Big Think in Management Research

13 March 2008 at 11:31 pm 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms has received a lot of attention in the econo-blogosphere. I haven’t read the book and don’t have much to say about it but you can read as much as you like from Cowen, McCloskey, DeLong, Caplan, Kling, and others. One of the most interesting reviews, to me, is this one by Robert Margo of Boston University. Margo admires the book but dislikes this genre, what he calls “Big Think.”

“Big Think” refers to the genre of economic history that asks The Big Question. Why England and not China? Do institutions “matter” or is it something else, or many things? Why is the United States rich and Bolivia poor?

Reviewers should be upfront about their ex ante biases. Here is one of mine: I do not care for Big Think. The Big Question per se is not the problem — in economics, there is nothing more important. For me, the problem with Big Think is that it is inherently Too Big. One cannot hope to answer The Big Question by tackling it head on. One must break The Big Question into a great many very tiny precisely posed questions, and get the answers to them right. In economic history we are still _very_ far from completing this task even for a country whose economic history is as well-worn as the United States. Big Think is a Big Distraction from our true purpose in life.

Margo goes on to propose several hypotheses regarding the popularity of Big Think research, including both supply-side (economic historians want to be popular and important, and they tend to dislike formal theory and econometrics, which Big Think doesn’t require) and demand-side (scholars and laypeople crave answers to these questions) factors.

Management research (particularly in strategy and organization) is often criticized for doing too little Big Think, or for doing Big Think that is not closely tied to the mundane research results of the type Margo favors. Of course there are plenty of books in the Built to Last genre, but these are not grand, sweeping treatises on basic managerial problems (leaving aside their other problems). Strategic Organization encourages scholars to think broadly about management problems in its SO!apbox series, but these are usually shorter, more speculative pieces. Nicolai’s recent paper on the role of property rights in strategy — a Medium Think project, at least — wasn’t universally well received by some management scholars in the audience, presumably because it was too general and abstract. Perhaps Chandler’s books come closest to the Big Think projects favored in other social sciences. What do readers think?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Management Theory, Strategic Management.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. stevphel  |  15 March 2008 at 4:05 am

    Can we even come up with a list of the “big questions” in strategy research in 2008?

  • 2. David Hoopes  |  18 March 2008 at 11:03 pm

    I’ve tended to think that strategy and org sci scholars are way ahead of themselves in attempting big think. To wit: most areas where there is real big think have done quite a bit of mapping out of basics: physics, biology. Think of all the taxonomic work that preceded Darwin. Did not Darwin himself do a lot of field work. I chaired a symposium at AoM in 2003 and Rumelt said he thought their was too much work going on at 60,000 feet. The problem is that scholars just have no clue about what goes on in firms that maps tightly on to their stories. If I had a dollar for every talk I’ve heard or paper I’ve read where it seemed clear to me the author/presenter could no more describe particular behavior than they could jump over the moon. The RBV is a perfect example where people get so tied up by describing “resources” and “tacit” knowledge by not being grounded. I am not!!!! suggesting we do “grounded” work. For example, most people who talk about entrepreneurship have no idea what it takes to make an entrepreneurial venture successful. I’m repeating an earlier commeny, but at a Harvard Entrepreneurship conference almost every single paper was about where ideas come from. At the end I said, you know there are good ideas everywhere. What separates the successful entrepreneur from everyone else is execution. It just is. But, all we hear about are all these fancy ideas about the philosophy of ideas: is an idea there if no one has thought it? Who cares? Does an idea matter if no one can do it?

    So, I think strategy and org science are far too hung up on big ideas that lack substance. Big ideas are fine. But, for the most part we aren’t willing to get our hands dirty enough to find out what’s happening. We only need one or two arm chair geniuses.

  • 3. stevphel  |  19 March 2008 at 10:34 am

    I agree, David. My idea of a big question is one that is intimately related to practice. Of course, there is very little incentive in the system to undertake field research – tenure clocks ticking and all that. Interesting presidential address by Ken Smith in the latest AMR about being pragmatic in the face of orthodoxy.

  • 4. David Hoopes  |  25 March 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Well, it is kind of crazy to pursue anything but straight-forward data analysis if you want to get tenure anywhere. Even then, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. It’s much safer to get into a stream of work that relies on easy-to-get second source data. And, as a counter-example to my complaining about too many “big” ideas, one need only look at the big streams of empirical work to find the absence of any ideas at all (much less too many big ones).

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