whose careers have partly been built on publication in top journals, not to acknowledge the importance of research and publication. However, it would also be remiss not to express our concern about a system which we suggest has led to serious unintended consequences, not least because of the success of management education that has provided the financial cushion to maintain it. The most serious aspect of the current system is that it has become mostly self-serving and self-sustaining rather than responding adequately to the needs of external stakeholders – management, government and society.

The academic organisational field

In the tradition of good scholarship we draw on a body of theory – institutional theory – one of the most influential, from an academic point of view, in management research, to make our case. We believe that such theory can provide practical insight and possible solutions. Institutional theorists refer to an organisational field as a community of organisations that interact more frequently with one another than with those outside the field and that have developed a shared meaning system. Such organisations often share a common technology, set of regulations and forms of education and training. As a result actors and organisations tend to cohere around a set of institutional assumptions, norms and routines held in common within an organisational field concerning the appropriate purposes and practices of field members. These are enacted in common strategies.

So what does this organisational field of management academia look like? We set out our ‘model’ of the field in the figure below.

organisational field of management academia

This represents a system in which different activities and domains interlink to produce a whole that is largely self-contained. There are four domains – career, journal, research funding and university. In our figure, we draw on our experience of the UK system, and the drivers of the system we depict are strongest in UK and US schools. We would also suggest, however, that other countries are following this path, for example, in terms of the prioritisation of publication in top, largely US-based journals. We suggest that this is the dominant direction of travel of aspiring top schools worldwide.

It is important to emphasise that these domains are self-reinforcing and mutually dependent upon each other. If we want to change the system then it is unlikely to be sufficient to advocate change in only one domain. The career paths of individuals start with doing a PhD, a key aspect of which is socializing graduate students into the importance of publication. Career progress is then dependent on publication in a limited number of journals that have publishing criteria established by senior academics, themselves a product of the same career path. In turn, the academic reputation and standing of the schools that hire these scholars are largely dependent on the same publishing output.

The field is regulated by shared norms, such as the journal rankings set out in influential lists (US A list; Financial Times, the Chartered Association of Business Schools AJG – Academic Journal Guide), which channel publication aspirations and are used, for example, by deans and appointment panels, to judge performance. The journal domain has become increasingly dependent on publication in top US journals. Career success is linked to this, although it is still only a very small minority of European authors who achieve entry to this elite club. These journals have a particular way of enforcing research norms which exclude other ways of framing research and scholarship. For example, it is very difficult to publish qualitative research or a single case study here.

Research funding is an important aspect of the management research field, and various bodies have been developed to allocate this. In the UK, the main mechanism for allocating funding is the Research Excellent Framework (REF), a periodic review of research-based upon peer review by a panel of experts recruited from business and management schools plus outside experts and advisers. A key aspect of this process is the review of publications, which again reinforces the importance of publication. Schools select publications for review based, in part, on the supposed quality of the journal in which papers appear. Papers tend to be considered more useful for this exercise than books. Indeed, very few junior faculty see writing a book as a sensible career option. REF performance is dissected by universities as a key reflection of a school’s standing in the business school research hierarchy, as well as a source of research income. Top schools devote much time, attention and resource to optimizing research performance, including lighter teaching loads and even research-only roles for star researchers, reinforcing the lessons that early career researchers draw from their experience of entry into the field.

How does this cause a problem?

The first problem is the cost of the system. The cost of publishing has been indicated above. It may seem that upward of £200,000 per published paper is an exaggeration but consider the (often multiple) staff time taken by working on papers, the Revise and Resubmit process that can take years in the case of top journals, the review procedure and the fact that for every published paper there are 8/9 or more that are rejected. Yet, even among those published, very few of these will be read by managers themselves or indeed cited by other scholars. Publications that are actually read by managers, most notably Harvard Business Review, are deemed unworthy of serious consideration by scholars. (As an aside, when, a few years ago, one of the authors discussed the role of business schools with the then UK Minister of Higher Education, the minister expressed surprise at the length of the AJG journal list, and declared, somewhat loudly, that there was only one he or his staff had heard of – Harvard Business Review!)

To maintain the publishing system business and its reputational effects, business schools must hire staff willing and able to deliver such publications who will argue that they need time and funding to do it; and such staff come at premium rates of remuneration. The role of research professor, liberated from the demands of teaching and administration, is seen by many as the pinnacle of an academic career.

