Do you care if your research is managerially relevant?

You often hear people criticize scientific articles saying that they rarely address genuinely managerially relevant and topical issues let alone offer recommendations for how to deal with these. While offering value to practitioners indeed for many scientific journals is of secondary priority, it is nothing but a shame that journals cannot more often than now be of more significance to practitioners, entrepreneurs, and different societal stakeholders. So next, inspired by a recently published empirical study about how managers use marketing research, I set out to briefly reflect on the issue of managerial relevance of marketing research articles.

Why is research not managerially relevant?

What many consider to be the root causes for the theory-practice gap are broadly speaking related to how research is conducted and to how research is communicated.  What the former issue relates to and is the result of is “failure to generate relevant research ideas and insights altogether, fueled by an ever-growing focus on methodological sophistication, a tendency to examine niche phenomena, and production of incremental instead of innovative insights.” (Wiegand et al., 2020, p. 3)

The communication problem, on the other hand, refers to “failure to present research in a practitioner-accessible form, leaving managers unaware of the existence of relevant work and its implications for everyday business.” (Wiegand et al., 2020, p. 3) No wonder research as a result will be out of sync with practice or never even have a chance of being relevant and of use. Even if more experts, trainers, and business magazines would pick up research ideas and findings and spread them to practitioners, it is not enough, researchers themselves should also more often than now deliberately and directly reach out to practitioners.

What research is managerially relevant?

Research is essentially managerially relevant when it reaches practicing managers with nonobvious useful insights. Such insights can be useful for practitioners in different ways. Some conventional ways are that the insights are used for descriptive purposes meaning that they shed light on what and how questions, are used to explain why or to predict changes and developments, or to formulate effective intervention. (Van de Ven and Johnson, 2006) Managers can also employ research findings in other ways such as to justify decisions and improve argumentation. (Wiegand et al., 2020)

Earlier this year, four European marketing researchers Wiegand, Becker, Imschloss, and Reinartz (2020) published results from an empirical study about how managers use marketing research. They outlined research as managerially relevant when it addresses a business, organizational, or managerial issue or opportunity that concerns a sufficiently large or important group of organizations in the researched field, providing potentially useful insights or inspiration to better understand, frame, or solve this issue in the organizational context.

Can marketing research be useful to inspire managers?

Wiegand, Becker, Imschloss, and Reinartz (2020) in addition to problem-solving and educational purposes verified another way in which managers can use academic research, namely for inspiration. This means that managers used academic work to gain new ideas and perspectives, understand future trends, or broaden their horizon. They found examples of such research in the ethnographic online studies of Robert Kozinets or the work of Ozcan and Rangaswamy (2018) that discusses current and future developments in platform business models. In their sample, a study examining the effect of brand equity on employee salaries was classified as inspirational because it provided a radically new perspective on brand management—one managers had not contemplated about before.

In their interviews with practitioners, Wiegand et al. (2020) found some but very few articles in marketing to be inspirational. Inspirational research, they found, relied on compelling arguments which were based on or illustrated by real-world examples and complete reasoning that accounted for real-world conditions, actual practices, and plausible scopes of managerial action. Such research oftentimes originated from transferring ideas from seemingly unrelated research fields or observations to the marketing domain.

To be useful, the inspirational research had to have the potential to create substantial competitive advantage and be clearly connected to managerial realities. As inspiration research can be highly risky for companies to implement, they found that it was important that researchers decrease perceived risk by making potential gains explicit and concretely and realistically inform decision making or add to existing practices.

What can marketing researchers do to become more managerially relevant?

Based on their analysis of the extensive data, Wiegand et al. (2020) offer a list of recommendations for how researchers, managers, and editors can narrow the theory-practice gap. I recap some of their suggestions to researchers here but recommend that everyone interested reads their freely online available publication.

They advise researchers to first identify a “disruptive” research idea by for example attentively observing the environment and people’s behaviour, being creative – connecting unrelated ideas, using sources from unrelated fields (press, news, academic literature) as inspiration. They further recommend researchers to not be too radical to increase credibility, avoid claiming that the research questions existing practices, and to discuss initial results early on with managers and to make sure the research is not too far-fetched to be credible.

Other suggestions they offer are that marketing researchers should select to topics that (1) address complex issues which are difficult for managers to address by themselves, (2) pertain to current developments, (3) cover issues likely to become important in the future, (4) address persistent “nagging” issues, or bring forward (5) novel ideas or (6) nonobvious findings.

That articles too seldom are managerially relevant and reach practitioners is unfortunate—and embarrassing. Still, it should be fully possible for researchers, managers and editors to change this, and to become better at doing and communicating research that involves conceiving new concepts or theory, is exploratory, introduces new methods and is forward-looking in nature. To be relevant, each one of us as marketing researchers should ensure that we address meaningful business, societal, and global problems. To have an impact we also need to work with and for relevant partners and communicate broadly beyond our scientific community.

Marketing similarly to many other management research disciplines is, as a “theory”, after all, rather applied and practice dominant. One would think therefore that it is natural that research in marketing is of true value and benefit for companies and the society. Fortunately, in the future, however, I think that we will see a change since more and more editorials and articles highlight the need for marketing research to become more managerially relevant and discuss ways to accomplish this. The trend is also amplified as research simply needs to become more closely linked than now to significant topical business and societal challenges and provide useful insights for different stakeholders.

Maria Holmlund
Professor in Marketing

This text is based on Wiegand et al.’s (2020) publication that I offer as reading recommendation if you want to read more on how researchers, managers, schools, and editors can bridge the theory-practice gap:

A few additional references on how to increase managerially relevant research in marketing are:

  • Benoit, S., Klose, S., Wirtz, J., Andreassen, T. W., & Keiningham, T. L. (2019). Bridging the data divide between practitioners and academics. Journal of Service Management, 30(5), 524-548.
  • Mooi, E., Mani, S., Kleinaltenkamp, M., Lilien, G., & Wilkinson, I. (2020). Connect, engage, transform: How B2B researchers can engage in impactful industry collaboration. Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing. Forthcoming available online
  • Nenonen, S., Brodie, R. J., Storbacka, K., & Peters, L. D. (2017). Theorizing with managers: how to achieve both academic rigor and practical relevance? European Journal of Marketing. 51(7/8), 1130-1152.
  • Van de Ven, A. H., & Johnson, P. E. (2006). Knowledge for theory and practice. Academy of management review, 31(4), 802-821.