What Has Happened to Mode 2?


In 2001 the British Journal of Management (BJM) published a special issue addressing ways of bridging the relevance gap between management practice and management research. That year, and that special issue, marked what seems from today's perspective to have been an optimistic time for academics concerned about academic–practitioner relationships. In this short commentary I would like to reflect on the 2001 special issue from the standpoint of 2011. I would also like to comment on some recent initiatives that, while not framed explicitly in terms of Mode 2, are pertinent to it.

By the time the special issue was published there had been sentiment over several years that reforms in business schools that had been initiated by the Carnegie and Ford Foundations in 1959 had succeeded all too well in increasing the rigour of business school training. These reforms had resulted in professors being hired and rewarded more for their research (and discipline-based) capabilities than for their knowledge of practices of management. While the research output of management school professors had indeed improved considerably, there had not been comparable improvements in the perceived relevance to management and organizational practice of the research conducted. Rather, it seemed to some that perceived relevance had decreased in almost direct proportion to improvements in rigour.

But means had begun to be developed that promised to increase relevance. For example, a number of DBA or, more broadly, executive-based doctoral programmes had recently sprung up in the UK and other countries, and many expected that practitioners who earned doctorates would be bridge-builders between practice and academia (Starkey and Madan, 2001). In 2001 Rynes, Bartunek and Daft edited a special research forum in the Academy of Management Journal that focused on forms of knowledge transfer between academics and practitioners.

Particularly pertinent for the special issue, Tranfield and Starkey (1998) had published a paper in BJM that had articulated policy propositions for how management research should be conducted (Hodgkinson, 2001). Their paper drew on Gibbons et al.'s (1994) discussion of science and technology policy, and on the basis of this discussion distinguished between Mode 1 knowledge production, where ‘knowledge production occurs largely as a result of an academic agenda’ (p. 347), and Mode 2 knowledge production, which ‘requires trans-disciplinarity in which teamworking among academics and practitioners and across different academic disciplines rather than heroic individual endeavor becomes the established norm’, and where scholarly knowledge is developed in the context of application. They argued for the importance of Mode 2 approaches to research.

The 2001 special issue in BJM centred around a paper by Starkey and Madan (2001) that developed the implications of the Mode 2 approach for management research. It also included several commentaries on their arguments. Starkey and Madan argued (p. S20) that ‘if we are seeking new forms of knowledge perhaps it is better to set out from the starting point of problem definition, the problem in practice (the Mode 2 route), and construct and develop individuals and teams of researchers up to the limits required by particular problem definition’. Their paper advocated for the restructuring of academic institutions to allow better knowledge exchange and distribution consistent with Mode 2 approaches, the creation of new measures of academic achievement, the fostering of executive doctoral programmes and the creation of journals and associations that would foster trans-disciplinary research that responds to applied problems.

The issues addressed in responses to the paper included, among others, discussion of the ‘double hurdle’ (Pettigrew, 2001) of rigour and relevance, characteristics of successful academic–practitioner collaborations, concerns about academic rigour and larger issues related to re-orienting business schools. Overall, these responses suggested some optimism about the value of Mode 2 approaches to research.

Much has happened in the development of academic–practitioner relationships in the 10 years since the special issue was published; to address all of this would be impossible. I will focus here on two particularly important themes in the special issue, Mode 2 research itself and relationships between relevance and rigour.

Mode 2

Since 2001, Mode 2 approaches to research have received a reasonable amount of attention. For example, David Tranfield (2002) edited a special forum in the European Management Review addressing Mode 2 research. There have been several papers in BJM on Mode 2 approaches. van Aken (2005) and Romme (2003) have evoked Mode 2 in their developments of design science approaches, and design science has been seen by some (e.g. Starkey, Hatchuel and Tempest, 2009) as an embodiment of Mode 2.

But the development of Mode 2 has also had challenges, at least with regard to scholarly management journals. For example, as far as I can tell, there have been very few empirical studies published in academic journals in management that explicitly use the approach. Papers by MacLean, MacIntosh and Grant (2002), Burgoyne and James (2006) and Romme (2003) are the only ones I have seen that incorporate empirical studies based explicitly on Mode 2 approaches. There has been much more discussion of Mode 2 than illustrations of it in academic journals that I can find.

