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Michael J. Showalter, Feature Editor, Florida State University
The Value of Empirical Research
by Joseph R. Carter, Arizona State University
Awhile back, I completed a research study examining the difference between the perceptions of academics and practitioners concerning the status and performance of materials management faculty and programs. As with any study of this type, perfect and complete data were not available; it is always difficult to make judgements from a limited set of opinions.
However, several interesting facts were brought out in this study. One interesting finding was that practitioners seem to judge the quality of some materials management programs by the reputation of the faculty at that institution and the reputation of the curriculum, graduate and undergraduate, provided by the college or university.
In contrast, academics not only view these two criteria as valuable, but add the research reputation of the materials management faculty to their set of evaluative criteria. That practitioners did not view the research reputation of the faculty as highly as academics was a troubling and consistent point of difference. Can we as academics address this issue? Ground-breaking work that uses research-generated academic knowledge to change and improve management practice seems in order.
Practitioners are not suggesting that researchers abandon methodological rigor in their research. Instead, they believe it is necessary for research results to be tested directly in relevant business settings. Researchers in operations must spend more time in organizations observing business practices in actionþ-and use these settings to test their hypotheses.
This is not to suggest that theoretical research is without value. To the contrary, all good research has a solid theoretical basis. But in the same vein, all good research should be validated through empirical investigation.
For example, simulation-based research is done when the application of an experimental design is impractical or impossible in a real world situation. Simulation is a valid and well-respected research method. But what of the results gathered using this methodology? Is it enough simply to publish these results in a respected journal or should these results be validated in a real world setting?
I suggest that research findings that never find their way into managerial practice are worthless. For those academics who feel that such practicality would stifle visionary research, I suggest that the world produces very few true visionaries and often even their vision of the future proves incorrect.
How does one avoid the trap of performing trivial or irrelevant research? Perhaps we should look to industry executives for research ideas. Many practitioner groups bring business managers together to discuss issues in the forefront. Faculty can learn from these forums. For example, each year the Center for Advanced Purchasing Studies (CAPS) gathers more than sixty industry senior managers in materials management to discuss cutting-edge issues deemed vital for continued healthy business growth. A useful list of relevant topics is generated and distributed to the public free of charge.
Using industry trends and suggestions to guide faculty research efforts in no way constrains academic freedom. It merely provides a means for faculty to detect the relevance of their research activities before their efforts begin. I do not advocate an increased level of consulting activity. There is a clear dividing line between academic research and consulting. I speak toward the former.
In addition, an integrative approach to problem solving would dramatically improve our research products. Real world problems can no longer be classified as simply "purchasing" or "manufacturing" or "transportation" or "service" issues. The range of inquiry must be broadened to include interaction and communication across the boundaries of academic disciplines.
The effective solution to a realistic problem may require inquiry by faculty from several different academic areas. Broader approaches of this type can provide the means to accomplish new syntheses between research rigor and relevanceþand close the perceptual gap between academics and practitioners.
Beyond the synthesis of academic rigor and managerial relevance mentioned above, the fluid context of the business environment today calls for a more direct collaboration among academic and business organizations. The creative interchanges of such collaborations can help bring about a new blend between research, knowledge, and education. They foster the interdisciplinary focus that most managerial problems require. Many academics have successfully used industry advisory groups to help them validate theoretical models, generate questions for investigation and clarify the focus of their research. For these academics, such clarity of purpose has translated into a national reputation in both academic and practitioner environments.