The second problem is that, arguably, the field of management in ‘research driven’ universities does not deliver on the purpose of educating managers because it does not prioritise managerial engagement. Indeed the engagement with management is absent altogether in the organisational field we depict and, at the extreme, as in some US schools, it penalises such engagement because it gets in the way of research and publication. Schools that have sought to prioritise engagement with managers also run into a problem when staff, dedicated as they are to research and publishing, tend to be somewhat remote from the needs and expectations of managers. Some universities have created professorial career routes based upon teaching excellence, but these remain peripheral. It is not then surprising if those outside the system see it as a costly, self-serving irrelevance.

The third problem is the inertial properties of the system. The different parties in an organisational field form a self-reinforcing network built on shared assumptions and behaviours that, quite likely, will lead to behavioural lock-in. Indeed professions, or trade associations, often attempt to formalise an organisational field where the membership is exclusive, and the behaviour of members is regulated. Whether or not institutional norms are formalised, they can exert strong pressures for conformity not least because legitimacy within the field, be it at an organsational or individual level, becomes concerned with meeting the expectations within that organisational field in terms of its assumptions, behaviours and strategies. Moreover, the career paths of young scholars are dependent on meeting such institutionalised expectations. These norms tend to become ‘taken-for-granted’. Actors become ‘institutionalised’ such that they do not see the opportunities or threats from outside their organisational field, and the norms they inherit are not questioned. Obviously, this creates a situation in which change is difficult, not least because institutionalisation makes the awareness of the need for change difficult to perceive. Business schools and their faculty seek to legitimise themselves through research excellence, and either do not perceive any reason to change or, if they do, have little option but to conform to the institutional norms described above.

The fourth problem arises out of the search for legitimacy and the forces of mimesis that institutional theorists emphasise. Both individual scholars and schools have tended to aspire to achieve the ‘academic excellence’ displayed in the top schools in our field, an ‘elite’ dominated by top US schools. At one level, this is unsurprising since funding is dependent on such standing, as is the premium paid to attract those scholars able to demonstrate their ability to excel in the system. Historically it is perhaps not surprising that we have sought to emulate the U.S. system but one wonders if this is still the most appropriate model. One wonders if in the brave new world post-covid and after the financial crisis, we should continue to see the US Academy of Management, and the AoM annual conference, as the guardian of excellence in our field. Climate concerns are likely to undermine the justification for frequent air travel to academic conferences.

The fifth problem is that the system has re-inforced a divide within the business/management school world. There are those schools that are perceived to be ‘research led’ and there are those that are ‘teaching led’. The former have little option but to conform to institutional norms: the latter may aspire to, or be encouraged to undertake research that allows entry into the system described above, but have little chance of doing so because the cost of entry is so high and their business model does not allow it.

What might be done?

Changing a highly institutionalised system is no easy matter, but a number of routes can be considered.

Advocacy for change

Perhaps the first requirement is for the actors in the system to see it for what it is and understand why and how it is resistant to change. To do this there is a benefit if such recognition is advocated from within the system itself. We know not all of our colleagues accept the validity of our argument that we are faced with a problem that urgently needs solving. Indeed, we recognise that there is implacable resistance to our argument by some in the management research community. This resistance is often framed in terms of a defence of academic freedom. Part of our argument for change, however, is that we need to balance any claim to academic freedom with a sense of an obligation to academic responsibility in an applied field of study. This would seem to us to be a sine qua non if we accept the business schools are, in many ways, akin to professional schools like Law and Medicine.

Incremental change

There are already those within and external to the system who argue that it should be changed and are trying to make changes that they hope may gradually change the system. For example, some deans have sought to increase managerial engagement, involve practitioners more, for example, as visiting staff, ‘executives in residence’, ‘professors of practice’, and to change promotion criteria. It is, however, unlikely that changes within isolated schools will have much effect unless it is supported by changes within the publishing and funding domains. Promotion to a professorship through the teaching route, for example, seems to us a relatively isolated phenomenon. The irony here is that it is teaching the pays the vast majority of our salaries and funds much of our research time.

There have been calls for a practitioner-oriented management journal, but this has received little enthusiasm from researchers and little impress on the management world. Understandably, faculty do not see that publishing in such a journal would enhance their scholarly standing and would also require time and effort that could be better-used publishing in journals that do. We wonder, nonetheless, if this might be worth pursuing for three reasons. First, because its terms of reference and criteria of publication could complement those of current journals. A ‘Journal of Applied Management Studies’ could emphasise the examination, even testing, of management theory and models in practice- the equivalent of a clinical journal in medicine. Second, because it might provide opportunities for those who do engage more with managers, not least from schools that are ‘teaching led,’ to publish work that arises from such engagement.

