The Power of Findings

By Dan Kärreman.

One of the biggest irritations with contemporary organization and management studies is the way we are encouraged – indeed, forced –  to chop, slice and mix our empirical findings in ways that support an abstract argument: the holy contribution.

Findings vs. contributions

It is rare to find someone, anyone, that tells a straight story. It is even rarer to find someone that speak out and support the telling of stories from the field in the name of finding out about social phenomenon.

Suffice to say, we can’t avoid abstractions all together. After all, our job is to speak to larger issues, as well as reporting our findings. However, at this moment in time, the larger issues are (mis)-interpreted in ways that clearly overwhelm the reporting of findings. Today we think of larger meaning as more abstract and specialized meaning, as almost devoid of broad meaning and consequence, and as a product for the consumption of a hyper-specialized tribe with its own language, set of beliefs, and rituals.

It is unusual to find a study that ponders the importance of the object under study on its own merits, in contrast to endless jockeying for positions in various hyper-specialized debates. The question hanging over the researcher in organization and management studies is rarely “what is going on here?” but rather “how can I make this to contribute to contemporary micro-debates and nano-controversies in institutional theory, critical management studies, identity theory, entrepreneurship, innovation studies, gender at work, leadership”, and so on, as if social reality neatly reflects today’s division of labor in academic work.

What is a finding?

Put bluntly, it is a fleck of empirical reality that challenges how we expect social reality to work. It is showing that a brand can be more important for organizational members than customers. It is showing subordinates managing their superiors. It is showing workers turning performance measurements to an exciting game. It is showing how cynicism reinforces rather than undermines distrusted systems. It is showing that choosing work before family in certain occupations is rational because here work provides massive material and emotional support while family life is a resource-deprived combat zone.

Showing, rather than telling, is the true advantage of a compelling finding.

In this sense, a finding compels because it is specific and concrete, rather than abstract and general. A finding speaks of larger issues not because it provides a hyper-specialized abstraction, but because it gives insight to the moment and meaning of actual social reality. It speaks to larger issues not because it reveals mechanisms and patterns, but because it shows the layered minutiae of interactions and dynamics in everyday settings. A finding speaks to larger issues not only because it can be used to fire academic controversies – although it certainly is able of doing that – but, more importantly, because it can put them to rest.

We need concepts that are attached to findings.

I think it is clear that we focus far too much on contributions, rather than findings, in organization and management studies. This is not to say that contributions, in the form of abstract concepts, vocabularies and theories, are bad or useless. On the contrary, we need them to do our job. We always should try to trade in poor concepts and theories for better ones.

However, for now we are preoccupied with creating concepts that cover less and less, and reveal almost nothing. We need to move out of this dead end. We need concepts that are attached to findings. We need methods and techniques that provide findings – findings that can give access to and insight in the strange world of business in society.

Dan Kärreman is Professor in Organization and Management Studies at the Department of Intercultural Communication and Management at Copenhagen Business School.

Pic by Pixabay