Further, Swan et al. (2010) recently studied what has happened to the development of Mode 2 in genetics research and found that Mode 2 has not made as many inroads in the hard sciences as had been anticipated. Rather, ‘the output of Mode 2 approaches to such research have continued to be judged by Mode 1 standards, and … somewhat paradoxically the development of Mode 2 approaches has led to a reinforcement of Mode 1 approaches’. At the very least, it appears that while Mode 2 has stimulated thinking, it has not bridged academia and practice as much as had been hoped for.

Rigour versus relevance

Some of the responses in the BJM special issue focused on the relationship between rigour and relevance in management research. For example, Hodgkinson, Herriot and Anderson (2001) expressed concern that Mode 2 approaches might be relevant but not rigorous, and advocated for research that truly exemplified both characteristics, even while recognizing that this might be hard to accomplish. Pettigrew (2001) suggested that discussing rigour and relevance as polar opposites was probably not helpful to a research emphasis in the long run. Rather, it is crucial to accomplish the ‘double hurdles’ of relevance and rigour.

All of this attention suggested the possibility that ‘bridging’ the rigour–relevance gap might be actively taking place. However, as someone who has been actively involved in trying to bridge this gap (Bartunek, 2007), and aware of many others doing the same (e.g. Avenier, 2010; Van de Ven, 2007), I am much more aware of problems in accomplishing this now than I was ten years ago. The problems are exemplified by a 2009 paper by Kieser and Leiner that argued emphatically that almost by definition, at least based on Luhmann's systems theory, it is not possible for gaps between science and practice to be bridged; practice and scholarship are based on two radically different communication systems. Starkey, Hatchuel and Tempest (2009) disputed this claim, as did Hodgkinson and Rousseau (2009). However, the very fact that the exchange was published and taken seriously suggests that discussion of ways to link rigour and relevance has not moved very far. As Starkey, Hatchuel and Tempest (2009) noticed, disputes about rigour and relevance have taken on some characteristics of language games more than of debates that evoke productive movement.

What has been happening while the Mode 2 discussions have been going on?

Discussions of and disagreements about philosophical issues associated with rigour, relevance and modes of research are certainly important. But considered from the perspectives of empirical research and management practice, they are neither rigorous nor relevant; they serve primarily as commentaries on ways of approaching these issues. It seems to me that a good deal of what started out as discussions of promising ways of bridge-building in the BJM special issue have become mired in deliberations about how to get started with the work, or if it is even feasible. This is certainly not a problem peculiar to BJM, but a larger problem with a good deal of the Mode 2 and rigour–relevance rhetoric of the past several years.

Perhaps it is worthwhile to take a different vantage point and to explore what has been happening behind the scenes while the debates have been going on. I realize that this may seem like a (stereotypically) American thing to say, but I suggest that it may be worthwhile to do some empirical data collection. This might, for example, include exploring what has happened in universities with regard to some of what Starkey and Madan advocated regardless of whether changes have explicitly referenced Mode 2. There have been multiple changes in the past ten years in problem-oriented research, knowledge distribution systems, measures of academic achievement, executive doctoral programmes, journals and associations, though they are often not framed in terms of Mode 2.

As just a few current examples, executive doctoral programmes are now being recognized as an important form of education, as indicated by the First International Conference on Engaged Management Scholarship held at Case Western Reserve University in June 2011 (http://weatherhead.case.edu/events/engaged-management/, accessed 27 May 2011). The 2012 conference is scheduled for Cranfield University, which also hosts the Executive Doctorate in Business Administration Council. Further, graduates of executive doctoral programmes are expected to carry out problem-oriented research (Tenkasi, 2011). More journals are being published that attempt to bridge research and practice. One example is Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, which includes focal papers and responses from both academics and practitioners. Special issues of journals on this theme continue to be published, but now they often include contributions by practitioner-scholars as well as academics. One recent example is a special issue of the Journal of Business and Psychology entitled ‘Bridging the gap between the science and practice of psychology in organizations: state of the practice reflections’ (Church, 2011). There is an active evidence-based management movement (Rousseau, in press), blog (http://www.evidencebased-management.com/) and listserve, and practitioners, as well as academics, are active contributors.

Perhaps, if we look beyond our own definitions and constructs, there is still room for optimism.

Jean M. Bartunek is the Robert A. and Evelyn J. Ferris Chair and Professor of Management and Organization at Boston College. Her PhD in social and organizational psychology is from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a Past President and Fellow of the Academy of Management, from which she won the Career Distinguished Service Award in 2009. She is an associate editor of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science and an incoming associate editor of Academy of Management Learning and Education.