The Translation Fallacy

English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Muse...

English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Français : La Pierre de Rosette, dans le British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have ever been unlucky enough to attend a large gathering of strategy academics – as I have, many times – it may have struck you that at some point during such a feast (euphemistically called “conference”), the subject matter would turn to talks of “relevance”. It is likely that the speakers were a variety of senior and grey – in multiple ways – interchanged with aspiring Young Turks. A peculiar meeting of minds, where the feeling might have dawned on you that the senior professors were displaying a growing fear of bowing out of the profession (or life in general) without ever having had any impact on the world they spent a lifetime studying, while the young assistant professors showed an endearing naivety believing they were not going to grow up like their academic parents.

And the conclusion of this uncomfortable alliance – under the glazing eyes of some mid-career, associate professors, who could no longer and not yet care about relevance – will likely have been that “we need to be better at translating our research for managers”; that is, if we’d just write up our research findings in more accessible language, without elaborating on the research methodology and theoretical terminology, managers would immediately spot the relevance in our research and eagerly suck up its wisdom.

And I think that’s bollocks.

I don’t think it is bollocks that we – academics – should try to write something that practicing managers are eager to read and learn about; I think it is bollocks that all it needs is a bit of translation in layman’s terms and the job is done.

Don’t kid yourself – I am inclined to say – it ain’t that easy. In fact, I think there are three reasons why I never see such a translation exercise work.

1. Ignorance

I believe it is an underestimation of the intricacies of the underlying structure of a good managerial article, and the subtleties of how to convincingly write for practicing managers. If you’re an academic, you might remember that in your first year as a PhD student you had the feeling it wasn’t too difficult to write an academic article such as the ones you had been reading for your first course, only to figure out, after a year or two of training, that you had been a bit naïve: you had been (blissfully) unaware of the subtleties of writing for an academic journal; how to structure the arguments; which prior studies to cite and where; which terminology to use and what to avoid; and so on. Well, good managerial articles are no different; if you haven’t developed the skill yet to write one, you likely don’t quite realise what it takes.

 2. False assumptions

It also seems that academics, wanting to write their first managerial piece, immediately assume they have to be explicitly prescriptive, and tell managers what to do. And the draft article – invariably based on “the five lessons coming out of my research” – would indeed be fiercely normative. Yet, those messages often seem impractically precise and not simple enough (“take up a central position in a network with structural holes”) or too simple to have any real use (“choose the right location”). You need to capture a busy executive’s attention and interest, giving them the feeling that they have gained a new insight into their own world by reading your work. If that is prescriptive: fine. But often precise advice is precisely wrong.

 3. Lack of content

And, of course, more often than not, there is not much worth translating… Because people have been doing their research with solely an academic audience in mind – and the desire to also tell the real world about it only came later – it has produced no insight relevant for practice. I believe that publishing your research in a good academic journal is a necessary condition for it to be relevant; crappy research – no matter how intriguing its conclusions – can never be considered useful. But rigour alone, unfortunately, is not a sufficient condition for it to be relevant and important in terms of its implications for the world of business.

5 Comments on “The Translation Fallacy”

  1. Excellent piece of work.
    There is a difference between classroom and Boardrooms.
    With Warm Regards,
    Dave Brahma.

  2. srp says:

    Perhaps a study of academic papers with “managerial implications” and their impact could be performed. Inappropriately sampling on the dependent variable (OK for hypothesis generation though not for testing), the balanced scorecard and activity-based costing, which have had at least limited take-up, appear to have come about through an iterative process of consulting, theorizing, case-writing, and translation. But take-up does not imply effectiveness–lots of faddish ideas pass through the business world.

    If we look for academic management ideas that were a) solidly based in empirical and theoretical findings, b) adopted by managers, and c) improved performance of adopters relative to non-adopters (or were so good that everyone adopted them just to keep up) are they any clear examples? Can we think of any ideas that pass a) but haven’t made it to b)? The evidence-based management folks think they have the answer to this problem, but your critique seems relevant to what they’re trying to do.

  3. RussCoff says:

    I see a much bigger challenge. If practitioners have been wrestling with a tough problem for some time (as is almost always the case if the problem is truly important), there is strong reason to believe that they may be well ahead of academics in addressing the problem. That is, the very notion that academics are somehow “on the cutting edge” is wishful thinking at best.

    On the bright side hand, if we actually look carefully at how practitioners tackle such challenges, these observations will represent important contributions to theory…

  4. Well Sirs,
    I think, as I’m a practicing manager and a visiting faculty in many front running institute in India. The re is a wider GAP between the practicing-managers and academies and academicians .
    I have got very high respect for Academicians and the paper writing the academicians are at time irrelevant to the market scenarios which are changing dramatically round the globe and a very fragile global economic scenarios.
    As I have just seen both the sides in my opinion the knowledge professionals or the knowledge workers as per Druker face a tremendous ambiguity in the thought what they assume and write , may be absolutely different from the practical world of business .
    As Management science is a very “DYNAMIC SCIENCE” and Russ said the practitioners fire fight with much more ” TOUGH Problems”. Practitioners should join hands with the Academicians to write papers.
    Late Prof. Druker said Management Science is very much like Medical and Law professions .
    The Doctors and Lawyers practice , and the practicing Lawyer and Doctors are more knowledgeable than the Law or Medical professors.
    So a Law and Medical Professors should also be a practitioner.
    Yes Like Russ , I think this is also a wishful thinking.

    With Warm Regards,

  5. Ladonna says:

    While you’re busy connecting those headphones, you might not actually be getting farmacia on line.

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