Saturday, September 15, 2012

Could management scholars produce visionary public policy documents?

Should the government commission broad policy reports from social scientists (e.g. management scholars) and should we write such reports? That is the topic for this slightly off-topic blog post, bearing only vague connection to reasoning and no actual relationship to organizational reasoning.

Several funding bodies in Finland (including the Academy of Finland) recently funded a 700.000 euro report on "The model for sustainable growth" by a well-known (celebrity) philosopher Pekka Himanen (of The Hacker Ethic fame). To be fair, he is not going to pocket all the money since it goes for flying celebrity intellectuals and experts to Finland and organizing a series of seminars on the topic of the report. The report does not seem to have much to do with universities or the academia. Indeed, one might question why the Academy of Finland (which is supposed to fund scientific research) is putting some money behind the production of this kind of political pamphlets.

What if we would write the report?

Today, the main Finnish daily (Helsingin Sanomat) had an interesting editorial pondering why such a report was not commissioned from sociologists, offering also some reasons (in Finnish here). This raises some intriguing questions. Should the government commission a vision-paper on "sustainable growth" from a business school? What if the faculty at Aalto University School of Business (where I work) would decide to produce a competing report on the topic for free just to show some return for the tax payer money put in the university system? And how different would these two reports be?

I imagine they would be vastly different. Universities cannot produce political essays or opinion pieces without seriously undermining their legitimacy (professors may be able to do that as individuals). Although science can hardly be totally apolitical, the genre of social science is distinct from political texts  (at least now that marxists have been silenced). The academia has a certain way of thinking. To stay in the vocabulary of this blog, we could say that the academia has strong norms concerning acceptable ways to reason and make arguments.  Academics tend to make reserved claims, commonly supported with references to earlier studies, a compelling line of argumentation, and even some analysis of carefully collected empirical evidence.

If we were to produce a report on "sustainable growth" it would need to be grounded on empirical evidence, either a synthesis of published research or own data collection efforts.  In contrast, I do not expect Himanen to produce or refer to much empirical evidence to back the vision he and his team will produce. Also, this type of reports are only seen to succeed when they contain what the client (government) want. Universities can better maintain their independence and legitimacy when they are not required to market their services to the government and paid to produce 'results' desired by it.

What is a 'model of sustainable growth' anyhow? 

I expect my fellow business school professors would question the whole idea of having a 'model' for sustainable growth. Surely the government can make some interventions that could improve the prospects of growth in the future. But I believe such interventions would add up to a coherent "model" only on the level of rhetoric. Why would 'sustainable growth' be a single problem that can be solved with a single solution? It seems its a series of rather disconnected challenges with rather disconnected potential solutions. The whole topic smells slightly fishy as it implies economic and ecological sustainability to be unproblematically aligned elements of the broader rhetoric category of 'sustainability'.

More damningly, an evidence-driven report produced by university professors on sustainable growth would most likely be boring in the extreme. It is not like governments have not thought about this before: higher education, competitive R&D, capabilities in marketing, industry clusters, ecosystem of competitive business services, attracting foreign investments, and so on. Visionary reports politicians want are more akin to journalism and marketing pitches than studies of anything. Although many social scientists are capable marketers and would make great journalists, I am not sure we should expect universities to be good in these domains.

Luckily, most countries are blessed with a few celebrity philosophers.