On the Importance (and Dangers) of Powerful Simplifications

Aleksi Aaltonen
5 min readJun 2, 2024

--

What is the business of business school academics? We are in the business of selling ideas on how to manage things better. While I think ours is a pretty important business, sometimes others need a little bit of convincing that we are worth the money we make from not-so-small tuition fees that most business schools charge their students.

A friend working in cancer research once asked me how does my research make the world better. For instance, how does it help to cure cancer? I replied that while his research is certainly important with respect to treating cancer patients, it alone does not cure anybody’s cancer. It is the healthcare system: people, technology (drugs, medical equipment), and organizations that cure cancer.

The knowledge that we produce in business schools can help make people, technology, and organizations deliver cancer treatments as effectively as possible to as many as possible. Simply put, our ideas matter and can change how people organize and manage organizations. Think, for instance, Frederick “Scientific Management” Taylor or Henry Gantt (chart) who both happen to be alumni of Stevens Institute of Technology that I am joining this summer.

Yet, not every idea that comes out of a business schools is equally valuable. Some ideas are better than others or just in more demand at certain times. Currently, it is the artificial intelligence speech that everyone is selling. Some of this speech is insightful, some not—as always, the problem for the buyers of our ideas, that is, students, policymakers, and practitioners, is to tell one from the other. Ultimately, we may know only after a considerable period of time which (or whose) ideas turned out to be truly useful. However, useful ideas often come in the form of what I call a powerful simplification.

The world is complex, even infinitely complex and to make sense of and to act upon it, we need to simplify it. Offering powerful simplifications in our publications matters because the simplifications enable others to use a study as a cognitive building block in further research or to design an intervention into a phenomenon.

Simplification does not mean that its author would suggest that the reality is as simple as a model or theory of it. Instead, a powerful simplification entails an understanding of something essential about the phenomenon and an ability to deconstruct it to its essential parts, relationships, or dynamics. This brings me to the problem I often encounter with qualitative papers I review or handle as an editor and, admittedly, have submitted to journals myself as an author.

Qualitative papers, more often than quantitative papers, may suggest that the task of research is to reveal the complexity of the studied phenomenon, or just focus disproportionately more on revealing than simplifying that complexity. Now, revealing the complexity of this or that phenomenon is not very interesting. Why? Because we can usually assume that the studied phenomenon is complex. Why else study it…

Qualitative research designs are thus more prone to dwell on the complexity of the world than quantitative designs that tend to impose a degree of simplification by design. To this end, quantitative research runs the risk of trivializing of the studied phenomenon behind fancy, scientific-looking models and techniques — but that’s a topic for another post (note that I have published both qualitative and quantitative papers in high-quality management journals so that I have some experience from the both sides of the divide).

Producing simplified conceptual knowledge is not the task of all research. For instance, a problematization of taken-for-granted knowledge can be useful for advancing knowledge in the field without offering a distinct simplification on how to intervene into a phenomenon (Alvesson and Sandberg 2011). Yet it may be useful to couch the problematization of existing knowledge in simple terms. For instance, in his paper Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish John A. Barnes (1954) struggled to make sense of a rural community as a class structure and ended up problematizing the current knowledge of the time. However, he also suggested an alternative way to label a social phenomenon as a social network.

Simplification, however powerful, is not the only value in a research paper. A narrow-minded pursuit of simplification can amount to putting the horse before the cart. As I am writing this post on a return flight from Paris to New York, let me use an analogy of an economy class seat. As a product, the economy class seat has been stripped of everything except the very necessary. It takes you safely where you need to go, but I am sure there is no person in this cabin who would not rather spend seven hours of their lives somewhere else than trapped in an economy class seat.

Upon landing, the crew will announce that they hope that we have enjoyed traveling with them. More accurate would of course be to hope that they have been able to minimize the torture of cheap long distance flying. This being Air France, they at least give us free champagne—probably because the company data scientists have predicted that it will make passengers feel a little bit less tortured than when flying with competitors (such as French Bee that crams one more seat per row in the same A350 plane).

The economy class seat is an apt metaphor for knowledge that often comes out from from business schools. After all, we are, at least partially, to blame for the economy class seat. Much of business school research and teaching is about how to provide value for money and how to manage business ever more efficiently, that is, how to optimize it. While this is certainly a valuable sort of knowledge and has helped to improve the standard of living massively, it is not the only kind of knowledge that successful businesses need.

A case in point is another aerospace company, Boeing. The company has arguably killed or at least seriously damaged its traditional engineering culture by relentless drive to cut costs and maximize profits—no doubt with the help of an army of professional managers and their learnings from business school academics (see John Oliver from 8:13 in https://youtu.be/Q8oCilY4szc?si=brMVnGN2IwNV_e5I). Just like a company that can only see ‘shareholder value’ or ‘cost efficiency’, if business school academics can only produce powerful simplifications without regularly stepping back and reflecting why and for what purposes we simplify the world, our importance is bound to diminish in increasingly datafied business environments where engineers can probably soon program such tasks into machines.

Instead of trying to be (or to become) narrow ‘management engineering’, management scholarship should keep cherishing its diverse roots in social sciences to remain relevant in the long run. We need those metaphorical economy class seats and even business class seats but also reflections on air travel itself, entire transportation systems, why and for what purpose we travel.

Postscript. My argument in this post is, of course, nothing but a simplification in itself. In some ways, I have been merely reiterating the old idea of Occam’s razor or parsimony by giving it a spin in a particular context.

References
Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). Generating research questions through problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 247–271. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.2011.59330882

--

--

Aleksi Aaltonen

I am a management scholar and thinker who writes about data and the production of academic knowledge — www.aleksi.info