The third reason leads to another possible course of action. Such a journal would be a change within the journal domain that might be mirrored and be part of simultaneous changes within other domains. If it were accompanied by changes to promotion criteria within the career domain, still further recognition of applied work in the funding domain, for example, this might provide impetus for change.

High-impact system change

History is replete with examples when change was imposed on organisations from the outside when those inside refused to accept the need for change. Indeed, this is what research into the management of change teaches us. The idea of ‘high impact system change’ is that there may be levers for change that are particularly significant because they have pervasive influence. One historical example is the introduction of the the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK in the late 1980s. This had the effect of radically changing the research priorities of universities because it changed their funding basis. It also served to open up UK universities to an international labour market because, in mimicking the academic criteria of the US system, it could also claim it promoted academic legitimacy in the UK. This, then, for good or bad, helped establish the system we now have.

It is argued by some that, in a similar way, the REF, or a reformed REF, could be an agent for major change now. There appear to be two problems with this. The first is mentioned above; the current impetus for change from the REF has not been pronounced. This may be because of the second problem; that radical change to ‘relevance’ or ‘practice orientation’ would not align with the institutionalised criteria of legitimacy in the field taken for granted internationally in what is now an open labour market. In short, we would lose many of our ‘best’ scholars whose main purpose in life is to publish in top journals. Ironically, for many of our colleagues, the desire to publish and to be seen to publish in top journals seems more important than the nature of the research itself. One effect of this is the ‘salami-slicing’ of research to maximise publication, ideally in 4* journals.

Another high-impact change would, perhaps be if the criteria for publication in top journals themselves were to change; for example to demand much more significant evidence of practice relevance or impact. There has been slight evidence of this, usually, in our opinion, as an add-on rather than as an integral part of a publication. It is, however, difficult to see how major change in this regard might come about given that the editors and editorial boards of such journals are made up of scholars who are products of the current system.

Perhaps a more likely high-impact change is that of external intervention, for example from government. Presumably, government could determine that their own agencies for funding universities took a much stronger line in insisting on relevance an impact. More benign external intervention might be by business itself. If the business community were to take a serious interest, not only in the funding of research but in influencing the agenda for research, that might galvanise change. There are however many problems here. There is much less interest of business in the academic criteria most scholars would regard as important. The time scales that businesses work on are very different from researchers. Businesses see little need for or added-value in publishing in top-ranked journals, although they do rate publication in Harvard Business Review. Substantial intervention in research agendas might be seen as undermining academic freedom. International comparisons are interesting here. For example, the French system of business schools is, much more closely linked with business than is that in the UK, so there may be lessons to be learned from that in terms of how to construct a different kind of institutional research field.

The most extreme high-impact change would be a crisis. In the business school and university context, this might come in the form of major change in the demand for our services, possibly a major reduction in postgraduate international students, which obsoletes current business models, leading to financial crisis and major change. Undeniably unwelcome but a possibility. Students are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for value for money and research time, unless it can be properly justified, might suffer as a result.


What might we do and what do we need to do to escape our iron cage? We need to agree a working consensus on the parameters of our current situation and its causes. In so doing we need to acknowledge the possible negative future consequences if we, but more important, the wider business school community do not engage in system change. We need to become less preoccupied with talking to each other and engage with other major stakeholders, actual and potential. If the cash cow bounty of large numbers of particularly postgraduate international students, with its large majority from China, paying very large fees, should decline – as it surely will at some point – then we will need to diversify our activity and our income streams.

We need to examine the system and identify action points and strategies for change and endorse such strategies. If we as academics accept the need for change, then we need to decide how we as fellows can develop a wider awareness of the need for change. We might consider establishing small working groups to focus on different aspects of the levers for change identified and different domains. For example, as a group, we have contacts and might influence a wide range of stakeholders in the system – the academic, influential bodies in the field, colleagues, deans, journalists, politicians and so on. Here the role of Deans and their development is central as they consider the world we are moving towards.

We also need to reach out more to our European colleagues to discuss the system we are currently engaged in and by. Our final point is that this is a system with its roots in the US and its definition of what it takes to publish in top management journals. It might be that the time has come to redefine and recreate what it means to be a management academic. In discussing the seductive power of the iron cage, Weber also talked about calling and its values. Many of us feel that being a management academic is a calling. We think that that calling involves excellence in scholarship but it also calls out for a commitment to improving management and organisation through doing relevant and impactful research. We need to focus more on creating a new future vision of management responsive to the many challenges and crises business and society currently face.

See other articles from the Annual Research Volume 1

How management academics have locked themselves in an iron cage

Gerry Johnson is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Management at Lancaster University Management School, Professor of Strategic Management at Huddersfield University Business School and a Fellow of the British Academy of Management.

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