Management Scholars and the Media

3 August 2012 at 8:52 pm 7 comments

| Peter Klein |

Reporting today from the Academy of Management meetingin Boston. Too many interesting sessions to list them all. Today I attended a very good Professional Development Workshop on the opportunity-discovery perspective in entrepreneurship studies, organized by Henrik Berglund, Steffen Korsgaard, and Kåre Moberg and featuring Bill Gartner, Per Davidsson, and others. Lots of discussion of “discovery opportunities” and “creation opportunities,” and even my own case for dropping the concept of opportunities altogether.

Then, a PDW session called “Engaging the Media: Equipping Management Faculty to Share Their Knowledge More Effectively” featuring me, Jay Barney, Ron Mitchell, Maria Minniti, Mike Lenox, and Scott Kirsner, an ambassador from the world of journalism. I gave the blogger’s perspective, arguing for this medium as an effective way of sharing research results and informed opinion with students, journalists, policymakers, and the lay public. I also shared some practical tips borrowed from Mike Munger.

During the session there was a lot of discussion of economics, and how economists have been much more successful than management scholars at engaging the media. I argued that this has less to do with technique than with substance — economists have a long history of involvement with key social and policy issues of interest to journalists. But there are pitfalls to such a cozy relationship. The desire for relevance and influence can lead to compromise on rigor and and a loss of independence (Exhibit A). Management scholarship is already prone to faddishness and buzzwords, and a closer engagement with the media could exacerbate those unfortunate trends.

But, a question near and dear to our hearts here at O&M: Why are there so few academic blogs devoted to management and organizational scholarship? Economics and law have many influential academic blogs. Management has just a handful (most linked from our sidebar). When I talk to  management colleagues about blogging, manyt are reluctant. Will I have something to say? How much time will it take? Will it hurt my academic reputation? Economists don’t seem too worried about these. In part, the difference may be due to core theories and approaches. A little economic theory goes a long way in addressing social and policy issues, and most economists feel comfortable talking about current events without deep knowledge of the specifics. “It involves a price control? Well, let me tell you how that will play out…” Management scholarship is far more eclectic and often calls for deeper knowledge of the concrete phenomena at hand. Is this the most important difference? Or are there other reasons why management scholars don’t blog?

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Steve Phelan  |  3 August 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Perhaps there are few incentives to have a public persona because there are few public positions outside academia for management scholars, particularly when compared with economics.

  • 2. Ryan Langrill  |  3 August 2012 at 11:40 pm

    Perhaps the necessity of knowing the ‘more concrete phenomena at hand’ carries with it asset specificity, and like all specific assets there’s a tendency to internalize the knowledge within a firm. Knowledge of narrow phenomena can be better internalized–perhaps there is not more economics research, but more publicly observable research, while firms can internalize management research much more effectively.

    Just a random guess.

  • 3. Peter St. Onge (@ptrstonge)  |  4 August 2012 at 12:32 am

    My (naive) assumption would have been the opposite of Steve’s; I’d guess management scholars are in-demand as consultants, whereas there are few relatively fewer “policy consultant” jobs in economics. Hence anybody with something to say in management charges for bespoke advice, while economists are reduced to the soapbox.

  • 5. Graham Peterson  |  7 August 2016 at 7:55 pm

    “A little economic theory goes a long way in addressing social and policy issues, and most economists feel comfortable talking about current events without deep knowledge of the specifics.”

    No. Although that is the conceit most economists believe about themselves. I don’t know how we would measure the relative generality of each social science. Some sociologist of science smarter than me would have to do it. But I’m skeptical on the front end, as a sociologist, that economic theory really *is* as general as economists *want* it to be.

    What economists do have is institutional prestige. That may be related to its generality or not (may be deserve or not). But what it does, that authority, is give people lots of wriggle room to say wrong shit, simply because their arguments are taken on the authority of their affiliation.

    This phenomenon accounts for several decades of post war “public intellectuals” moonlighting as columnists. This boosted rather than dinged their prestige, because elite media outlets were, then, elite. Now, with blogs, you’re as likely to look like a hack 17th century pamphleteer as you are an insightful Undiscovered Voice.

    So people who don’t have a lot of prestige to spend stay away.

  • 6. Peter G. Klein  |  17 August 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Graham, I’m not sure how to test between our competing explanations, but I see institutional prestige is endogenous to the phenomenon we’re discussing. I really do think there are core differences in the nature and approach of different academic disciplines that matter in this context.

    Example: many years ago I was involved in a government task force on how to improve the US air traffic control system. I had only an hour or two to prepare for the meeting, so I quickly read up on the economics of commercial aviation, navigation, airport congestion, and so on. The other participants in the meeting were career bureaucrats from the FAA, DOT, etc., people who had spent their entire careers studying commercial aviation.

    The main issue was congestion. It turns out that at that time (around 2000, and I assume it’s the same now), aircraft operators paid landing fees to the ATC system based on the number of passengers. However, the burden on the ATC system was the same, regardless of the size of the plane. So the fee system provided an implicit subsidy to general aviation — a Cessna or Piper cub could use the same runway as a 747, consuming the same amount of ATC resources, while paying a tiny fraction of the costs. Hence there were “too many” small planes using the ATC system at key airports, leading to congestion at peak times.

    I remember being in the meeting and asking if anyone had considered changing the fee system to approximate more closely the actual cost of providing the service (and adjusting it according to load). Some of these experts looked at me like some kind of guru, as if I’d uttered some profound wisdom they had never heard or considered. No, I’d just spent 5 seconds thinking about supply and demand, and they had never thought about it. An example of how a little knowledge can go a long way.

    Of course, the details are important, and we should worry about the Freakonomics phenomenon (economists blathering on about this or that issue without sufficient knowledge of the institutional context, history, etc., and hence missing key information). But, in general, a little knowledge of price theory really is useful for understanding a wide variety of applications, including policy issues. I don’t think you can say the same for a little knowledge of elementary sociology, or political science, or whatever.

  • 7. Graham Peterson  |  23 August 2016 at 2:13 pm

    That’s a nice example that I think does support your original claim and also supports the idea that micro teachers should keep teaching old school applied principles, like the difference between an engineering mentality and an economic mentality. First principles and generality matter. I’d dispute your point that other social sciences are less general, though. If generality is endogenous to prestige, as you say, (and which I’m more inclined to agree with now), I think it still stands that a latent function of that prestige is to encourage the misapplication of general theories, and the long term weakening of general theory, as over time its predictions get accepted on authority rather than checked.

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