What Knowledge is Useful?
The founders of HBS wanted above all for their new school to be practical in its orientation—like the Law School that A. Lawrence Lowell had graduated from and held in such high regard. The School was to focus on issues of concern to practicing managers.
At the same time, of course, the Business School was part of an academic institution, and had to participate in, and contribute to, the world of ideas. And certainly, if the School ever hoped to shape and improve the profession, it would have to generate new knowledge. So where was the elusive intersection between the concerns of business and the interests of academia? What knowledge could be called "useful"? What methodologies were most likely to generate useful knowledge—and how might those methodologies change over the years? How would research and teaching intersect? What would intellectual career paths look like at HBS?
Like the definition of the profession of business, the definition of "useful" knowledge has shifted over the years, and continues to evolve today. But collectively, that knowledge can be considered in four categories, presented here in roughly the order in which the School first took them up:
In recent years, the School has become less of an outlier in terms of its definition of what's "useful." This is in part because HBS researchers have embraced some of the more traditional standards of academia, and dug for "deeper data," in the words of a former HBS dean. But it's also because many in academia have come to value the School's field-based research traditions, which keep the School in touch with the reality of business—"close to practice"—and help bridge the gap between the concrete and the abstract.
Does all research need to have a clear and practical end point in sight at the outset? No. Sometimes basic research in uncharted waters is needed. But should most research at a professional school be undertaken with an eye toward its relevance to, and ultimate impact upon, the profession? Most HBS researchers would say "yes." Should all research aim to answer important questions? Again, most at HBS would say "yes." Getting people out from behind their desks—as one faculty member phrased it—remains a priority.