Why Clay Christensen is abandoning the traditional approach to academic research


Professor Clay Christensen is trying something new on the Harvard Business School campus. (Kevin Ma/Bloomberg)

Clay Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and godfather of innovation, fittingly has some fresh ideas about academic research. He scrapped the traditional academic approach for his latest paper, the Capitalist’s Dilemma, which was published in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Christensen and co-author Derek van Bever instead crowdsourced 150 graduates of the school to better explain how companies are timidly investing their money instead of betting on market-creating innovations.

“I can’t imagine that the academic method is a better method than what we’re using from here on. It’s a great system,” he told me Wednesday.

A few years ago, the business school started a research project in which an MBA graduate remains on campus for a year-long residence. The fellows were gradually allowed to send drafts of their papers to recent graduates for feedback. Christensen and others realized the wealth of knowledge available. Tapping the input of the 4,000 graduates of his course, “Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise,” was a natural fit as he begun working on the Capitalist’s Dilemma.

“They’re out in the real world using the theories from our course to become successful as managers. We realized, ‘My gosh, now that they’re adding experience to the theories we teach, these guys know a lot more about the world than almost anybody else, so let’s involve them in doing our research.’ ”

That’s a stark contrast with the traditional academic method, which Christensen describes like this:

In academia, you write a paper; you might have a co-author or two. When you’re done with a draft, you might submit it to an editor of an academic journal. They white out your name and give it to two or three academics. You don’t know who they are, and they ask them to read this and give recommendations and whether we should publish it or not. You have no idea who these [people] are. Who is evaluating your article? Maybe they’re really insightful. Maybe they’re in a completely different field; you don’t know. They’re asked to evaluate this, and it takes them six to nine months to get around to it. And very often one reviewer is in a different field than the other. So they give you conflicting requirements that you got to change it in this way in order for us to approve it. It takes two or three years to finally get it past these reviewers to get published. Then it goes into a well-regarded academic journal and will be read by between eight and 12 people. In contrast, we have 4,000 students who are really smart people, and you know who each of them is and which ones really have experience on the ground on the issues we’re talking about in the course, and they’re eager to help you.

Christensen expects this approach to research to disrupt the research process at business schools. Do you think academia could benefit from more crowdsourcing?

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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