There is a large chasm between what academics study and write about in business academia and what practitioners are eager and hungry to learn about. Interestingly, however, both sides are curious about what motivates and animates the other.
At this year’s Academy of Management meetings held in Boston in August, I was invited to participate in a panel chaired by long-time well-known academic and practitioner George Yip on writing for practitioner audiences. The other panelists were Sarah Cliffe, a senior editor at Harvard Business Review, Bruce Posner, editor of the MIT Sloan Management Review, and Gundars Strads, editor of the California Management Review, the top three journals which make a point of presenting academic research in a way that is palatable to practitioners.
There Are Plenty of Good Reasons for Publishing in Practitioner Journals
George Yip opened the panel by setting the context for why academics might want to publish in practitioner journals. Among the reasons he gave were:
- To disseminate your research
- To contribute to rankings and REF (a British program that rewards research productivity)
- To use in classes
- To build your credibility for consulting
- To promote Exec Ed
- To improve your own thinking
- As a forerunner to a managerial book
Despite these obvious benefits, as George pointed out, writing for practitioners and writing for academics have different purposes, serve different audiences, and look for different kinds of outcomes from the process. The point, I think, of George’s observations is that there are many more ways academics can add value than just speaking to each other.
A Peek into My Experience of Writing for Practitioners
I personally have never bought the idea that academics and practitioners are looking at entirely different phenomena. Rather, I recall my mentor, Ned Bowman of Wharton, on this distinction. Ned was a wonderful man, taken from us all too soon. Among the works Ned was most famous for in his early career was an incisive series of analyses that found corporate chieftains were all too happy to take credit for good performance of their firms when things were good. Great management teams, foresighted vision, and fantastic leadership were all cited as reasons for success in their annual reports. Poor performance, on the other hand, was almost universally blamed on external factors: bad weather, unexpected competitive bad behavior, the national policies of rival nations, and so on. Ned’s tongue-in-cheek assessment of all this was that you’d be hard-pressed to get an accurate account of the causes of firm performance by perusing their annual reports!
Joking aside, Ned created a framework that for me has always represented a sensible way to think about the purposes of theory, as expressed in writing, for whatever audience.
A theory, he said, begins with something new that we are trying to understand. At that point, writing about it is simply to describe the phenomenon, to make sure that we have an account of how it is behaving. I used the example of the current crop of direct-to-consumer startups that are digitally enabled (Bonobos, Casper, Wayfair, and hundreds of others). The way they do business is so new, I argued, that we have to engage in considerable description before we really understand what their models are like.
The second phase is explanation—when we have enough rich descriptions, we can start to create explanations for why things are the way they are. For example, today we’re starting to grasp enough about digitally-enabled business models to start to explain why they are so different than conventional ones.
Next, we have prediction. This is when a phenomenon is sufficiently well understood that we can begin to establish causality and create if/then explanations. If I invest heavily in marketing, for instance, I can predict an increase in inbound inquiries.
And finally, we have the realm of control. In “control” environments, the goal is to use accumulated knowledge to achieve desirable ends and avoid undesirable ones. Safely operating airplanes, for instance, is an ability created by decades of carefully observing what practices are associated with safe arrivals and departures and making sure those practices are implemented across the board.
My argument is that most academics are happy enough with writing that covers the “describe and explain” parts of the continuum, while practitioners focus on the “predict and control” aspects. They are not, I would argue, looking at different phenomena, but rather looking to obtain something different from the phenomena that are at stake here.
To illustrate, I showed two version of a similar strand of research, one which was published in the Academy of Management Review, a leading academic publication, and the other that was published in the Harvard Business Review, a leading practitioner journal. The academic one developed propositions that would be a guide for further empirical work, based on the theory of mutual forbearance in game theory. The practitioner one drew out logical managerial implications for how you might want to think about competition when you meet your rivals in multiple markets. The first was about describing and explaining, the second about to some extent predicting and creating a response. In my field, strategy, we can no longer talk about innovation as though it’s less than central. Increasingly, when we talk about innovation, we are also talking about new possibilities in the digital realm.
Breaking into Practitioner Journals From the Editor’s Perspective
My good friend and longtime colleague Sarah Cliffe offered her perspective on getting articles into the highly influential Harvard Business Review. She quite rightly pointed out that HBR is unique among journals and has an unusual position, being part of an academic institution while also being editorially independent. HBR over the years has published many pieces that have had tremendous impact on thinking around management.
For this group, she stressed that editors at HBR ask themselves the following questions when considering whether something is worth publishing:
- Did I learn anything? Are the insights new or surprising?
- Does it pass Rita’s “five smart people” test?
- Does it tackle an important problem?
- Is it based in something real?
- Are the practical implications useful or interesting?
- Are the stories fresh and interesting?
- Are the authors credible? Are these the best authors to address this topic?
- In-house short-hand: Aha! and So what?
She very kindly mentioned my “five smart people” test. This was something Ian MacMillan and I developed years ago to determine whether a piece of research was worth doing. In our view, if every conclusion you could come up with could have been articulated by five smart people discussing the topic without having done the research, what would be the point?
Different parts of HBR are suitable for different kinds of submissions—the digital version is often a great way for new authors to break in. The print magazine is long-form content that is usually subject to considerable internal effort and vetting. And the Press, largely books, is for big ideas that can be developed satisfactorily in book length format. And of course HBR has a big market in the educational world for materials to be used in classrooms of all kinds.
Sarah offered some suggestions of questions to ask yourself before submitting a piece to HBR:
- If you were telling me about your findings at a dinner party, what would the headline be?
- Which bits of this do people in Exec Ed classes get excited about?
- Why do you love this topic?
- How’s this fit in with other work in your field? With other things HBR has published?
Bruce Posner, editor of MIT Sloan Management Review, shared that the journal has branched out from its previous focus on technology topics to more broad issues on business, rapid change, and directly applicable new insights. It places a big emphasis on findings that play out differently than people might expect. The element of surprise is really important—the journal particularly wants to know how the author makes of it, what things will be changing.
Gundars Strads, editor of California Management Review, offered some practical advice about what he’s observed continually trip authors up. First, read the submission instructions—a lot of papers never go further because the authors don’t do this! He also placed considerable emphasis on thinking of business readers when preparing CMR papers. Specifically, his tips were:
- Methods should be Instagram-worthy
- Readers get exhausted when your research is exhaustive
- No “p hacking” (doing research that is statistically valid but practically irrelevant)
- Stop raining arrows of significance
- Reviewers want more of authors, but readers want less
- Focus on the implications
- Good stories are better than good statistics
- Researchers need to get to the solutions quickly
- In the lessons and the learnings, try to avoid buzzwords
- Prepare your findings to be presented in a social media infographic
During the Q&A session, a question came up about when you should publishing in these journals relative to your careers. The answer is that it depends on where you are and what school you are working for. Some schools give you credit. In George Yip’s case, he made it a goal for each faculty member to publish at least one article on the list that his school valued or you would be required to do additional teaching. These journals can also be used to make the case that you are ready for a senior level promotion (e.g. coming up to full professor).
In my opinion, business scholars should be writing for practitioners rather than just for each other. At some stage, business schools will have to demonstrate their relevance to practice to continue to have a license to operate. You can be as tenured as you like, but if your school shuts down the program or scales it back, that isn’t going to save you if you’re not relevant to multiple constituencies.
In conclusion, writing for practitioner journals is a potentially rich extension to what people are doing in their normal academic lives—and just might be an important hedge against an uncertain future for business schools. For those interested in learning more about what is likely to happen to business schools, you might want to have a look at this copy of my newsletter about potential disruption and inflection points in the degree-granting business.