Lost in Translation? The Relevance of Organizational Studies

Much has been said and written about the perceived increasing “irrelevance” of organizational studies. Concerns about the field’s relevance were a motivating factor for the formation of the journal Organization Science in 1990. Just last year, the Academy of Management Journal published a series of articles that addressed the topic in commemoration of the journal’s 50th anniversary. But there has been very little systematic research on this subject—until now.

Professor and Associate Dean Donald Palmer and his co-authors, Brian Dick and Nathaniel Freiburger of the UC Davis Department of Sociology, have written “Rigor and Relevance in Organization Studies,” which is forthcoming in Management Inquiry alongside another paper on the subject and a commentary by Professor Ranjay Gulati of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and Professor Mike Tushman of Harvard Business School.

In June Palmer will step down after six years as editor of Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), which many consider the field’s preeminent mainstream theory journal. Palmer’s study reports preliminary results of a quantitative empirical analysis of articles published in ASQ between 1956—the year the journal was founded—and 2004.

Using precise definitions of relevance, rigor, and institutional structure as a foundation, Palmer and his co-authors argue that the popular beliefs about the steadily decreasing relevance of organizational studies scholarship appear to be inaccurate, at least in the case of papers published in ASQ. In addition, articles written by authors at management schools as opposed to those written by authors in other disciplines tended to be more relevant, according the analysis.

Seeking to contribute to the rigor-relevance debate, Palmer and his co-authors adopted the dominant viewpoint that the field’s primary audience is managers, although they note that other constituencies worthy of consideration include employees, labor unions, suppliers, customers, public policy makers and community members.

Palmer has been invited to discuss the relevancy and lack of press coverage of management research at a professional development workshop during the 2008 Academy of Management Annual Meeting in Anaheim in August. He will join R. Duane Ireland, editor of the Academy of Management Journal, Ellen Peebles, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, and Joel Baum, editor of Strategic Organization, on a panel titled “Who are we Reaching? The Real and Intended Audiences for Business School Research,” which will also feature top editors from the Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times.